John 6:52-59, The Flesh of God with Its Life Poured Out, Divine Life Given

Holy_Spirit_as_Dove_(detail)[August 16, 2015] This is the Gospel Reading for the 11th Sunday after Trinity. We are now well into Jesus’ sermon in the synagogue of Capernaum after his miraculous feeding of the five thousand with only five loaves of barley bread and two fish. This reading ends the discourse. We have seen how Jesus speaks of his incarnation—his assumption of human nature as the Son of God—as living bread and as the bread of life that can satisfy our hunger. He went on to say that his incarnation can do this because he gives his flesh (his human created being) for the life of the world.

One way to consider this passage is to consider it in its chiastic structure, drilling down:

[6:22-35

6:66-71]

6:36-47]

[6:6:60-65

6:48-51

6:57-59

6:52

6:54-56

6:53

We can put the core unit (6:48-59) on its side like this:

6:48-51. “I am the bread of life.
Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died.
This is the bread which comes down out of heaven that anyone may eat of it and not die.
I am the living bread which came down out of heaven;
if anyone eats of this bread, he shall live forever.
And the bread which I will give is my flesh, [given] for the life of the world.”

6:52. The Judeans then contended with one another, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”

6:53. Jesus therefore said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within yourselves.”

6:54-56. “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up in the last day.
For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.
He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him.”

6:57-59. “As the living Father has sent me and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me, he also shall live because of me.
This is the bread which came down out of heaven, not as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread shall live forever.”
He said these things in a synagogue as he taught in Capernaum.

The passage is about life (ē), namely eternal life, the life of God, a life by which, if we have it, that is, share or participate in it, we can overcome death and rise up on the Last Day in resurrection. Moreover, Jesus says that the means by which we humans can have it (or participate in it) is to eat and drink him, his flesh and blood as the incarnate One, the one who has come down from heaven. If we do not do this, we cannot share the divine life with God. We resurrection on the Last Day not on our own, as if this divine life were something we possessed independently, but because Jesus shall raise us. The life in us that raises us is his own, innately—it is not ours nor is it in our control. We rise because we participate in his life, that is, we participate in the life of God through him, by our abiding in him and his abiding in us.

These are all awesome concepts, the reality of which has to be revealed within our spirits; otherwise we rely on our subjective experiences, and because of the opaqueness of our vision, we can barely make this out. Even with the insight of revelation, our seeing is still as in a dull mirror (or through a glass darkly).

However, the pertinent question, not answered by this passage alone, is what Jesus means by “eating” or “eating and drinking” him, or eating his flesh and drinking his blood. We have answered this to some extent by pointing out several things:

