II. A New Testament Without Sacramentalism

The foregoing chapter established the basic distinction between the sacramental understanding of worship and recital. The chapter following will develop the overall content of biblical recital. Yet this present chapter must be dedicated to a "clearing of the decks"--the predominantly negative but nevertheless essential step of showing that the New Testament contains no sacramentalist tradition that would challenge, qualify, or hamper our going all out with recital.

Our outcome I think will be unimpeachable--yet the getting there won't be easy: proving the absence of what isn't there, mounting an "argument from silence," as it were. What can one say other than "Well, there wasn't any sacramentalism in that verse--so let’s look at the next one"? I have already made a stab at something of this sort in an earlier book (The Beloved Disciple, Eerdmans, 1987 pp. 92ff) and so will simply enlarge upon that effort here.

Recall, when we speak of the absence of "sacramentalism," essentially we mean the absence of any human agencies claiming the power and wherewithal for putting us into contact with and gaining for us some experience of "God" (or as some would prefer, "the transcendent mystery of all life and being"). "Sacrament" always takes the form of holy means for manipulating divine mystery--for, indeed, "sacrament" is simply the Latin version of the New Testament Greek word for "mystery." Consequently, the New Testament absence of "sacrament" involves also the absence of any positive assessment of "mystery thinking."

Thus, because the synagogical background of Jesus and his disciples was already strongly non-sacramentalist, the New Testament absence of sacramentalism might be expected. Yet, conversely, because the Gentile-Hellenist milieu of the early church was saturated with sacramental mystery-thinking, that absence is truly remarkable.

First of all, then, although that Greek word for "mystery" is used with some frequency in the New Testament, it is never used in reference to (or even conjunction with) baptism or the Lord's Supper. Likewise, these occurrences consistently lack any note of appreciating mystery for its own sake, any attributing of religious significance to the human experience of mystery. Indeed, regularly (and perhaps even invariably) the gospel is valued precisely for the fact that it demystifies "mystery."

This is indicated throughout the New Testament by the terms that accompany the word "mystery": "been given to know"; "made known"; "make all men see"; "understand"; "insight into"; "now disclosed"; "I tell you"; "impart"; "proclaim." Perhaps most typical is Colossians 1:26 with its reference to "the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and geneneration, but now been revealed to his saints." Quite the contrary of the sacramentalist interest, New Testament Christianity values "mystery" only for its having been broken and thus no longer mysterious. The New Testament is an opponent of mystery thinking, not a proponent.

We need now to separate our New Testament into constituent parts--the first being the three synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). And those certainly don't present much that could qualify as mystery thinking. Two sentences out of the last supper accounts may be it. Away down the line we will give these the closest sort of scrutiny. Here we will say only enough to show that they do not necessarily demand a sacramental interpretation.

A. The Synoptic Gospels

In the upper room, ail three of the Synoptics (plus Paul, in 1 Cor. 11:24) have Jesus say, "This is my body." Is a sacramentalist interpretation the only one that will make sense of the statement?--that's the question (and the only one we mean to address now). So, if ... if Jesus must be taken as saying, "This piece of bread--in some miraculous, mysterious way--will now materially, substantially, spiritually, or otherwise be transformed into my body so that it can be humanly ingested" ... if this is what he means to say, then we are being pointed strongly toward sacramentalism.

Nevertheless, if it is the piece of bread Jesus meant to designate as the "this" which is his "body," I understand that the Greek text doesn't even represent a very good way for him to say so. Jesus could have spoken much more precisely, if that is what he had in mind.

Then, we need to know that the word which we often take as being the most crucial--the "is" in "This is my body"--well, the Hebrew (or Aramaic) that Jesus would have spoken simply has no word that will say "is" in the sense we make the sentence read--nothing corresponding to our word "is" is there. In effect, then, the words Jesus himself spoke would allow us much more flexibility in relating "this" to "body" than does the translation "This IS my body."

We don't want to propose alternative, nonsacramental readings at this point--that will come later. All we mean to establish now is that the synoptic Gospels do not present anything that demands a sacramental reading.

The other sentence from the Synoptics which might possibly have a sacramentalist intent is that regarding the cup. Again, in the upper room, Matthew and Mark have Jesus say of the cup, "This is my blood (of the covenant)." And in this instance, for the wine somehow to become Jesus' blood--that would point strongly to sacramental mystery. However, both Luke (in the longer version) and Paul have the wording otherwise: "This cup is the new covenant (in my blood)." Now, there is no implication that the content of the cup is actually blood. Rather, today's drinking of the cup of wine marks a pledging of the covenant which tomorrow (Good Friday) will be sealed by Jesus' spilling of his blood on the cross.

