Study Two: The Beloved Disciple's Thought (Continued)

Bread--and the Eating of It (Jn. 6:1-59)

The chapter-six sequence of Jesus first feeding the five thousand, then walking on the water to rescue the disciples, and finally talking to the people after he and the disciples have crossed the lake--this is the only incident (or incident sequence) out of Jesus' Galilean ministry that the Fourth Gospel shares with the Synoptics. Indeed, there is enough coincidence in order of detail and precise wording to suggest that the Beloved Disciple (who makes no claim of having been present) may have taken his account out of one of the Synoptics.

The very real possibility that the bread scene of the feeding followed directly by the water scene of the rescue at sea are meant respectively as references to the Eucharist and to baptism--that symbolic intention is much more likely for the Synoptics than for the Fourth Gospel. Remember that the Fourth Gospel has no Eucharist to serve as referent. Besides, it is clear what the Beloved Disciple is after with his account: he is after the "bread discourse" that forms the major part of his chapter (and of which the Synoptics know nothing). Let's follow the argument he so neatly develops.

Just as chapter 4 opens with an incident involving fleshly people dealing in actual water, chapter 6 opens with an incident of fleshly people dealing in actual bread: Jesus feeds them with bread and fish. A day or so later, following the sea rescue, the crowd catches up to Jesus on the far side of the lake (or the near side, depending upon where you joined the party). There (beginning with Jn. 6:25), Jesus talks with them about bread. First he mentions that actual bread: "You are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves." And he goes on to suggest that this is not a particularly worthy form of seeking him.

Perhaps--just as with his dismissing the woman's first concern for earthly water (which, by the way, is not the same thing as "dirty water")--perhaps Jesus wants to say that any religious yearning by which we seek primarily our own benefit is not true religion. Whether it be the seeking of intellectual satisfaction, mystical ecstasy, peak experience, feeling good about oneself, becoming a better person, quality of life, sociopolitical liberation, triumphant living, the blessing of God, actual water, actual bread--none of these amounts to a seeking of God, who must be sought for his own sake and not as a means of acquiring something for ourselves. "Do not work for the food which perishes"--including any and all of the above.

The crowd presses Jesus on the point. OK, then, which bread? (This brings us to verse 30.) How about the manna in the wilderness? That must have been pretty good stuff.

Yes, not bad--nor nearly as good as what I have in mind. That was Moses' bread, but I'm talking about God's.

Fine. Give it to us.

"I am the bread of life" (Jn. 6:35)--which never got said about the living water, though Jesus does go on to specify that, with him, one never ever hungers or thirsts.

The hearers do a lot of murmuring at the thought of some plain old no-account human actually being the bread of life. The very idea!

Jesus responds that it has all been the Father's doing and nothing of his own; but, if the Father makes Jesus the bread of life, then he is the bread of life. Next he goes one more step:

"And the bread that I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh" (Jn. 6:51 and shades of Jn. 1:14!).

The Beloved Disciple here goes back to the word "flesh," using it in reference to Jesus for the first time since he introduced it in his Prologue; and after this bread discourse, he will not use it so again. This strategic placement makes it clear that, for the Beloved Disciple, "flesh" is a key concept. So perhaps here is the best place for us to pause and talk about it.

"Flesh," now, obviously cannot refer to the actual body tissues of the man Jesus. To read the Beloved Disciple as suggesting that, in Jesus' case, his body tissues were so different from those of other people that, if eaten, they would have the miraculous effect of making a person immortal--obviously, any such interpretation would put the Beloved Disciple deeply into the very realm of "mystery" he is working so hard to avoid.

Likewise, the Beloved Disciple's word "flesh" deliberately is not Jesus' Last Supper bread word "body"--which Paul subsequently picked up to develop into "the body of Christ." That word "body" needs to be read as "personhood" (persona, personal character) so that that character can "characterize" Jesus' corporate following just as well as his individual self. Yet such a reading won't begin to work with the Beloved Disciple's "flesh."