  • The “me” that he refers to is his Person as the Son of God.
  • The “me” is himself as the Son of God who has come down from heaven, that is, in his Incarnation, in his assuming flesh, meaning, our human nature and creatureliness (our being as created, our created-ness).
  • The Incarnation refers to the historicity of Jesus, of course, but actually to the revelation of him: the revelation that in him the divine and human natures have come together—and therefore can come together—hypostatically, without confusion or loss of integrity, yet without separation or division. When one encounters—an encounter that refers to a particular relation to—the person of Jesus in his human nature, one encounters the “I am” of God.
  • Somehow he, this One, becomes communicable. This means that this revelation of him can become true of us, our own way of being. That is, as he in his divine Person (owning a divine nature) assumed flesh and took on our human nature as his own, we in our human Person (owning our human nature) can take on the divine nature as our own. We can do this not independently or on our own, but by divine grace, by participation. “He became what we are so that we can become what he is.”
  • He communicates himself to us when we “eat” him, which Jesus equates with coming to him and believing into him. We probably should not conclude that we know what this means just because we culturally presume to know. Culturally we think of believing in terms of beliefs, but that does not work in this context. In the third point I made above, I said that the pertinent encounter with Jesus refers to a particular relation to him. This relation is a relation of personhood, that is, of connection between persons. That relation is the one of “faith,” which refers to personal allegiance, fidelity, faithfulness, adherence and loyalty between one person and another. This faith results in the union that I spoke about in the last point, thus it is “faith into” (eis).
  • We can only eat him by eating his flesh, which includes—what is strictly forbidden by the covenant that God made with humankind through Noah—drinking his blood. This conditions what Jesus said earlier when he spoke of eating “me.” Flesh, of course, refers to his human nature, but here it refers to his flesh “given for the life of the world,” and it is eating this which is connected to drinking his blood. It is not simply flesh as a static concept nor blood as the “soul” that courses through our flesh, but the giving up of the flesh by the outpouring of its soul (its blood) in death. It is not his death by itself either (as if believing that Jesus died for you were a ticket into some sort of life-after-death immortality). Rather it is he—all that we said above that he is—offering up himself (his human nature)—to the Father by the laying down of his soul in death. It is not the death but the offering up which resulted in death that is the point. It is about what the Son of God in his human nature—not so much as a historical act but existentially—did as the Son of Man (the figure of Daniel 7:9). This self-giving is who he is; it characterizes his entire humanity. The glorious one of Daniel 7:9 is the one who emptied himself (Philippians 2:7).
  • If we had never sinned, we might have been “saved” and received the gift of eternal life by the Incarnation alone, for his self-giving would still have characterized him without his having to shed his blood. However, because of the way we are, the Incarnation had to involve his offering himself up to the Father on our behalf in death. The kind of faith that saves us cannot abstract these two into concepts. The actual incarnation is this One, the Jesus of the cross, the one who shed his blood.

John’s gospel does not presuppose a substitutionary understanding of the atonement. I think that is most likely a development later than the New Testament, even though we tend to read it back into the New Testament and into the Bible. Many evangelicals might be surprised at other theories that have been popular, such as the ancient ransom theory, based on the Roman slave economy. Anselm’s theory of atonement was based on the feudal honor system. The modern substitutionary theory of atonement, which many take for granted, is based on mercantile capitalism. Sins, however, cannot be paid for, and certainly not by someone else (except as a strictly limited metaphor).

Yet in the Gospel according to John Jesus, by his own agency, valiantly lays down his soul. Others attempt to take it from him but he refuses them any control. He lays it down on his own as an offering to the Father. There is a connection to the sacrificial system of Leviticus, but in this gospel not the sin or trespass offering. What we see in chapter 6 might have a connection to the peace offering in that the sacrifice is then eaten and shared by those who offer it. More likely, however, there is a connection to the Lamb of God in chapter one whose blood is not only smeared on the door posts but whose flesh is eaten by the household that is passed over (though they did not drink its blood). In any case, I think drinking the blood in John 6 is apposite to eating the flesh. The blood is poured out, signifying the offering up of life unto death. The body is given, in this case signifying the same thing. In John’s gospel the point is how his obedience (and offering himself up in love) to the Father glorifies him and makes him, his divine life, communicable to his believers. He has done this, and therefore he is communicable to us to the extent that we are ones believing into him.

I want to take a moment to move on to two really important questions:

  • How does eating him take place? What does believing into him mean in the context of this regular spiritual eating and constant drinking?
  • What does it do to us, and how?

One way obviously is by the church’s practice of the weekly Lord’s Table (which we also call the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, and the Eucharist). Though not explicit, it cannot be separated from what Jesus is saying here. Here, eating signifies coming to and believing into Jesus. When we partake of the Supper, it becomes meaningful in the context of our believing. It enacts our believing, making the interior act a bodily one, without separating the two. The bodily act is the incarnation of the spiritual act: without separation or division yet without confusion or mixture. Yet, as in the Incarnation the divine takes precedent over the human on account of the Person being divine, so in this, believing is what makes the bodily act count, also on account of the person who believes.