It seems safe to say that there is nothing in the Synoptic Gospels that requires (or perhaps even suggests) a sacramentalist orientation. The explanation probably is this: The basic tradition behind these three Gospels undoubtedly is that of Jesus' disciples (the Galilean Twelve). And from what we know of both Jesus and those twelve--notably, their lack of formal education and cosmopolitan experience--there would be no reason to think they had ever had intellectual contacts beyond those of rural Palestinian Judaism. Thus, no mystery thinking shows up in their tradition for the simple fact that they knew little or nothing about it and had never had occasion to be influenced by it. That earliest, apostolic Christian tradition was just too culturally isolated to be interested in intellectualist, esoteric sacramentalism.

Of course, the Apostle Paul probably had more of philosophic-theological education than all the Galilean Twelve put together. There is no doubt that he was fully cognizant of both sacramentalist theory and procedure. In fact, the one biggest problem he faced in his churches seems to have been with Christians who wanted to enhance the faith by casting it in terms of mystery and sacrament, introducing all sorts of gnostic-like ideas and practices. His opposition shows up particularly in the letters to Corinth. So, Paul is the biblical writer most insistent that the gospel essentially reveals, or exposes, mystery--thus marking its demystification rather than being a promoter and exploiter of it.

Regarding any sort of sacramentalism, the thing of which you can be sure is that Paul will be against it. And his opposition does not take the form of give-and-take argument or extended reasoning. No, he simply puts his foot down: "Not on your life! That sort of stuff is sheer paganism. It ain't Christian--and for that matter, it ain't even good Judaism. 'Nuff said!"

B. The Revelation

The book of Revelation hardly provides enough material to render a clear verdict, though what evidence is there is all one way. Its "wedding supper of the Lamb," taking place in the New Jerusalem, probably represents the Lord's Supper finding its culmination in the kingdom (as, in the Lukan account, Jesus promised the last-supper disciples would be the case). Yet, if so, there is no talk of sacramental bread and cup; the meal is rather a communal celebration of eschatological covenant--just as we will find the larger biblical tradition affirming it to be. No hint of sacramentalism is involved. However, in his visions of the heavenly throne room, the Revelator does call upon a great deal of temple, priestly imagery. This language would have been wholly familiar in the Jewish sacramental tradition that had come to its violent end probably some years before the book of Revelation was written. Yet the Revelator is explicit that, in the "heaven" of his visions, there stands a temple and all the sacramental accouterments that go with it. However, for him, it is not "heaven" but rather "the New Jerusalem" which represents the true end-state of creation--and these two locales are not the same.

The Revelator&rsqip's own anti-sacramental bias comes to light, then, in his portrayal of "the New Jerusalem" rather than of "heaven"--particularly in the way his vision of the New Jerusalem contrasts with that of Ezekiel. Ezekiel, recall, was the priest/prophet who portrayed Israel's moral degradation as a corruption of the temple cult--and this to the extent that Yahweh, in his Ark-of-the-Covenant throne-chariot, actually deserted his holy "house of the Lord." Israel's eventual healing and redemption, then, is pictured as Yahweh’s throne-chariot returning to a glorious new temple which is, in effect, Ezekiel’s New Jerusalem. Yet, in what has to be a deliberate disagreement with the prophet, the Revelator (even while picking up much of Ezekiel's imagery) takes pains to say that he "saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb" (Rev. 21:22).

I cannot read the passage otherwise than that the Christian Revelator is rejecting all sacramentalism. For the Revelator, even the biblical sacramentalism of Jewish temple cult plays no ultimate role in humanity’s reconciliation with God. When it comes to God's true saving of the world, he will be his own temple, thank you--that is, he will work the redemption of humanity without the help of any mysterious priestly "mediations" from our end. "Sacramentalism" was, at most, a temporary concession made to our weakness of faith. But once that faith knows both God and Jesus Christ, our New Jerusalem certainly has neither need nor room for any sort of priest business. "I saw no temple in the city." The book of Revelation is beautifully non-sacramental.

