THE EUCHARISTIC THEOLOGY OF THE 4th GOSPEL by Petros Vassiliadis
(under publication in the Global Bible Commentary)
The Fourth Gospel, or the “Gospel of John” as it is traditionally called (henceforth GJ), is unique in world religious literature, because it challenges the conventional approach to many religious issues. Ironically, it is also the theological treatise that has shaped the identity and self-understanding of the Christian church, thus becoming the Gospel of Christianity. It is not only its “transcendent theology concerning Jesus,” (Pseudo-Dionysios Areopagite), which determined the Christian doctrine. It is mainly its profound reflection on the eucharistic theology, which in my view makes it so important for today.
This short commentary will attempt to analyze and elaborate exactly this parameter. The life-context in which John’ Gospel will be interpreted is both that of post-modernity and that of Eastern Christianity. This latter “traditional” context, however, can also have wider ecumenical implications.
B. THE LIFE CONTEXT AND THE INTERPRETATION
The originality of ideas of the Fourth Gospel has provoked strong controversy in early Christianity. This controversy continued in the modern era, though for quite different reasons. GJ gained recognition, respect and renewed consideration only in post-modernity. Post-modernity has challenged the priority of the texts over the experience, a syndrome quite dominant in modern scholarship. It has even challenged the priority of faith over the communion experience of the Kingdom of God. The dogma, imposed after the Enlightenment and the Reformation over all scholarly theological outlook – that the basis of the Christian faith has to be extracted exclusively from a certain historical and critically defined depositum fidei – is no longer sustained. It is now realized that equal – if not major – attention has to be paid to the eschatological/eucharistic communion experience that was responsible and produced this depositum fidei. And whereas in modernity the focus of biblical theology with regard to Jesus tradition has mainly focused on the synoptic gospels, now in post-modernity more emphasis is been laid to the johannine tradition.
Postmodern biblical scholarship is moving away from the old affirmation that the Christian community was originally initiated as a "faith community". More and more scholars are now inclined to think that it was the ritual (social, liturgical etc.) that gave rise to story (Gospel and other "historical" accounts etc.), than the other way round. It is now believed that in Christianity all started around a Table, a normal messianic Jewish banquet, which was meant as a foretaste of the coming Kingdom of God, a proleptic manifestation within the tragic realities of history of an authentic life of communion, unity, justice and equality. This was, after all, the profound meaning of the johannine term aionios zoe (eternal life).
In this respect GJ, with its dynamic reinterpretation of the traditional (pauline and synoptic) understanding of the Eucharist as a unique rite regarding the relationship between God, the Church/People of God and the world, provides an excellent basis for reflection on unity, reconciliation, communion, sharing and diaconal service.
C. THE THEOLOGICAL BACKGROUND OF THE GOSPEL OF JOHN
GJ presupposes the synoptic tradition but moves beyond its logic, as well as beyond some of the earlier (Pauline) theological views. Theologically it approaches the enduring problems of history, of human destiny, death and the salvation of the humankind starting not from anthropology but rather from Christology. Christology in GJ, however, cannot to be understood apart from its Pneumatology, since "the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit" (14:26), according to GJ’s terminology, can be easily defined as the "alter ego" of Christ ("and I will ask my father and he will give you another Paraclete so that he might remain with you always" (14:16). This other Paraclete who "will teach you all things" (14:26) is "the Spirit of truth" (Jn 14:17; 15:26; 16:13); and in the final analysis the one that will "guide you into all the truth" (Jn 16:12). Consequently human beings are in communion with "the way, the truth and the life", who is Christ, only through the Holy Spirit, whom he bestows upon the world as a gift of God the Father.
The crucial question, of course, is how and on what condition can one become bearer of the Spirit. To answer this question modern exegetes are dramatically divided. Conservative scholars insist that according to GJ this can only happen within the Church through the sacraments, whereas liberal critics argue that it is in keeping the word of God and being in communion with Christ that salvation can be accomplished.