Yet the believing is significant apart from the bodily act, just as Jesus’ divinity exists prior to and independently of his humanity: not in intention (the divine never existed without the intention of Incarnation and creation’s glorification/divinization), but temporally in space. (As you can see, for me the Incarnation is the spiritual antecedent and conditional element of which everything else becomes analogous. This is the lens through which I try to consider these things.)

We said already what believing means in this context. It is a continual thing, not a one-time decision or a casual acknowledgment but a sustained devotion and direction. Perhaps more light can come our way by considering the second question.

Believing (eating Jesus) gives us life, the divine life. How? It is by our believing into Jesus whose humanity is divinized (glorified) in resurrection. By believing into him we participate in this. He commits himself to (believes into, if you will) our divinization or glorification. What he does only he can do, and he initiates the relationship with us, but then the relationship of faith (allegiance, loyalty, fealty, fidelity, faithfulness) between him and us becomes mutual.

What we are in this mutual relationship is inverse, however, to what he is. He is a divine Person become human, that is, participating completely in his assumed human nature as his own in addition to his native divine nature. We are human persons becoming divine, that is, participating completely in our assumed divine nature as our own in addition to our native human nature. His Person remains divine, our persons remain human. This will be so at least until all duality is dissolved when time itself is resolved into—crossing the threshold of—eternity. (At the event horizon of the big collapse, objectively time accelerates to “infinity.” Subjectively it simply extends “forever,” so it would seem subjectively as if the threshold when time passes into eternity is never crossed.)

How, then, does his believing into our divinization (i.e., glorification) cause it? What happens? His believing into our divinization is the process of his human life in which as a human being he lives out toward God and creation, toward other persons, what he is as a divine Person. In other words, as a divine Person he offers himself up, gives himself completely, to the other Persons of the Trinity, and They to him; only when he does this, he does it also with his human nature; and Their response toward him is not only to his divine Person but to his divine Person inclusive of his two natures. (Persons being inclusive of nature, not nature of persons.)

The love that is the divine nature is temporally outgoing, that is, inclusive of the creation which has been unfolded from the divine Word, the creation existing within the divine being (which unfolded itself, as it were, into time and space while remaining itself eternal and therefore simultaneous to time and space, which objectively are inseparable from it). In love with creation as much as each divine Person is in love with each other, therefore, the divine Son in his human nature entered into the human experience to its ultimate depth, intentionally engaging evil by becoming its victim, and overcoming it morally—that is, personally—by faithfulness to God, to the divine will (and therefore to us): thus being in that lowest place, in his human nature, the object of divine favor, on the one hand, and on the other hand, fulfilling the potential of human nature in his own Person, raising human nature to its original but unfulfilled compatibility with the divine.

In resurrection, then, this human nature, having thus been “fulfilled,” is brought in ascension to the Father (John 20:17; see 13:1, etc.) and is divinized, thus becoming, retroactively (all the way to his conception)—within the co-inherence of the Trinity—the shared embodied (human) nature of God. In other words, while the Son does not become the Father nor the Spirit as such—though each Person does dwell in the others and works in what each of the others do—the Son’s human nature becomes theirs (as originally they all shared and continue to share the divine nature), and therefore the divinized human nature of the Son becomes the Holy Spirit’s to the extent that the Son becomes the Holy Spirit—that is, indwelling the Holy Spirit is the Son’s Person who now shares with her his assumed human nature in addition to their native divine nature. In other words, in resurrection, Jesus becomes the Holy Spirit (without losing his distinct but inseparable personhood as the Son).