C. Hebrews

Of all the books of the New Testament, it is plainly the Letter to the Hebrews that makes the greatest use of sacramental language, i.e. the language of Jewish temple worship. Christ is called "a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God" (Heb. 2:17) who is priest forever (Heb. 7:3). There is much talk about "God's house." In a long passage about Jesus’ being the high priest (Heb. 5), we are told of his offering "gifts and sacrifices for sins." There is talk about "the inner shrine behind the curtain" (6:19). Through chapters 8, 9, and 10, there is all sorts of talk about the tabernacle (Israel's original tent shrine), about priests and sacrifices, altars, lampstands, the Bread of the Presence, the Holy of Holies, the Ark of the Covenant, and things of which the writer says "we cannot now speak in detail" (though it strikes me that he had already done a pretty good job of it). However, simply to take this language as expressive of his interest in sacramentalism is to miss the point. His thesis is that this entire development was ineffective: According to this arrangement, "gifts and sacrifices are [were] offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper, but deal only with food and drink and various baptisms, regulations for the body imposed until the time comes to set things right" (Heb. 9:9-10).

"The time to set things right" is, of course, the coming of Jesus Christ with his gospel and the new people of God which is his "body." So, at this "time to set things right," in himself and in his work, Christ has accomplished everything the old sacramental system was meant (but failed) to do--and more, "He abolishes the first in order to establish the second" (Heb. 10:9).

Indeed, that old sacramental order is now seen to have been of no real significance in itself; it was simply "a sketch and shadow" of the real thing that was to come in Christ (Heb. 8:5)--a foreshadowing as inadequate as a person's own shadow is in letting you know what the person himself looks like, a foreshadowing utterly useless once the thing in itself has arrived.

But "if perfection had been attained through the levitical priesthood ... what further need would there have been to speak of another priest to arising?" (Heb. 7:11). And "there is, on the one hand, the abrogation of an earlier commandment because it was weak and ineffectual; ... there is, on the other hand, the introduction of a better hope, through which we approach God" (Heb. 7:18). "Accordingly, Jesus has also become the guarantee of a better covenant" (Heb. 7:22). "Unlike the other high priests, he has no need to offer sacrifices day after day; ... he did this once for all when he offered himself" (Heb. 7:27).

So Christ is the new high priest in that he accomplishes all that the old high priests tried to do and more. But this is not to say that he is simply the servant of a new sacramentalism as the old priests were of the old. No, Jesus is the new high priest by being something entirely different from what had gone before. Those priests, of course, dealt ritually with the mystery of so-called "sacred objects." But Jesus was himself "the sacred object" which he then offered to God. He was the-thing-in-itself acting once-for-all, as it were.

In order to get at this new Christian thing which displaces "sacramental mystery," the writer chooses the term "covenant." And "covenant" (we will see in our next chapter) is the one idea most central to the Bible's recital tradition, though not its sacramental one. "Jesus has now obtained a more excellent ministry, and to that degree he is the mediator of a better covenant" (Heb. 8:6).

The writer then presents Jesus (or possibly God) as the speaker of Jeremiah’s new-covenant prophecy and concludes, "In speaking of ‘a new covenant’ he has made the first one obsolete" (Heb. 8:13). "He is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, because a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions under the first covenant.... Indeed, under the law almost every thing is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins" (Heb. 9:15-22).

So here the Hebrews author joins Paul and Luke in keeping the blood of Jesus as a ratification of the covenant made at the cross on Good Friday rather than letting it come into the Thursday evening upper-room as a cup of sacramental mystery--or as some sort of blood sacrifice to be made by new, Christian priests in new, Christian temples. It may well be (as the evidence seems to indicate) that the Hebrews author would be the Christian teacher most horrified to find the church moving into a new, Christian sacramentaism--after God had done all he did in Christ, just to get us moved beyond dead-end sacramentalist thought and into open-ended covenant thinking.

The essential finding to which this book means to come is that New Testament Christianity recognizes but one sacrament. Here may be the best place to interrupt our train of thought in order to explain the idea. The Hebrews writer can stand as the prime authority behind my argument. The story of how I came to this position is most fully told in that earlier book of mine, (The Beloved Disciple, Eerdmans, 1987 pp. 91-92) In short, it is this:

Karl Barth once said (or wrote) that "there is only one sacrament--the One who has himself risen from the dead." Long after, his son Markus did a lecture on the topic, framing it as an exposition of John 6; and later still, this lecture material became Markus Barth's Rediscovering the Lord's Supper (John Knox, 1988), a book that has proved most helpful to this one. Now, John 6 will work very well as the authority behind the idea (and in time we will use it so) but Hebrews 7-10 will work just as well; and the Hebrews author may come closest to actually stating things our way.

