The Lord’s Supper as Speech Act: But Who’s Doing the Talking? (Part 1)

When God speaks, God acts. We see this affirmed throughout the scriptures, starting with the moment of creation in Genesis 1.

In the beginning God created heaven and earth. Now the earth was a formless void, there was darkness over the deep, with a divine wind sweeping over the waters. God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. God saw that light was good, and God divided light from darkness. God called light ‘day’, and darkness he called ‘night’. Evening came and morning came: the first day.

We have here a description of the creation of all that is through nothing but the speech of God. In clear defiance of all other Ancient Near East creation myths, where deities fashioned the universe through a struggle with the primordial chaos, the author of Genesis has God creating through the power of God’s words alone. The doctrine of creation ex nihilo makes much of this distinction, but often the focus of this doctrine is more on the lack of pre-existing materials rather than on the means by which God creates. Nonetheless, this means of creation, simply speaking into being, is just as significant for our understanding of the way in which God acts in the world.

John 1 takes this same image – the speech of God in the beginning– and applies it to the incarnated Jesus Christ.

In the beginning was the Word: the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things came into being, not one thing came into being except through him. What has come into being in him was life, life that was the light of men; and light shines in darkness, and darkness could not overpower it.

The speech of God is revealed to us now as the person of Jesus Christ. Not only as the creator of the universe but also the provider of life. And not only the provider of life in the beginning but the provider of the eternal life that the darkness of the world cannot overcome. This is the eternal life that weaves its way through the gospel of John. Both life in the beginning and the life eternal are brought about through the power of the Word of God. Whatever God speaks, God brings into being.

But how do those humans for whom the Word came to save appropriate this eternal life? How do we access this word of eternal life spoken by God? For an answer, we jump ahead to John 6 – the feeding of the 5000. It is an event included in all four gospels, but one given particular theological import by John. Given that the event itself is likely more familiar than the theological discourse that follows, we will skip ahead to that discourse, John 6:28-59 and quote it at length.

Then they said to him, ‘What must we do if we are to carry out God’s work?’

Jesus gave them this answer, ‘This is carrying out God’s work: you must believe in the one he has sent.’

So they said, ‘What sign will you yourself do, the sight of which will make us believe in you? What work will you do?. Our fathers ate manna in the desert; as scripture says: He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’

Jesus answered them: In all truth I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, it is my Father who gives you the bread from heaven, the true bread; for the bread of God is the bread which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.

‘Sir,’ they said, ‘give us that bread always.’

Jesus answered them: I am the bread of life. No one who comes to me will ever hunger; no one who believes in me will ever thirst. But, as I have told you, you can see me and still you do not believe. Everyone whom the Father gives me will come to me; I will certainly not reject anyone who comes to me, because I have come from heaven, not to do my own will, but to do the will of him who sent me. Now the will of him who sent me is that I should lose nothing of all that he has given to me, but that I should raise it up on the last day. It is my Father’s will that whoever sees the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and that I should raise that person up on the last day.

Meanwhile the Jews were complaining to each other about him, because he had said, ‘I am the bread that has come down from heaven.’ They were saying, ‘Surely this is Jesus son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know. How can he now say, “I have come down from heaven?” ‘

And now in response to their complaints, Jesus doubles down on the bread of life imagery.

Jesus said in reply to them, ‘Stop complaining to each other. ‘No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me, and I will raise that person up on the last day. It is written in the prophets: They will all be taught by God; everyone who has listened to the Father, and learnt from him, comes to me. Not that anybody has seen the Father, except him who has his being from God: he has seen the Father. In all truth I tell you, everyone who believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate manna in the desert and they are dead; but this is the bread which comes down from heaven, so that a person may eat it and not die. I am the living bread which has come down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I shall give is my flesh, for the life of the world.’

Then the Jews started arguing among themselves, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’

And here we have yet another upping of the ante.

Jesus replied to them: In all truth I tell you, if you do not eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Anyone who does eat my flesh and drink my blood has eternal life, and I shall raise that person up on the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives in me and I live in that person. As the living Father sent me and I draw life from the Father, so whoever eats me will also draw life from me. This is the bread which has come down from heaven; it is not like the bread our ancestors ate: they are dead, but anyone who eats this bread will live for ever.

Those of us in non-sacramental churches have traditionally shied away from reading this passage in light of Christ’s words in the Last Supper. More common is Luther’s interpretation of this passage, “The sixth chapter of John must be set aside altogether, as not saying a single syllable about the sacrament” (Babylonish Captivity of the Church). The irony of course was that Luther’s understanding of the Supper was more in line with the papists than the memorialists he so virulently scorns. But those who adhere to a strong memorialist-only understanding of the Supper often share Luther’s desire to divorce this passage from the ordinance.

Yet given the nature of John’s gospel, the way that words and themes wind their way through the whole of the gospel, such a notion seems unlikely. As the last of the gospels, the author of John would have been familiar with both the gospel accounts of the Last Supper and the liturgical celebration of the Lord’s Supper in the early church. Even a non-sacramental reading of this passage must take into account the connection between the eating the flesh and blood of Christ as the means to eternal life through union with Christ and the eating of the bread and wine in the rite of the Lord’s Supper.

[To be continued…]