In GJ the members of the Christian community (i.e. the Church), as in the early Christian tradition, is not perceived as a mere institution, as an organization with a logically defined set of doctrines, and/or a specific order, but rather in terms of communion with Christ, when they keep his word and believe in him who had sent him, just as Christ is in communion with the Father (10:30; 17:21f). They are “of the truth” when they hear his voice, just as the sheep hear the voice of the good shepherd (10:1ff). All these happen, when they change their lives, i.e. when they are born from above (3:3), by the Spirit (3:5f). But this birth by the Spirit, unlike natural birth, is the work of God that no one can control, just as so happens to the wind. "The Spirit blows where He or She wills (and here the evangelist moves from the meaning of the Spirit to that of the wind, since the Greek pneuma can have both meanings) and you hear its sound but you do not know from where it comes or where it goes. Thus it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit" (3:8). For this reason the proper worship of the community has to be "in spirit and in truth" (4:24).
This extremely charismatic ecclesiological view, however, alternate with a number of seemingly strong sacramental references, which were so far either rejected in modern scholarship as later additions or interpolations, or explained in a conventional “sacramentalistic”, i.e. pre-modern, way. As a matter of fact, there is no other issue that has so divided modern scholarship than the sacramental or non- sacramental character of the GJ. The debate is usually supported by its apparent silence regarding baptism and eucharist, and by some passages that seem to speak of them in a veiled or symbolic manner. Today, according to the post-modern approach the issue at stake is whether the various “sacramental” reference, are at all related to the “sacramentalistic” views of the ancient, contemporary to the early Church, Hellenistic Mystery Cults, or have much more dynamic connotations.
D. EUCHARIST AS A “MYSTERY” AND ITS MEANING FOR UNITY OF HUMANKIND
GJ, although omits the words of institution of the Eucharist is rightly considered as the “sacramental” book par excellence. The miraculous change of the water into wine at the Wedding in Cana (2:1-11) at the outset of Jesus' earthly ministry, the symbolism of the vine and the branches in the "Farewell Discourse" (ch. 15), the flow of blood and water from the pierced side of the crucified Jesus (19:34) and so many other verses and expressions make the sacramental, or rather eucharistic, character of the GJ more than inescapable. Of course, the most discussed unit in this respect is chapter 6 with its "Eucharistic Discourse" (especially 6:51b-58); the washing of the disciples feet, which actually replaces the synoptic account of the Institution of the Eucharist, and in fact the entire ch. 13; the anointing of Jesus in 12:1ff; and the so-called “High-Priestly Prayer” in ch. 17, as a model of eucharistic prayer and a plea for the unity of humankind. These periscopes we will briefly analyse, starting with what we consider as the indispensable theological framework, namely vv. 11:51-52.
a. The eschatological framework of the eucharistic theology (11: 51-52)
It has long been recognized that the GJ claims that the ultimate gifts of God, usually associated with the end times of history, are already accessible to the believer “in Christ”. This claim is made, however, without compromising the future dimension of those gifts. GJ seems to insist that these eschatological realities are present in the life of the believer, although there is still a future and unfulfilled quality to them. In doing this, it invites the readers to turn their attention from the future to appreciate the quality of Christian existence in the present. Nevertheless, it perfectly keeps the balance between the present and the future, giving the impression that it attempts to correct an excessively future orientation, without dispensing with the value of the future for the believer.
This ambivalence is in fact evident in the teaching, and especially the life and work, of Jesus of History, all of which cannot be properly understood without a reference to the messianic expectations of Judaism, i.e. the coming of a Messiah, who in the “last days” of history (eschaton) would establish his kingdom by calling all the dispersed and afflicted people of God into one place to become one body united around him. The idea of “gathering into one place the scattered people of God and of all the nations,” coupled with the descent of God’s Spirit upon the sons and daughters of God, is found in the prophetic tradition (Is 66:18, 2:2, 59:21; Joel 3:1; Ez 36:24 etc.), but is also evident in the early Christian literature (Mt 25:32; Rom 12:16; Didache 9:4b; Mart. Polyc. 22:3b; Clement of Rome, I Cor. 12:6 etc). And here a statement in GJ – generally overlooked in modern biblical scholarship – about the role of the Messiah is extremely important. In that statement the author GJ interprets the words of the Jewish High Priest by affirming that “he prophesied that Jesus should die...not for the nation only, but to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.” (11:51-52).