Yet neither will the Beloved Disciple's "flesh" correlate with the Apostle Paul's use of the same word. Paul uses it to identify the weak, creaturely, vulnerable, sin-susceptible side of human nature; the Beloved Disciple obviously does not.

Thus, regarding the Beloved Disciple's unique usage of the word "flesh," I propose that it be taken to identify "the entirely specific and down-to-earth historical existence of that human being known as 'Jesus of Nazareth.'" Flesh signifies the very opposite of Mystery. And I am now prepared to go Father and Son Barth one better (an opportunity that does not come to a person every day). But the Beloved Disciple is not saying (with them), Jesus Christ is the one sacrament. No, he (with me) is saying, The flesh of Jesus is the one sacrament. It will not satisfy the Christian gospel, then, for us to believe in "the mystical Christ," "the spiritual Christ," "the Christ event," "the Christ-spirit," "the world Christ," "the Christ of the sacraments," "the Christ in the poor man," "the Christ who is a symbol of this, that, or the other." In fact, my guess is that the Beloved Disciple would protest even 'Jesus Christ" if he suspected you were using "Christ" to fog the complete specificity of the fleshliness of Jesus. Yes, Jesus does say that he is the bread from heaven, but (in v.51) he presses on to say that that bread is his FLESH.

Note, then, how he pushes the specificity one step further (in the same verse) when he says of the bread that it is that which "I will give for the life of the world." Yes, the bread is his flesh, yet when he moves on to speak of a future action of "giving" that flesh, he plainly is seeing his death on the cross as the one most specific manifestation of the actuality of his historical existence. It is in the real pain, blood, agony, and death of that occasion that we get our truest insight into Jesus namely, that he is not some sort of mysterious, spiritual, symbolic divine phenomenon. He is as real a human being as any of us, living in real history, and under going just as real a death as any other fleshly person who has ever been executed. So, no more than we dare spiritualize the person of Jesus do we dare spiritualize the cross. It has no meaning unless it be kept real--precisely the opposite of our efforts to give it meaning by spiritualizing it. Yes, Jesus is the bread from heaven (there is no backing off on that), yet he can be "bread" only if he is first recognized as "flesh."

Now, to trace the thread of the discourse again:

"The bread you received yesterday on the other side of the lake won't do much for you. You need good bread."

"Fine, but what bread is good bread? The manna in the wilderness?"

"No, even better bread than that. You need the bread that God gives."

"Fine. Show us to it!"

"I am the one truly great bread. Even on manna, those people died. On the bread from heaven, no one need ever die. But, you should know, this bread is my flesh."

"You don't say!"

"I do say, and it follows that the only way of getting the bread is by eating my flesh."

Jesus elaborates in Jn. 6:53-58:

Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.
[end of the discourse proper.]

The Beloved Disciple's bread discourse comes out just where logic would say it should. Once informed that the bread of life is indeed the flesh of Jesus, what is one supposed to do about it? Regarding bread, obviously it accomplishes nothing simply to think about it, to speculate about it, to do a chemical analysis of it or look for the recipe, to affirm that it is real, to comment on it, preach about it, adore it, or even thank God for it. (Of course, after one has eaten the bread, any of these activities might be proper--yet none can begin to take the place of eating it.) With bread there is only one thing to do--and that is eat it. There is no point at all in God's giving the bread from heaven in the form of the flesh of Jesus unless someone is willing to eat it. "Divine communication" hasn't happened until we are as ready to "eat" as God is to "give."

In fact, the Beloved Disciple's chosen Greek word at that point, rather than "eat," would better be translated "masticate--as honest, direct, and down-to-earth a word as can be found. It is the Concordant Literal New Testament that contributes the translation "masticate." Strong's Concordance says that the Greek word may have reference to the sound of crunching and might be translated "gnaw" or "chew." (And let not anyone pretend to be offended at the Beloved Disciple's having Jesus talk that way. We do it all the time in English: "That sermon really gave me some food for thought; I'll have to chew on it for a while, though I trust I'll get it digested.") But the point is that our appropriation of Jesus is to be just as earthly-specific as was the Logos's initial becoming flesh. There dare he no more mystification of our response than there was of his approach: "If I have condescended to come to you as FLESH, then you had better have yourselves ready to CHEW."

