When I left Catholicism, I had to change my thinking about Communion. I had been taught that the bread and wine became the body and blood of Jesus at Mass. Bible-only Christians told me this was a false doctrine “invented” by the Catholic Church. They told me the bread and wine were only symbolic. They were quick to point me to the one and only verse that seemingly pulled the rug out from under the Catholic teaching of transubstantiation. For 20 years that verse stood between me and the Holy Eucharist.
At the Last Supper, Jesus clearly says, “This is my body” and “This is my blood.” In John chapter six we see the Bread of Life discourse, during which Jesus tells his followers to eat his flesh and drink his blood in order to have eternal life. This teaching really disgusted and offended the people that heard Jesus say it. The more they objected to what Jesus was teaching, the more graphic and realistic Jesus made his words. To drive home the reality, Jesus even made a point of using a word that meant “chew” or “gnaw” the way an animal would eat (Tōgō in Greek).
“Not to worry,” I was told by my Bible-only friends, “Jesus is only using a metaphor, he’s not seriously expecting us to eat his flesh and drink his blood. That would be gross.” They called my attention to John 6:63 at the end of the discourse where Jesus says, “It is the Spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail; the words that I have spoken to you are Spirit and life.” “See?” my friends would say, “It’s all just a spiritual metaphor. Jesus even says that the flesh doesn’t matter. The bread and wine are only symbolic, like when Jesus said he was a door or a vine.” At the time this explanation made sense to me.
What my friends did not seem to notice, however, was that Jesus did not say, “My flesh is of no avail.” What Jesus said was, “The flesh is of no avail.” They are small words but they make an important distinction.
Jesus said, “The bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh,” and then he told us to eat his flesh. He also said, “My flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. So, why would Jesus go through all the trouble of saying how important his flesh was only to “negate” all those words with “my flesh is of no avail?” (As if he was saying, “Just kidding! My flesh isn’t really important after all! Just seeing if you all were listening!”)
Which is it? Does his flesh matter or not? Of course Jesus’ flesh matters! God sent his Son “in the flesh.” His flesh was crucified. Jesus gave his flesh for the life of the world. The flesh of Jesus avails much! Without it we are hopelessly lost.
The other point my friends did not mention is that “Spirit” does not mean “symbolic.” The Spirit is what gives life. When God created the world the Spirit moved in a life-giving fashion. When Jesus said that his words are “Spirit and life” he did not mean that the bread and wine are “symbolic.” God’s words have a real effect, not just a symbolic effect. “Let there be light” is one example. The way that Jesus changes bread and wine into his body and blood is through the power of the Spirit. This is why Jesus says, “What if you were to see the Son of man ascending to where he was before?” In other words, Jesus is saying, “Why are you offended at eating my flesh and drinking my blood? I can make anything happen. I am God. Just wait until you see me rise from the dead and ascend into Heaven! Would you believe that?”
So, Jesus did not say that his own flesh was of no avail, and he did not say there was anything symbolic about his words. What, then, is “the flesh” that is of no avail? It is our flesh! Our pitiful, little, faithless, human reasoning is of no avail! Jesus makes this clear when talking to the Pharisees in chapter 8:15. They object to Jesus saying that he is the Light of the world so he tells them, “You judge according to the flesh.” It is our human tendency to rely only on our own reasoning that is of no avail. Jesus was telling them not to get caught up in how disgusting and gross it all sounded, but to have faith. He would make it happen by the power of the Spirit. Just as the Jews consumed the sacrificial lamb at Passover, Jesus would allow his followers to consume the sacrificial Lamb of God that fulfilled Passover.
The words of Jesus are Spirit and life because Jesus is God and the creator of everything. When Jesus holds up bread and says, “This is my body,” it is the same Jesus that said to the dead Lazarus, “Come out of the tomb.” He is the same God that said, “Let there be light.” He is the same Jesus that cured the blind and the lame and created everything that exists. It is no problem whatsoever for Jesus to change bread and wine into his own body and blood. He is God. It is we who have the problem believing it. That is why so many of his followers left him that day.
Anyone offended by the idea of eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking his blood is looking through the lens of human reasoning rather than the eyes of faith. That’s what John 6:63 is all about. In verse 64 Jesus sums it up: “But there are some of you that do not believe.”