In Heb. 7:19, he told us that Jesus is the one (and presumably only one) through whom there is "the introduction of a better hope, through which we approach God." And drawing us near to God was precisely the thing the high priest of old temple-cult, with all his sacred apparatus, was striving to accomplish, though (the Hebrews author says) never able to bring off. So, in that Jesus proved the only one capable of doing for us what the high priest wanted to do, the author is well justified in calling Jesus the one true and real "high priest." Karl Barth, I suggest, was saying nothing different in calling Jesus the one true and real "sacrament." The two--priest and sacrament--are so completely interdependent (a priest isn't a priest except in his sacramental function; and a sacrament isn't sacred except when made so by a priest) that the statement says the same thing whichever way it be read.

However, both Barth and the Hebrews author well knew that, even when Jesus accomplishes what the sacramental system was supposed to, he does it through anything but sacramental methods. So even though his accomplishment is that of a one true high priest--he is himself nothing like a high priest. His accomplishment is that of one true sacrament--even though his action is nothing sacramental. So Barth speaking of "one sacrament" and the Hebrews author speaking of "one high priest"--they don't mean to count even that many, if "sacrament" and "high priest" be used in the literal senses of those terms.

D. The Fourth Gospel

Our last-to-be-examined segment of the New Testament is the Fourth Gospel (commonly known as the Gospel of John). Perhaps the latest of our segments to have been written, it is usually dated to the last decade of the first Christian century. The book itself identifies its author (in the sense of source and authority) as "the disciple whom Jesus loved," the Beloved Disciple, whose knowledge of the historical person of Jesus was intimate and direct.

The assumption that the Fourth Gospel is one of the latest New Testament writings means that the pagan-inspired sacramentalizing of the church must have been well under way by that time. My assumption about the identity of the Beloved Disciple is also pertinent: He could hardly have been one of the Galilean Twelve but was much more likely a Jerusalem-based follower of Jesus--a colleague of such people as Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, a person of much better education and much more of a cosmopolitan outlook than would have been that of the Twelve. On the basis of his contribution to the Gospel itself, he can be called a rabbi/theologian/philosopher.

Thus the Beloved Disciple's critique of sacramentalism will be more nuanced--and perhaps for that very reason more telling--than any we have seen heretofore. Also, the "sacramentalism" he criticizes is not limited to that of the Jewish temple cult. He speaks in broad enough terms, with a broad enough argument, that his words must have been relevant to and readable by all sacramental mystery-thinkers--whether of Jewish, pagan, or gnostic-Christian persuasion. He comes across as a careful teacher, a composed and thoughtful Christian leader, who is deeply concerned about the growing sacramentalism he sees in the church and so sets out to rebut it with the gospel he had learned directly from Jesus.

Most noteworthy (even if not most crucial) is his handling of the Gospel scenes which at least some Christians must even then have been using as the foundation and authority for "Christian sacraments." Those scenes are, of course,

  1. Jesus' baptism at the hands of John the Baptist and
  2. Jesus' last supper with his disciples on the night when he was betrayed.

In his Gospel, the Beloved Disciple places himself as being on the scene, present at both of these occasions. None of the other Gospels so much as makes an effort to claim that its author speaks as an eyewitness to any portion of its account.

As an eyewitness of Jesus' baptism and his last supper, the Beloved Disciple would, of course, have the best information on either event. Yet, in Jn. 1:19-39 (although he has John the Baptist baptizing, Jesus coming there to be recognized of John, and himself [the Beloved Disciple] leaving John's group to join Jesus) he neglects to mention the fact that John baptized Jesus. Yet "neglects" can't be the right word there. Obviously he knows better; so that "neglect" just has to be a deliberately significant move on the part of the beloved Disciple. All the more is that the case when we find him doing the same thing regarding the last supper.

In Jn. 13:1-30 (although he has a last supper of Jesus with his disciples, in which Jesus washes their feet, eats with them, and discourses with them--and although he has himself [the Beloved Disciple] present, "lying close to the breast of Jesus") he neglects to mention anything about the bread and cup. Again obviously, he must have known better; and again that just has to be a deliberately significant move on the part of the Beloved Disciple.

But why? Why would he want deliberately to skip over (not omitting the whole scene but just dropping the heart out of it) that which he must have known the synoptic Gospels treat as most crucial? If anyone can come up with any better explanation, I would be eager to hear it. But the best I can do is suggest that, toward the close of the first century, this most knowledgeable friend of Jesus and eyewitness of the events themselves--he was confident enough that the church’s gradual sacramentalizing of baptism and the Supper was so contrary to Jesus' intention that he close to skip any account of those actions rather than provide the sacramentalizers anything they might use to their purpose. We will soon see that the Beloved Disciple's overall theology would support just such a move on his part.