So what does the Scripture have in mind, virtually ordering us to chomp down on the flesh of Jesus? Well, Arthur Cochrane reports that Markus Barth said in his lecture, "To eat is to believe, and to believe is to eat." Afterward, Cochrane had to inform Barth that, although it was a good line, Martin Luther had said it first. (Markus Barth now informs me that it was Saint Augustine who said it first. So please guard against giving Luther any credit in this connection.) However, in the present case Luther (or Augustine) was not speaking simply out of his magnificent obsession; he had the textual evidence to back it up. Although it wasn't pointed out previously, the word "believe" appears six different times in the bread discourse (in vv. 29, 30, 35, 36, 40, 47). Luther (or Augustine)--and Barth--and Cochrane--are right.

Yet there is another point to be made here. At these junctures Jesus makes it clear that it is those who "believe" who receive life from their eating. Yet, in a couple other places (vv. 37-40 & 44) he has it that it is only those whom the Father has "given him," or "drawn to him," who receive. And it strikes me that the only way to keep the two ideas from contradicting each other is to understand that "faith" is not at all a good work we produce out of ourselves (from our side) but is itself a work of God (from his side), a giving to us--or, if you will, a drawing of us to him. Nevertheless, where the Beloved Disciple beats out Luther and everyone else is in his insistence that the very concept "faith" dare not be allowed to become vague, ethereal, and spiritual--that is, to identify just any sort of nonspecific believing something about something or other (belief in general). No, believing faith has to be as direct, concrete, and content-specific as a real person's drinking real water or chomping real flesh. No real person can simply "drink"; he can only drink something (and a something capable of quite precise definition). And just so, believing in anything other than that one "flesh of Jesus" is to be eating junk food that doesn't have enough substance to provide even a good chew.

Regarding the four "blood" references in vv. 53-56, Markus Barth has made the following observations:

  1. "Flesh and blood" can be a normal way of referring to a human totality (see Jn. 1:13).
  2. In 6:51, Jesus expressed that the giving of the living bread entailed the giving of his own life for the world, which was to take place in the blood-spilling crucifixion.

Outside the bread discourse, the Beloved Disciple speaks two different times of our relation to God through Jesus in ways that go even beyond "faith"--though I would prefer to understand them instead as dimensions of faith that go beyond what the bread discourse has told us.

The first passage is Jn. 12:26: "Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor." It is by serving, obeying, and following him that one is with Jesus, and if you are with Jesus, then you are where he is--namely, with the Father. And I think the Beloved Disciple would say that this is the only way to be with God, the only true method of "divine communication." Mystical and sacramental methods won't do. So let us now revise Luther's statement to read, To eat is to believe in such a way as to serve, obey, and follow Jesus. And the final step, then, comes with Jn. 17:20-23 (still speaking of divine communication):

I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in your, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one. I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

The logic here is clear. Because (as incarnate Logos) Jesus is already one with the Father, anyone who becomes one with Jesus also becomes one with his fellow believers and one with the Father at the same time. Through Jesus, all become one. The logic is clear, yet, when we forget that the passage comes from the particular Gospel which specifies that the Logos became FLESH, our application becomes the fuzziest of all. The Jn. 17:22 passage most often is used as referring to some sort of mystical unity of humanity as a whole--quite without regard for any fleshly Jesus. Yet even the ecclesiastical reading regularly has the passage speaking of a mystical church coming into mystical union with a mystical God through the mystical offices of a mystical Christ--without a shred of flesh anywhere to be seen.

But it won't wash. The passage comes from the Gospel of the Beloved Disciple, and his Jesus never talks "fuzzy." No, becoming one with Jesus must take place through our masticating his flesh. Becoming one with Jesus (and thus coming into divine communication with God) can happen only through one's forming a very concrete and specific union with the man Jesus of Nazareth-a union as focused and specific as a particular man's covenanting with a particular woman to become one flesh with her. Mystical unions (i.e., spiritual marriages with "womanhood in general") just won't do, and we must finally revise Luther's statement to read thus: To eat is to believe in such a way that we serve, obey, and follow Jesus to the point of becoming covenantally united with him (what Paul would call "a communion in the body of Christ"). But no mysterious spiritualities are involved.