Jesus of Nazareth, therefore, identified himself with the Messiah of the Eschaton, who would be the center of the gathering of the dispersed people of God. It was on this radical eschatological teaching about the Kingdom of God that the early Christiany community developed its theology, its ecclesiology, its spirituality, but also its mission. It was exactly this gathering has ever since been reenacted in the liturgical practice of the Eucharist. Already in the writings of Paul it was stated that all who believe in Christ are incorporated into the one people of God and mystically united into His body through Baptism. GJ has further developed this teaching in regard to the unity of the people of God by pointing out that this incorporation into Christ's body takes place in the Eucharist, a significant identity act which was seen not as a mystery cult but as a foretaste of the expected eschatological Kingdom.
b. The eucharistic theology of John (chapter 6)
To decipher the overall johannine eucharistic theology one has undoubtedly to start from ch. 6. The entire chapter begins with three wondrous deeds: the feeding of the multitude, the walking of Jesus on the sea, and the wondrous landing of the boat (6:1–21). Then a lengthy discourse on the “bread of life” follows, where Jesus makes high claims for Himself consistent with the announcement of his prologue (1:1-18). The result is a schism among his hearers, which finds many who had believed now leaving him (6:22–71).
There is no doubt that the author obviously wanted to set the Christ event within the framework of the Exodus-Passover theme. In the johannine passion story Jesus is made to die at the very time the lambs are being slaughtered in preparation for the Passover meal that same evening (19:14). The symbolism suggests that Christ is to be viewed as the new Passover lamb by which God liberates humanity from oppression, just as Israel was freed from slavery in Egypt.
This Passover framework, however, is interpreted through a clear sacramental references. Only the passage of the walking of Jesus on the sea (6:16-21) seems to be outside this scheme. But this is probably due to the fact that this very unit was preserved in the earlier synoptic tradition (Mk 6:30-52=Mt 14:13-27) coupled with the account of the multiplication of loaves. At any rate, the entire discourse on the "bread of life" (6:22ff) is a continuation of, and a commentary on, the miraculous feeding of the five thousand, which by the way had already been given in the synoptic tradition an accented eucharistic dimension (Mk. 6:41).
In general, if Paul and the Synoptic Gospels underline the significance of the soteriological/sacramental understanding of the Eucharist, it was GJ that gave a life-oriented understanding in it. Without loosing its connection with Jesus' death (cf. 19:34), the eschatological meal of the community is essentially distanced from death and associated rather with life (“the bread that I will give is my flesh which I will give for the life of the world”, 6:51; see also 6:33,58). The antithesis between bread and manna illustrates perfectly this truth; for whereas the Jews who had eaten the manna in the desert died, those who partake of the true bread will have life eternal (6:58,33).
Reading carefully through the entire johannine eucharistic discourse (6:22-71) a clear change of vocabulary and content in vv. 51b-58 is more than evident. In these verses faith in Christ is no longer the basic presupposition for eternal life (“he who believes in me has eternal life. I am the bread of life” 6:47-48; cf. also 6:35); eternal life now is linked with eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Christ (“truly truly, if you do not eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood you will not have life in yourselves. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life.... he who eats me, shall live by me” 6:54f, 57). The profound meaning of these sayings, however, is given by the concluding remark of v. 6:56: “those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them”. With these words GJ denotes an unbroken relationship, communion and abiding presence of God, which surpass both the Hellenistic concept of "ecstasy", and at the same time the classical conception of the Jewish prophecy; for it transforms the eschatological expectation from a future event to a present reality. But at the same time it avoids any trace of pantheism, since there is no hint to the idea of "identification" of the initiate with the deity, which was the principal teaching of all contemporary mystery cults.