And that overall theology, I now propose, is best presented in the Gospel's opening, the Prologue, Jn. 1:1-18. The question behind the whole book is that of "divine communication": how is saving contact to be made between God in his spiritual sphere of the eternal heavenlies and humanity in its material sphere of the transient and sinful earthlies? Or, as the Hebrews author put it, how are we to approach God? And it is precisely to this question that sacramentalist mystery-thinkers of any and every stripe immediately would respond: "We have just what you are looking for. Our priests using our techniques in our temples with our sacraments can so spiritually exalt worshipers as to lift them right out of the earthly and up to where they make direct contact with the transcendent mysteries of divinity."

Yet the New Testament writers (each in his own words) say, "Not so! Sacramentalism never has done what you say it does. There is nothing a sinful humanity can do for itself (or a holy priesthood can do for a sinful humanity) in lifting it to God. If any religious contact is to be made, it will have to be God who makes it." And it way be the Beloved Disciple who has best stated the answering (countering) idea of God's making the move to contact us--this in his writing, "And the Word (Logos) became flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth" (Jn. 1:14).

In that Prologue, then, the writer traverses a spectrum from God mediated to us through the LOGOS (the Word) to God mediated to us through the FLESH (of Jesus). Logos is the Creek noun properly translated as "the Word"; but it was also a familiar term of speculative religion, one that identified deity as most general, abstract, transcendent, ethereal, incomprehensible, and mysterious. The Logos would be the form of the Divine most welcome to mystery-thinkers--as appropriate for contact through their mystical procedures of speculation, meditation, spiritual ecstasy, or sacramental rite. And it seems clear that the Beloved Disciple chose to open his Gospel by talking about the Logos--doing this deliberately to catch the attention of mystery-thinking sacramentalists of whatever persuasion. What he must have had in mind, then, was to lead them from the Logos of verse 1 to the Flesh of verse 14, where they would be forced to face a radical gospel challenge to their sophisticated theories.

As the contrary of "the Logos," for this writer "the Flesh" means "historical actuality." And his thesis is that, in Jesus, God has taken on an historical actuality that confronts us in an unmediated contact with Deity Itself (Deity Himself, which is to say "God as Person," as he most essentially is). And this move on God's part instantly makes irrelevant and obsolete all the mediatorial devices of sacramental mystery. Once God has taken it upon himself to form his Logos into Flesh, it is nothing but an insulting high-handedness for us to choose to ignore that fleshly presence (the author calls it "receiving him not")--this in order to continue our chasing after "God" in the sacramental forms of abstract and mysterious Logos.

This reading of the Prologue becomes as much as certain once we discover that, starting here and running through the first six chapters of his book, the author continues to play variations on this theme his Prologue introduces. That theme can be stated thus:

Has Been Superseded and Displaced by
the NEW

this author, the NEW consistently is Jesus (always the historically actual Jesus and at points--as we already have seen--Jesus as FLESH). The OLD which the newness of Jesus regularly supersedes is Jewish sacramentalism (and by implication, all other sacramentalism as well). In a few instances (but only a few) the superseded OLD may be Judaism per se, or simply human existence outside of Christ. However, the special target is clearly sacramentalism, namely, whatever religious practices by which humans think to elevate themselves into communication with God in order to gain blessing from him.

Accordingly, keep in mind throughout our study that, although the work is presented in the form of Jesus opposing Jewish sacramentalism, the author's intention is surely that of opposing Christian sacramentalism. His book is meant for Christian readers, not particularly Jews.

Consider, then, verse 18 of the Prologue: None of these human attempts at "seeing God" has ever succeeded; it is only through Jesus that God has made himself fully known to us.