There can be no becoming one by means of hocus-pocus (a term presumed to have been derived from the bread word of the Latin mass). And there can be no becoming one apart from actual fleshly discipleship. "The Bread of Life"? Make it as mystical as you wish; there is still no getting around the fact that this bread is "my FLESH."

Chapters One, Four, Six--and Beyond

Beyond the "demystification of the gospel" that we now have found in the Prologue, in the living-water discourse, and in the bread-of-life discourse, the Fourth Gospel includes some scattered passages which have the effect of confirming that reading.

"If you knew me, you would know my Father also" (Jn. 8:19). Jesus again is specified as the one way to (the one divine communication of) the Father, although in this instance his "fleshliness" is not insisted upon.

"The Father and I are one" (Jn. 10:30)--and of the two, of course, it is the fleshly Jesus who is our access to the heavenly Father (rather than vice versa).

"Whoever believes in me, believes not in me but in him who sent me. And whoever sees me sees him who sent me" (Jn. 12:44-45). In other words, quit trying, through means of mystery, to enter into divine communication with the God of Mystery. Just look at the fleshly Jesus and see the heavenly Father--and that's as much of "God" as you ever need to know, can know, or should even want to know.

"I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me. If you had known me, you would have known my Father also; henceforth you know him and have seen him" (14:6-7). Though I have no desire to reject the broader interpretation of this saying, my guess is that it originally had a somewhat different application from what we normally give it. Jesus, recall, is talking to his disciples (those who are already Christian believers) and so does not likely have foremost in mind all those nonbelievers who must, if ever, come to the Father by him. Rather, for those who already claim Christ, the word would seem to be, "Sorry, but it is not your prerogative to define 'Christ.' It was never said that the Mystic Christ, the Sacramental Christ, the Christ of Gnosis, the Spiritual Christ, the Christ of Personal Preference could get you to the Father. No one comes to the Father but by the one, specific, down-to-earth me."

"Whoever who has seen me has seen the Father; how can you say, 'Show us the Father'?" (Jn. 14:9). And how can we, apparently having learned nothing from Jesus' rebuke of Philip, for two thousand years now keep on saying, "Show us the Father"?--and not just keep on saying it, but keep trying to see God through every religious invention in the book, only to keep winding up with nothing more than psychological peak experiences that (Maslow says) could as well be induced through drugs, music, or sex.

"In a little while, and the world will no longer see me, but you will see me" (Jn. 14:19). Here is a problem we have not addressed but ought to: How is it possible for us latter-day Christians to chomp the flesh of Jesus when that flesh is no longer dwelling among us? At that point, do we have any choice except to go to a more "spiritual" relationship?

Jesus says that his presumed absence is indeed a problem for the world but not for Christians. And be reminded that, there in the Fourth Gospel, in his insistence about our chewing the flesh, the Beloved Disciple was himself addressing readers for whom the literal flesh of Jesus was already as absent as it is for us now. Obviously, neither Jesus nor the Beloved Disciple ever meant to say that only the earthly contemporaries of the historical Jesus had the possibility of knowing him in the flesh.

So, I suggest, we are here being given divine counsel about how our approach to God (or our response to God's approach) must proceed. If we are to have any hope of seeing God, we must go first to die New Testament (and particularly, the Beloved Disciple would want me to say, to the Fourth Gospel that he produced for the very purpose: "These are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name" (Jn. 20:31). There we must learn just as much as we can about who this Jesus of Nazareth was, how he acted, what he taught, and what sort of person he was in his historical actuality. Then, the Beloved Disciple continues, those who, out of this knowledge of Jesus' flesh, believe in such a way that they serve, follow, and obey Jesus to the point of being covenantally united as one flesh with him--those people are "chomping the flesh," "eating the bread of life," and "seeing God."