Here we have the beginnings of what has become axiomatic in later Christian tradition: to have “eternal life” – in other words to live an authentic and not just a conventional life – one has to be in communion with Christ. Communion with Christ, however, means participation in the perfect communion, which exists between the Father and the Son (“Just as the living Father send me, and I live through the Father, s/he who eats me will live through me” 6:57). What we have here in GJ, is in fact a parallel expression to what has become in later patristic literature the biblical foundation of the doctrine of theosis (divinization), (cf. the classic statement of 2 Pe 1:4, “partakers of the divine nature”). In the case of GJ, however, this idea is expressed in a more dynamic and less abstract way.
Taking this argument a little further, one can say that GJ further developed an understanding of the Eucharist as the unceasingly repeated act of sealing the “new covenant” of God with his new people. This interpretation is of course evidenced also in the earlier synoptic and pauline tradition, although there the covenantal interpretation of Jesus’ death in the phrase “this is my blood of the covenant ” (Mk 14:24 par and I Cor 11:25), is somewhat hidden by the soteriological formula “which is shed for you” (ibid).
This eucharistic theology of GJ, with the direct emphasis on the idea of the covenant and of communion, is in fact in accordance with Jeremiah’s vision, which was at the same time also a promise. Just as in Jeremiah, so also in GJ, it is the idea of a new covenant, of communion, and of the Church as a people, that are most strongly emphasized. Listen to what the prophet was saying: “and I will make a covenant ...a new covenant,” Jer 38:31; and “I will give them a heart to know that I am the Lord... and they shall be unto me a people” (Jer 24:7).
c. The diaconal dimension of the Eucharist in John (chapter 13)
The covenantal dimension of Eucharist, however, is not the only feature emphasized in GJ. The pericope of the “Washing of the Disciples’ Feet” (13:1-20) reveals a further aspect in GJ’s understanding of the Eucharist. The incident in question, which is preserved only in the Fourth Gospel, is placed in the context of the Last Supper, and in direct connection with Judas’ betrayal; in other words, exactly in the place the Synoptic Gospels have all recorded the so-called dominical sayings of the institution of the Eucharist (Mark 14: 22-25 par). Given its almost certain knowledge of the synoptic tradition, one can fairly argue that GJ has actually replaced the account of the Institution of the Eucharist by the symbolic act of Jesus’ washing of his disciples’ feet. A careful reading of the reference to the new commandment of love (13:34-15), in the same context, brings immediately in the reader’s mind the Institution Narrative. The “new commandment” sounds very similar to the “new covenant” of the so-called institution narratives of the synoptic tradition.
In sum, GJ understands the Eucharist not as a mere “cultic” and “sacramental” act, but primarily as a diaconal act and an alternative way of life with apparent social implications. For in those days the washing of a disciple’s feet was more than an ultimate act of humble service and kenotic diakonia; it was an act of radical social behavior, in fact a rite of inversion of roles within the society. Add to this Jesus’ admonition to his disciples, and through them to his Church: “I have set an example for you, so that you will do just what I have done for you” (Jn 13:15), and the diaconal implications of the Eucharist becomes an imperative.
d. The pericope of the Anointing of Jesus and its wider connotations (12:1ff)
It is almost an assured result of modern theological scholarship (biblical and liturgical) that the Eucharist was “lived” in the early Christian community as a foretaste of the coming Kingdom of God, a proleptic manifestation within the tragic realities of history of an authentic life of communion, unity, justice and equality, with no practical differentiation (soteriological and beyond) between men and women.