Jn. 1:1-18
In addition to this major statement that the NEW (Seeing God through the Flesh of Jesus) supersedes the OLD (Trying to See God through the Logos of Sacramental Mystery and Speculation), the Prologue also introduces the following sub-variants:
  1. The new Light supersedes the old Darkness (Jn. 1:4-9).
  2. Those who "receive him" and are thus "born of God" supersede those who "did not know him" and so are born only "of flesh and blood" (Jn. 1:10-13).
  3. The new of Jesus supersedes the old of John the Baptist (Jn. 1:6-8 & 15, with more to come later).
  4. The new "grace and truth" of Jesus supersede the old "law" of Moses (Jn. 1:17).
Jn. 1:19-34 (plus some still later John-the-Baptist material)
It is made emphatic that Jesus supersedes John the Baptist. However, I do not understand the text to be using John as a symbol of Judaism per se, nor of the whole of the OT tradition. No, as much as is made explicit is that Jesus supersedes John’s baptism. The Baptist says, "The one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, 'He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit'" (Jn. 1:33). See also the "baptize with water" references of 1:26 & 31. "Baptism with water" is a sacramental rite; "baptism with the Holy Spirit" is anything but. The difference is that water baptism is done at the initiative and in the power of human religion--whereas baptism of the Spirit happens solely at God's initiative and in his power.
[We need to notice, both here and throughout this study, how regularly the writer identifies the New/Jesus side of his equation as being also that of "the Spirit" (see not only 1:33 above, but also 3:5, 3:34, 4:23-24, 6:63). Thus, in this Gospel, "the Spirit" always is found along with Jesus in his historical "fleshliness." Never does the Spirit have anything to do with the "spiritual reality," "spiritual existence, " and "spirituality" that is so much a part of today's sacramental thought and practice.]
As noted earlier, the writer is here careful to omit telling us that Jesus underwent John's "baptism with water." To mention this might have left his account open to the implication that Jesus somehow needed (or at least was approving of) sacramentalist ritual. In Jn. 3:22-36, where we are told about a dispute over "purifying" (i.e., ritual purification), it is admitted that Jesus and his disciples were also baptizing with water. Yet certainly it is assumed that Jesus' water-baptism is something quite different from John's. The Baptist himself agrees, saying, "No one can receive anything except what is given him from heaven" (Jn. 1:27ff). Most likely the difference is that Jesus'--rather than being a ritual purification--is simply a human witness to and confirmation of God's peremptory baptism with the Spirit.
Jn. 2:1-11
The water-into-wine miracle is highlighted as being the first of Jesus’ "signs" to his disciples (Jn. 2:11). But a sign of what? Of the fact that the New supersedes the Old.
The strange and troublesome dialogue of Jn. 2:1-5 probably is meant to display the pattern. That Jesus' mother is addressed as "Woman" likely indicates that the scene is to be read with her as "Church-Mother" (Old Judaism) rather than simply as the biological mother of her child Jesus. She opens in the customary mother-role of trying to nudge her little boy into doing what she thinks he ought to do (which, of course, is just what the church of sacramental ritual also tries to do--namely, tell God when and for whom he is to perform his miracles of grace). Jesus' response is to the effect that such cannot be the nature of his relationship to the church; he will act only at the direct command of God and not at the nudging of the church. The new "freedom of God" which Jesus here represents supersedes the old human "channeling of God" represented by sacramental religion. And the Church-Mother graciously accedes to his wisdom.
Regarding the story proper then, any number of scholars have understood it as symbolizing the New Wine of the gospel of Jesus displacing the Old Water of Judaism. My only disagreement has to do with reading "Judaism" that broadly. Verse 6 specifies that the jars are for the water of "Jewish rites of purification." Again, it is only the old way of ritual sacramentalism that Jesus means to supersede--not necessarily Judaism per se.
Jn. 2:13-25
Indisputably, what Jesus here sets out to "cleanse" is not Judaism as a whole (with its synagogue worship, its study of the Scriptures, its moral law and teachings, its home-centered observance of Passover, and all). No, what the New of Jesus must supersede and cleanse is "the Temple"--the much more constricted arena of priestly sacrament and mystery.