But the one conclusion regarding Jesus' leave-taking that the Beloved Disciple will not allow is the one we are most prone to draw: if the flesh is gone, that must make our relationship to Christ spiritual—the spiritual way of sacrament, inner experience, religious enlightenment, and what all. To which the Beloved Disciple has Jesus respond, "True, the world will see me no more, but you will see me. And when I say 'see,' I mean see the real me, see me in the flesh. So start chewing that one flesh which, now as then, is food indeed."

An Assist from Søren Kierkegaard

It was only upon writing to this point that I suddenly remembered that all this is just what Kierkegaard was after by insisting that true Christian faith consists solely in "contemporaneousness with Christ." Of that concept, Kierkegaard himself said,

This is the decisive thought! This thought is the central thought of my life. And I may say too with truth that I have had the honor of suffering for bringing this truth to light. Therefore I die gladly, with infinite gratitude to Governance that to me it was granted to be aware of this thought and to make others attentive to it. Not that I have discovered it. God forbid that I should be guilty of such presumption. No, the discovery is an old one, it is that of the New Testament. (Attack upon Cristendom, p.242)

That statement falls short only in failing to give specific credit to the Beloved Disciple. And it could be that, even though he never got it said in so many words, Kierkegaard was ahead of the Barths in understanding Jesus Christ as the one sacrament. For a full exposition of Kierkegaard's concept of "contemporaneousness," consult my first book, Kierkegaard and Radical Discipleship (Princeton University Press, 1968), pp. 356-83. And then, for Kierkegaard's few but relevant words on "sacramentalism," see pp. 325-28.

In a nutshell, Kierkegaard's "contemporaneousness" says something of this sort: Through a deliberate action of mind and will, you do your best to put yourself into the same relation to the historical Jesus which necessarily would have been that of the Beloved Disciple and Jesus' other contemporaries, both those who ultimately chose to believe and those who chose not to. That is, you try to face Jesus as being a real, live, fleshly individual no different from anyone else--who nevertheless says some things and does some things hinting that he is acting as far more than just a normal human being.

And remember that these hints will make your situation harder rather than easier. For every thing you see indicating that Jesus might actually be the Logos become flesh, you will see hundreds of indications that he is only a peasant preacher from Galilee. So, regarding this most problematic man of flesh, you make your own decision--making it in the context of that real and difficult specificity rather than in the easy context of simply accepting whatever mysterious dogma the church tells you it knows for certain about a spiritual presence of Jesus.

Or, in the terminology of the Beloved Disciple, when that completely unexceptional Galilean peasant tells you he is the bread of life and that the bread is his fiesh, you be ready to chew like mad--even if that flesh proves tough and indigestible, carrying the flavor of contradiction, scandal, suffering, trauma, and arduousness that is not quite what you had in mind as a satisfying religious experience. You eat it because it is what God has put before you, not because you find it to your liking.

The Flesh as a Communications Unscrambler

Let it once more be said that neither Kierkegaard nor the Beloved Disciple here (nor anyone cited elsewhere in this book) has any desire to use faith's focus upon the objective "flesh of Jesus" as a ploy for eliminating, denying, or belittling the subjective and experiential side of faith. The issue, rather, is that of priority. Let me, then, try putting the ideaof the Beloved Disciple's "Bread of Life" Jesus into the mouth of the Synoptic "Sermon on the Mount" Jesus: "Be not anxious to seek the personal spiritual satisfactions of self-indulgent peak experience. What is to be soughtis none of these things that your heavenly Father already knows you need (and is perfectly capable of granting). No, seek first the objective, other-oriented, self-denying action of masticating that flesh which (whether you like it or not) God has put before you--and whatever you need in the way of spiritual experience will be added to you as well."

