Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. John 6:54-55
Christ explained in John 6 that by eating His flesh and drinking His blood, a person possesses eternal life! Many throughout Church history have understood this eating of Christ’s flesh and blood to be a spiritual eating (e.g. Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Cardinal Cajetan, Erasmus, Luther). Others have viewed this invitation to feed upon Christ’s flesh and blood to be especially Eucharistic (e.g. Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, Cyprian, Chrysostom, Ambrose, Augustine, John Hus). In our era there are at times vitriolic disagreements between these two perspectives, but it appears that in previous eras the different points of view were simply accepted. [See Weinrich, John, 740ff. The distinction between spiritual eating and sacramental eating is discussed in the “Formula of Concord.” The Book of Concord, Tappert, 579.]
When Jesus in John 6:51ff describes eating His flesh and drinking His blood, those who do not consider this to be a reference to the Lord’s Supper, see it as spiritual eating. Spiritual eating is simply faith in Christ. To believe in Christ is what it means to spiritually eat His flesh and drink His blood, with the “flesh and blood” terminology identifying especially His substitutionary death on the cross. Jesus magnifies spiritual eating in this text by making statements such as: Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life. [v 47]. Believing in Jesus is a critical part of what He is describing in John 6. To believe is to spiritually eat Christ’s flesh and blood. Certainly spiritual eating is critical, for people cannot rightly eat of Christ in the Lord’s Supper unless they first spiritually eat of Him. Christ first and foremost desires His people to participate in such spiritual eating, consuming His body and blood by believing in Him. However He also desires that they eat and drink His body and blood sacramentally—by physically participating in His sacrifice through bodily eating in the Sacrament of the Altar. This is called sacramental eating. It is a miraculous eating that—though it is truly physical eating—transcends the eating of a normal meal. When communers eat the bread and wine of the Sacrament of the Altar, Christ’s flesh and blood are also physically consumed, as Christ so promises. (Though we eat Christ’s sacrifice, the Eucharist has never been celebrated with a dead Christ; Christ-risen is a necessary part of receiving Christ-crucified.).
His Jewish audience certainly would have connected Christ’s dining invitation to the sacrifice-related meals performed in their Tabernacle/Temple worship. For instance in Deuteronomy 12, immediately after listing the sacrifices to be offered at His Tabernacle, God says, And there you shall eat before the LORD your God… [Dt 12:7]. This was not describing an incidental meal, nor a spiritual meal, but it was describing the eating of the sacred flesh drawn from the sacrifices listed in the previous verse. Christ’s crucifixion became the fulfillment of every OT sacrifice; but where is the meal? Is our New Testament meal purely spiritual? By speaking of His flesh and blood as true food and true drink, and by using a Greek word to indicate chewing and eating with the mouth, Christ appears to be going beyond spiritual eating. Spiritual eating does not involve true food, but Jesus says, My flesh is true food and my blood is true drink [John 6:55]. By describing His flesh and blood as real food and drink, Jesus is apparently not referring to spiritual eating, but He is speaking of sacramental eating. Sacramental eating here makes sense. Even as OT believers physically participated in sacrifice-related eating, so now NT believers physically participate in sacrifice-related eating. Christ’s people bodily participate in His once-for-all sacrifice as they eat Him with their mouths. Jesus promised that by eating and drinking His flesh and blood—first spiritually and then when eligible physically communing His sacrifice—His people indeed have eternal life, which includes the resurrection of the body! In the Christian faith the human body is of the utmost importance; it will rise from the grave. As emphasized in last week’s Cross Words devotional, Jesus weaves the topic of His raising the dead into this John 6 account (vv 39, 40, 54). So Christ Jesus appropriately connects resurrection with eating His flesh and blood: Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day [v 54].
So go and spiritually eat His flesh and blood as you hear and believe the word of the cross, and physically eat His flesh and drink His blood in the Sacrament. In this spiritual and sacramental eating know that you have the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting in the flesh and blood of the crucified Christ.