If this was the authentic original meaning of the Eucharist, then the redaction by GJ of another full of ritual connotation pericope – and closely related to the “eucharistic” incident of the “washing of the disciples’ feet” – namely that of the “Anointing of Jesus” (Jn 12:1ff), may not be accidental. GJ not only placed this famous pericope in the same Passover setting as the pericope of the “Washing of the Disciples’ Feet” (Jn 13:1ff); it also replaced the unknown woman by Mary, a figure from within the most beloved by Jesus family of Lazarus, and in fact in contrast with her sister Martha, who according to an account in St. Luke’s Gospel was “anxious and troubled about many things (except) the one thing...needful” (Lk 10:41). What is, however, even more important for our case, is that by actually replacing the original, and by all means more authentic, place of the pouring of the “costly ointment of pure nard” from Jesus’ hair (Mk 14:3=Mt 26:7, originally understood as a prophetic act of messianic character, parallel to St. Peter’s confession at Caesarea of Philip (Mk 8:27ff par) to Jesus’ feet (12:3), GJ made a woman proleptically anticipate the incident of the washing by Jesus himself of his disciples’ feet. By so doing, the “disciple of love” (according to the Christian tradition) changed even an act of “witness” into an act of “diakonia”.
e. The High-Priestly (eucharistic) prayer and the unity of humankind (ch. 17)
It is commonly accepted that GJ is structured of in two major parts: the “Book of Signs” (chs. 1–12) and the “Book of Glory” (chs. 13–20). Both of them are woven around the notion of Jesus’ “glorification”, his “hour”. In the first part Jesus’ “hour has not come” (2:4; 7:30; 8:20), but throughout the second the presence of the “hour” of Jesus – his death and resurrection – is clearly affirmed (13:1; 17:1). In the second part GJ presents Jesus addressing his disciples alone (13–17) and reflects on the passion and resurrection experience (18–21).
Chs. 14–16, the so-called “Farewell Discourse,” deal with Jesus’ final instructions to his disciples. They consist of a mosaic of themes introduced, explored, dropped, and reintroduced, central point of which is the promise of the sending of the “Paraclet”, “the Spirit of the Truth”, the first serious pneumatological reflection in Christian literature, the second and more decisive being that of St. Basil the Great in his treatise On the Holy Spirit.
Nevertheless, the most important part is undoubtedly ch. 17, the so-called “Jesus’ High-Priestly Prayer” for his disciples. However, Jesus’ prayer in ch. 17 is not only a prayer on behalf of his disciples and their glorification in his glorification, but also “on behalf of those who will believe in (Christ) through their word” (17:20). All the motifs and symbols used in this chapter remind us of the “eucharistic prayer”, the “anaphora” of the later Christian liturgy, which as a “reasonable worship” and “bloodless sacrifice” is being offered not only for Christian community itself, but also for the “Oekoumene,” “for the life of the whole world”. In addition, the basic aim of Jesus’ prayer is “that they may all be one” (17:21ff), and by extension for the unity of humankind. It is characteristic the whole argument is being developed on the model of the perfect unity that exists between Christ and His Father, i.e. the unity that exist within the Holy Trinity (“as you, Father, are in me and I am in you,” 17:21; “that they may be one, as we are one,” 7:22). It is not accidental that the Eucharist, the Church’s Mystery par excellence, is also an expression of unity, the ultimate act of unity; nor is it accidental that it is a rite of glory, experienced as such in almost all Christian traditions, though more evidently in the Eastern Orthodox Church.
If any conclusion is to be drawn from the above short commentary of the johannine euharistic passages, this is an affirmation of the ecclesial and diaconal dimension of the Eucharist as a communion event and not as an act of personal devotion; an act of diakonia and sharing, and not a sacramentalistic quasi-maginal rite; an expression of the Church as the people (laos) and household (oikos) of God and as the Body of Christ mystically united with its head, and not a mere cultic and/or witnessing institution. In other words, the Eucharist as the unique and primal Mystery of the Church is a reflection of the communion that exists between the persons of the Holy Trinity. And above all, a “thanksgiving” (eucharistia) prayer to God for the unity of humankind and a proleptic manifestation of the Kingdom to come.
F. SHORT BIBLIOGRAPHY
R. E. Brown, The Community of the Beloved Disciple. New York: Paulist, 1979.
C. K. Barrett, Essays on John, 1982.
O. Cullmann, Les Sacraments dans l'Evangile Johannique 1951, incorporated in his Early Christian Worship, 1953.
P. Vassiliadis, Eucharist and Witness, Geneva 1998.