This order of priorities is the only workable one--because the objective norm of "the flesh of Jesus" is absolutely essential to the sorting out of our subjective experience. We are following up on Kierkegaard's concept of subjectivity, then, in suggesting that a believer's "Christian experience" is to be understood as the impingement of an objective, wholly-other deity upon his inner consciousness. Thus, for example, the action of an objective (i.e., an altogether "not-me") Holy Spirit arouses certain sensations and feelings that nevertheless exist altogether within me." "'Things beyond our seeing, things beyond our hearing, things beyond our imagining, all prepared by God for those who love him,' these it is that God has revealed to us through the Spirit" (1 Cor. 2:9-10, NEB). Yet, pray tell, just how are we supposed to distinguish these "beyond" things from those things that in fact are "from" our seeing, from our hearing, from our very own imagining?

The experience of these things is totally subjectivistic. So how am I (either "I" individually or "I" as the "we" of our common cultural subjectivism) to sort out those that are "of God" from those that are of purely human psychology, that are of our cultural background, that are of my genetic makeup, that are of my imagination, that are of Satan, that are of my just having had a good meal?

Most often, I propose, we do this sorting on the grounds of pure subjectivism. We have nothing of a "beyond ourselves" to use as an objective point of reference, and so we proceed to operate very much on the basis of our own individual and cultural imaginings. I identify as "of God" whatever experiences feel to me like what I imagine "of God" experiences ought to feel like. What to me feels "real good" is what I have in mind when I judge something to be real good. God, of course, is something real good. (Possibly, even, "God" is nothing other than the name I give to whatever I find to be real good--and what is thus my "ultimate concern.") In any case, that which makes me feel real good becomes the only possible standard for my identifying which are my "of God" experiences.

Yet, in this situation of pure subjectivism, I myself actually am functioning as the only true "God" involved. I am the one Authority, the one Lord, who has full say about what understanding of God, of his Good, and of my good experience shall be attributed to deity. There is no objective, beyond-myself norm by which my identification of God can be gauged as either true or false, right or wrong. I'm the one to say who or what my God is--and of course, my God is all of God I can ever experience or know.

Yet the Fourth Gospel claims to have a solution (the only possible solution) to this dilemma of religious subjectivism. "Christian subjectivity" (as is never the case with pure "subjectivism") always indudes an objective norm that is objectively accessible to us: "No one comes to the Father but by me." It is not that Christian experience is always limited to but that it must ever and always start with and proceed from God's objective revelation of himself in "the flesh of Jesus."

So, how do I go about sorting out which of my experiences truly are "of God"? Well, the Fourth Gospel says that I begin by masticating the flesh of Jesus--and that provides me the wherewithal for making the test: Whatever of human experience arises from (or leads to) faith in Jesus as the incarnate Logos of divine communication and which then comports with that flesh, manifesting the character of that which, in him, was seen in the flesh--whatever experience passes this test can be taken as being "of God." With anything else--no matter how right and good I subjectivistically feel it to be--I can never be confident I'm getting a true reading. Indeed, I think this "litmus test of the flesh" is what Scripture means when it tells us to "test the spirits to see whether they are from God" (1 John 4:1).

Accordingly, if, in your experience of Christ's spiritual presence, your walk with the living Lord, your being with Jesus--if in all this you have never found his presence indicating anything other than his being near to comfort and cheer (to affirm you as a "person," to minister to your personal needs, to serve your mental health, spiritual growth, moral development, and sense of social responsibility), then that would seem to raise a serious question about whether your "Jesus of experience" has passed the flesh test. All the New Testament witnesses say that the objective norm of the fleshly Jesus has him much more representative also of "costly grace"--of judging our falsity and calling us to confession and repentance, of bringing not peace but a sword, of commanding us to follow him in radical discipleship, of asking us to deny ourselves and take up our cross daily.

Thus, the objective "flesh test" serves to keep our subjectivistic biases from taking control of God. It gives us a means of sorting out true deity from our own religious imaginings of the same. And it ensures that what we claim to be "from God" actually is "from God." The flesh of Jesus must always take precedence over our spiritual experiences of him and thus of God. As the Beloved Disciple put it, right off the bat in his Prologue: "No one has ever seen [let alone been given any hold upon] God; It is God the only Son ... who has made him known."