The passage begins by talking about Jesus "cleansing" the temple, i.e. his superseding it. Yet it winds up talking about his "destroying" it, i.e. his displacing it. And when the text goes on to specify that the new temple he will raise up is in fact his own--well, there would seem no better way of saying that the New which Jesus himself is, that this New completely occupies (takes over, fills, and fulfills) the functional space which had previously been occupied by the Old of religious sacramentalism.
[Scholars pretty well agree that Jesus must have cleansed the temple only once--and that much more likely as the Synoptics have it, at the end of his career, rather than as the Fourth Gospel has it, at the beginning. Our study here provides a good argument as to why the author moved the scene--and why he brought it to the spot he did. His prime interest was theology rather than chronology. Immediately following his "sign" of the New displacing the Old (the water-into-wine miracle), he wanted his "one best example" of the New displacing the Old (Jesus cleansing the temple). Has anyone a suggestion as to how better he could have done it?]
Jn. 3:1-21
This "narrative fading into discourse" displays our theme in at least five variations. Not all of them identify the "Old" as being Judaism's sacramental cult--but several of them do.
  1. In Jn. 3:2, Nicodemus addresses Jesus as "Rabbi." In verse Jn. 3:10, Jesus calls Nicodemus "a teacher of Israel." This would make him at least the leading rabbi of the day ("teacher" being what the word "rabbi" means). Jn. 7:50 tells us that Nicodemus was also a member of the Sanhedrin (the Jewish governing body)--which is to say that he might have been a priest as well as a rabbi. Anyhow, Rabbi Nicodemus, representative of the best of old Judaism, clearly is superseded by Rabbi Jesus, the new teacher from God. This is the case even though Nicodemus has all the advantages of learning, recognition, culture, and experience--of which Jesus has none. Yet the rabbinical novice runs theological circles around the rabbinical master. The New, being directly from God, supersedes even the highest human religious attainment of the Old.
  2. The theme of being "born anew" is introduced in verse Jn. 3:3 and dominates the thought through verse 10. Jesus' new idea of "being born again" supersedes Nicodemus' old idea of "being born once, of a mother’s womb." Worded differently, this is Jesus' "what is born of the Spirit is spirit" superseding Nicodemus' "what is born of the flesh is flesh."
  3. In Jn. 3:5, Jesus specifies that the new birth must be "of water and the Spirit." The reference is likely to the water of baptism; yet the implication cannot be the sacramental one that baptism by water is a holy action which triggers the coming of the Spirit. No, verse Jn. 3:8 makes it too incontrovertible that the Spirit comes in God's freedom, utterly defying sacramental triggering, control, or even prediction. At most, the action of baptizing can be only our human acknowledgment of the Spirit God bestows on whom he will, when he will, as he will. Thus Jesus' water/Spirit baptismal birthing supersedes both Nicodemus' idea that "one birth is enough" as well as any sacramental effort to work "a second, spiritual birthing" for yourself. You must be born again--yet you can't determine and control your second birth any more than you could your first one.
  4. In Jn. 3:12-13 "heavenly things" supersede "earthly things"--yet much more is said than just this. Sacramentalism (of whatever sort) is at bottom a human effort to get at heavenly things. But it has never worked; "no one has ascended into heaven" is how Jesus puts it. Our access to heavenly things has come, rather, in the reverse movement of the Son of man who has descended in order to bring them to us. The new action of heavenly things being brought down to us entirely supersedes the old effort of our trying to get ourselves up to heavenly things.
  5. Jn. 3:16. Here I propose a reading that will lend an even deeper and richer luster to Jn. 3:16 (if such a thing can be thought possible). Yet that verse, I am fully convinced, was meant to be read as part of one of our "superseding passages" rather than pulled out simply as a memory verse (great as it may be in that regard). Follow carefully the exegesis of verses 14, 15, and 16:
    "And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness ..." The reference is to Num. 21:6-9. During their arduous trek of the exodus, the children of Israel had run into a swarm of fiery serpents. Upon being bitten, people were dying right and left. Moses was instructed to make a bronze model of one of these serpents and mount it upon a pole. If, then, even after being bitten, people could get a glimpse of this bronze serpent, their lives were spared.