As the Holy Spirit, he becomes communicable to us when we believe. We receive the Holy Spirit into our spirit and in doing so we receive all that Jesus is and was. All creation (as holons) participates in awareness, in life, though to varying degrees and in various ways (see for example the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, or the theology of Teilhard de Chardin). The variety of ways is the unfolding of the Word (thus all creation is good); the awareness itself is the Breath of the Word, the Holy Spirit giving life to all. However, this Breath is not called, in the Christian canon of Scriptures (the Old and New Testaments), the “Holy Spirit” (she is called the Spirit of holiness in Psalm 51:11 and Isaiah 63:10-11) except in connection to Jesus, until the day of his resurrection. She is the same Person, of course, as the Spirit of YHWH by her numerous names. John, however, tells us that she had not “come” until the day that Jesus rose from the dead. When Jesus became the firstborn of all creation (Colossians 1:15), on Easter Day (Colossians 1:18), by the divinization of his flesh, the Spirit of God became the Holy Spirit, because she is now the Spirit that divinizes (or deifies).

What then is the difference between the Spirit giving life to all created things and the Spirit “coming” and divinizing the creation. When a person believes into Jesus (in the manner we discussed) it is because the Spirit of God has enlightened their spirit (their life) with the light of who Jesus is, with the revelation of him. When the human spirit—which exists as the breathing of the Spirit of God—is thus enlightened, the Spirit of God now inhabits that person’s spirit as the Holy Spirit, the deifying Spirit of God. That inhabitation makes the two inseparable (they never were actually two), the human spirit being mixed with the divine Spirit, now already participating in the divine life. The “coming” of the Holy Spirit into the human spirit is the same as the awakening of the human spirit to God’s reality, the revelation of the “I am” of God in the particular human reality of Jesus (inclusive of his way of being human).

Thus with the Spirit inhabiting the enlightened human spirit, the soul’s right relation to the Holy Spirit—that is, to the Holy Spirit in the person’s spirit, or rather, simply, now to the person’s own spirit—becomes the way we eat and drink Jesus. The soul’s thus believing (its faithfulness) leads to the soul dying to its false self and thus letting itself become liberated, by grace, to become its true self, an authentic whole with the spirit, that is, with the source of its life (John 12:24-25).

This is what it means, then, to “eat and drink” the Lord Jesus. It is to become a whole person, an enlightened spirit, a purified soul, an embodied self—all integrated into an indivisible unity—inwardly carrying within one’s very humanity the beginning of divine life.

Note: It is interesting how gender plays out here. It seems that all life was originally female, propagating by division or self-fertilization. Eventually sex became bifurcated so that the gene pool would have a chance to mix. Among humans, some are born male in order that females may cross fertilize their eggs with the males’ sperm. (Even those that develop into males, were originally female as fetuses. As they developed they differentiated from the females so that they could fulfill the special task which life has assigned to them.) Males also help to provide meat from the hunt for the mothers who cannot leave their young, they protect the mothers and their children from harm, and help in the childrearing, if not of the children they spawned then of their sisters’ children or the children of other women. This is why they have the qualities that they do. God is, of course, originally and eternally female. However, in time, in order to propagate the divine life in creation and see that that life (the glorification or divinization of creation) comes to maturity or completion, the divine Son takes on the role of the male, becoming by his self-revelation the seed that “fertilizes” the spirit, creating new life (the coming of the Holy Spirit as eternal life) within the field of life which is the Breath (the Spirit) of God in the creation. The Son, by his self-revelation, in the work of the cross, seems to fulfill the male role within the life of the Trinity. (Not entirely; it is more like a role he takes on; the female roles Jesus often fulfills seem more innate to who he is.) In the Hebrew Scriptures YHWH is a far more complex character than most Christians realize. YHWH’s presence is often a nurturing female, and sometimes a frighteningly domineering male. The construction of gender follows very cultural lines and therefore fluctuates over time. It is in the New Testament, however, that these fluctuations begin to mature and gender takes on a healthy aspect in which God’s masculinity comes into the service of God’s femininity, and all in the service of God’s own life and the propagation of this life to her offspring (the creation). Ultimately, the Holy Spirit in us becomes the Bride of the divine Bridegroom as we become the divine offspring as the first-fruits of the new creation (James 1:18), which new creation is the entire creation in its glorification by participation in the divine nature, the Father really being, all along, a Mother.

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