(This line of thought, I propose, also takes care of the long-debated theological disagreement about Karl Barth's deep opposition to anything that could be called "natural theology." I submit that Barth was never even addressing the rather theoretical question about just how much of communication with God might be possible through means other than that of his incarnation in Jesus Christ. No matter how much of that communication you might claim could take place outside of Christ, Barth wouldn't argue. He was saying nothing more than that, without the "flesh test of contemporaneousness" we have no way of determining whether or not we are truly in communication with God. With it, of course, we can distinguish all sorts of true communication happening all over the place. If you will, the flesh of Jesus serves as the communications "unscrambler" that suppresses the human static, decodes the true signals of God, and allows them to be formed into a coherent picture for us. And for Barth, then, "natural theology" identified simply any religious system proposing to operate without an "unscrambler." And I, for one, am convinced that Barth has Kierkegaard, the Beloved Disciple, and for that matter, the whole of the Christian gospel on his side.)

An Assist from Martin Buber, Too

By establishing the flesh of Jesus as the one necessity of divine communication, I understand us to he agreeing with what the Barths mean in speaking of "Jesus Christ, the one sacrament." And, in effect, what that says is this: If we are to have any sacrament at all, it cannot be the mysterious, spiritual, symbolic, and altogether unfleshly rituals we have chosen to call "sacraments." If the christian gospel knows anything of "sacrament," it can be nothing other than this one flesh of Jesus.

However, I think the Barths would agree that--even if Jesus is the one--"sacrament" is probably our poorest possible choice as the noun identifying what he is. We have seen that the Beloved Disciple's word "flesh" (meaning "the entirely specific earthliness of historical existence") is as much as the diametric opposite of our word "sacrament" (with its inevitable overtones of mystery, spirituality, and unearthliness). Thus, "the flesh of Jesus is the one sacrament" is as much as a contradiction in terms. (Be clear that I am not at all arguing with the Barths--only seeking the most precise way for expressing our idea.)

So, if "sacrament" doesn't say it, can I propose a word that will? I can. It is the biblical-Hebrew word HOLY. "The flesh of Jesus is the one true Holy." However, I must he quick to insist that this word "holy" be understood in none other than its biblical sense--and not at all in our common religious sense, which simply throws it in with "sacrament," "mystery," "ineffable," "mystical," and all the rest. There is a difference--a big difference--and that difference has perhaps best been explained by the Jewish Hebrew-language scholar Martin Buber. His commentary upon Isaiah's call-vision in the temple is the occasion for his explaining the biblical concept of "holy":

The word "holy" is a concept which cannot be understood unless its definition is followed by a limitation. Up to the Babylonian exile "holy" means distinct but not severed, distinct and yet in the midst of the people ("a holy one in thy midst" Hos. 11, 9); distinct and radiating.... YHVH [Yahweh] is absolute master of the world because although He is definitely distinct from the world, He is not in any way withdrawn from it. And for this very reason this conception makes possible a new and the highest expression of the demand to imitate God: that Israel should be holy, as their God is holy.... That YHVH is present to Israel even with ... His holiness, and that Israel is thereby able to receive His influence to follow His footsteps ... in other words, the hallowing of Israel by the holy YHVH [cf. Ex. 31, 13], this is the root idea of the divine attribute so dear to Isaiah. (The Prophetic Faith, pp.128-29)

The holy God (the Logos, if you will) would be Mystery to us--except for the fact that his being "holy" means also that his "differentness" is manifested and made accessible to us "in the flesh." And just so, our only way of meeting God and having his holiness communicated into our lives is through this fleshly, in-our-midst manifestation.

Goodness gracious, the Beloved Disciple turns out to be not nearly as original a thinker as we had thought. All in the world he has done is expound the Christian gospel in terms of his ancient Jewish concept of God's holiness. And with his having done so, I propose we are completely justified in revising the Barthian formula to read thus: The flesh of Jesus is the one true Holy. The gospel has no need for as much as the word "sacrament"--not even in reference to that "only one" which Jesus really is.

Copyright (c) 1987