“Some commentators claim that John 6 cannot be talking about the Lord's Supper because the verbs (in vv. 52-59) are aorist. This is very implausible to me. John recorded a discourse of Jesus in which he speaks of eating flesh, drinking blood - both resonant with Eucharistic associations, and he wrote this discourse to churches that commemorated Jesus with a meal of Jesus' flesh and blood. And yet, we know that John didn't intend to talk about the Eucharist because of the verb tense! If John didn't intend his readers to think of the Eucharist, he's chosen a singularly odd way to do his business. It almost seems like a trick: Everything in the chapter SOUNDS like Eucharist, but John leaves us the subtle clue of the verb tense to let us know it's not. A wider point about grammatical-historical exegesis: This is an example of grammar trumping the text; the verb tense controls what the passage means, rather than the whole passage controlling what the passage means. This is not the way we normally use language; when we use rich and resonant imagery, we expect our readers to notice it, and not to focus on verb tenses and not to let the verb tenses control (or cancel out) the imagery. (This is not to say that the verb tenses of Scripture are irrelevant or unimportant. They are, as is every jot and tittle. But there is not reason to make the verb tenses controlling.)”
I agree with Leithart that the proper interpretation of Jn 6 cannot turn on fine points of verbal aspect.
But that’s not what’s wrong with the sacramental reading of Jn 6.
1.He fails to distinguish between the audience of the discourse and the audience of the Gospel.
The Gospel was written for Christians, but the discourse was spoken for Jews.
Jesus wasn’t addressing churches that observe the Eucharist.
Jesus was addressing Jews who were living on the Old Testamental side of the cross.
2.Contemporary readers have a responsibility to draw some distinction between now and then, and not act as if every book of the Bible was written to them.
Although the Bible is written for the benefit of the church, every book of the Bible is not written to the church—much less the contemporary church.
This is a mistake that occurs all the time in popular fundamentalism. Hal Lindsey and Tim LaHaye act as if the Bible is written specifically to Christians living in the late 20C or early 21C, so that every time there’s a war or oil crisis in the Mideast, this is one more stage in the endtime denouement.
They also treat the martial imagery in Revelation as code language for modern military technology.
Many high churchmen who make fun of Lindsey and LaHaye do the very same thing in their own way.
They also act as if they are the target audience for Jn 3 and Jn 6. They also act as if Jn 3 and Jn 6 are written in code language—that Jn 3 is an allegory of the font, while Jn 6 is an allegory of the Mass.
3.Everything in Jn 6 does not sound like the Eucharist. It talks about bread and blood, but it doesn’t talk about wine or body.
4.It is true, nevertheless, that Jn 6 is reminiscent of the Eucharist.
And that’s because Jn 6 and the Eucharist both stand for the same event. They both stand for Calvary.
The difference is that Jn 6 is prospective, whereas communion is retrospective. Jn 6 looks forward to the cross, whereas communion commemorates the cross.
5.And this brings us to a larger point: Leithart fails to ask what function Jn 6 performs in narrative theology. Where does it fit into the narrative arc?
Is Jn 6 intended to point the reader to the communion table?
No, Jn 6 is intended to point the reader to the cross. This is preparatory for the passion.
Indeed, Jn 1-18 is paving the way for Jn 19.
The entire preceding narrative is structured around the glorification of Christ on the cross.
Like 3-point perspective, the narrative sightlines direct the reader’s eye to the climactic events of Golgotha. That’s the focal-point.
So not only does Leithart’s interpretation disregard the Jewish audience for the Bread of Life discourse in particular, but it also disregards the Christian audience for the Gospel as a whole.
6.One objection to my interpretation might be that misunderstanding is a subtheme of the Fourth Gospel. The listener often misunderstands the words of Jesus.
That being so, maybe Jesus said something in Jn 6 which wasn’t meant to be intelligible at the time.
But there are several problems with this move:
i) In the Gospel of John, these misinterpretations are treated as culpable. The listener incurs guilt for misconstruing the words of Jesus.
But if their true import were dependent on information to which he had no access, then how is he at fault?
ii) Their misunderstandings ordinarily consist in taking Jesus too literally: in failing to appreciate the metaphorical character of the discourse.
Jesus is moving on two different planes, where the concrete imagery is emblematic of spiritual truth. His listeners never make the transition.
And yet the sacramental reading of Jn 3 & Jn 6 is distinguished by its literalism.
iii) In Jn 3, Nicodemus is reprimanded precisely because he was in a position to understand what Jesus said.
His incomprehension is not due to lack of information, but moral and spiritual obtuseness.
He is blameworthy because he knew enough to know better.
That is also the underlying theme in Jn 6. And it comes to a head in Jn 12.
Our Lord’s opponents are inwardly blind. They see, but they lack insight.