Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away; for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day. … The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ So Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.
This is the passage where Protestants have to ask themselves how much they believe in the Bible after all, and the most surprising people find themselves trying to avoid a literal interpretation of the words. Thanksgiving prayers in nonconformist liturgies suddenly take refuge in metaphorical words and phrases to avoid praying that the bread and wine may become the body and blood of Christ, lest transubstantiation be found lurking at the door; and Christians suddenly find it easy to identify with ‘the Jews’, who asked ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ In fact, it is a challenge to us over whether we believe in the Incarnation or not; and English theology has always had difficulty in believing in the Incarnation. In the Theological Dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Disciples of Christ, of which I was a member for over thirty years, we discovered that both sides found it acceptable to use St Augustine’s language of ‘transformation’; and all Thomas Aquinas was doing with his new word ‘transubstantiation’ was substituting Aristotle’s understanding of matter for the older language, which he regarded as Platonic and therefore less precise. Today we do not regard the nature of matter in either of those ways; and therefore are easily left stranded between different schools of philosophy. What St John is trying to get across is the significance of one of his favourite words, when describing the teaching of Jesus – what Jesus means when he says that we must abide in him, and therefore in God.
Ever-loving God, if we abide in you, we enjoy the closest relationship possible with you. Save us from stumbling over words, lest the reality of your self-giving love escape us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, your word made flesh. Amen.
The Rev’d Professor David Thompson is a retired minister and a member of Downing Place URC in Cambridge
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