    Archaeologists tell us that snake worship was popular in Egypt and among other peoples with whom Israel came in contact. The evidence is clear (2 Kings 18:3-4) that the Israelites took on at least some aspects of such worship--along with many other bad habits acquired from paganism. We don't know at what point Israel adopted its holy cult-object stance toward the bronze serpent; it could have been from the very outset. Yet even in that case, we ought not find it incredible that God should in fact respond positively to such a wrongheaded approach. Positively, for good, is just how God did respond not only in this case of the bronze serpent, but also to Israel&rsqio's misguided demand for a human monarch, to its building a temple God said he did not want, to the cult of animal sacrifice (which the prophets said God did not want), and on and on. If God were to hold out for our "right" approach before being willing to respond with his "good," very little if any of his good would ever have come our way.

    In any case, Moses' old (and perhaps even then sacramentalized) miracle of the bronze serpent has newly been superseded and displaced: "And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life."

    In that first instance, it was Moses who did the lifting up--of a bronze serpent on a pole--so that any snake-bitten Israelites who looked upon it might have their lives preserved (at least until they died from something else). However, in the new superseding case, it is God who does the lifting up; and what he lifts up is his only Son onto that pole which is the cross. (In this Fourth Gospel, Jesus’ being either "lifted up," or "glorified," regularly has reference to his crucifixion.) And now, whoever in faith looks upon this Lifted-Up One will not simply have his earthly life preserved for a time; he will receive what this Gospel calls "eternal life," a totally new quality of life that begins now and is completely invulnerable to any sort of death for ever more.

    But why should God even want to undertake such a stupendous and costly effort on behalf of people who have done absolutely nothing to deserve it? Answer: Because "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son [to be lifted up on the cross], that everyone who believes in him [looks upon the Lifted-Up One in faith] will not perish [as all those saved through Moses’ miracle eventually did] but have eternal life."

    As I said, Jn. 3:16 is much more than just the Bible's best memory verse. And what the New supersedes in this case is precisely the old sacramentalism of any "holy objects" such as the bronze serpent.
  6. In Jn. 3:17-21, the text opens by talking about old "condemnation" being superseded by new "salvation"--which it proceeds to transpose into old "darkness" and new "light." What is most striking is that the new light comes for the sake of everyone. No one is condemned to darkness; those still in it are there because they have preferred not to come to the light. Yet, why under the sun (better; "why, avoiding the sun") would anyone prefer not to come to the light?
  7. Jn. 3:20 gives what is undoubtedly the one answer: Those coming to the light will have to face up to what the light inevitably reveals--namely, their personal sin, wrongness, and inadequacy. Obviously there are people who choose to remain in darkness rather than have to give up the good self-image they so covet regarding themselves. Nonetheless, for whoever will choose it, the new light that has come in Jesus entirely supersedes and displaces anything and everything of old darkness.
Jn. 3:22-36
The author has another go at the John-the-Baptist theme introduced in his Chapter 1. As we already have noted, it is in this section he specifies that the New of Jesus’ non-sacramentalist Christian baptism displaces the Old of John's sacramentalist baptism. In Jn. 3:28-30, then, we are told that, in relation to the bride, the new groom takes precedence over the old friends of the groom (to which we say, "Let's hope so!"). And with Jn. 3:31ff, we are back to the figure of that which is of heaven superseding that which is of earth.
Jn. 4:1-42
The account here of Jesus and the Woman at the Well is a most explicit statement of our theme. In the dramatic portrayal it is the new, living water which Jesus offers to give the woman that supersedes the H2O well-water (the water of OT Jacob) which the woman gives him.
However, in the application (Jn. 4:16-26), the issue is that of old or new worship. For the woman and her old concept of worship, the question is that of correct sacramental cult. "Our mountain or their mountain?" actually identifies different holy places with different temples, different priests, different cults. "Who has it right, the Samaritans or the Jews?"
Jesus answers that, in effect, his new worship negates her question by overleaping the very idea of sacramental worship. In Jesus, Spirit-and-Truth worship is a new direct and immediate relationship to God that completely supersedes all the mediatorial methods of old sacramentalism.
In Jn. 4:31-38, another figure of speech is used to make the same point. Jesus himself now lives on a new "food" that is radically different from the old food the disciples think he should have. The New Food is again a direct and unmediated relationship of obedience to God. If the Old Food is meant to signify anything other than our normal means of human sustenance, we are not told what. In fact, this passage may perhaps best be understood as a setting the stage for the Bread of Life discourse that is to follow in another chapter or so.
Jn. 5:1-18
The issue here brought to the fore is that of Jewish Sabbath observance--a practice at least somewhat sacramental in character. But Jesus' new understanding of the Sabbath supersedes the understanding promulgated by the old Law. The distinction seems to be that made explicit by Jesus in the Synoptics: The old Law's command that "man is made for the Sabbath (and must obey its regulations, no matter what)"--this, Jesus gives the new reading that "the Sabbath is made for man." Whatever "working for man's salvation" that God does seven days a week, Jesus will do, too. And he invites us to join him.
Jn. 5:19-47
I find two specimens of our pattern in this discourse. Jn. 5:33-36 spot just one more instance of our earlier-noted "Jesus supersedes John the Baptist." But Jn. 5:39ff essentially give us: "The person of Jesus in the flesh takes precedence even over Scripture's witness to him." The old Jewish (and Christian) business of believing "the word of God" can itself be a sacramentalizing of Scripture, a making it into a holy object whose intrinsic value lies in the very believing of it. Yet it is here implied that even the old "believing of Scripture" is nothing worth--if one fails to use it as a step toward believing in the newness of Jesus himself.
Jn. 6:1-59
The author uses the narrative of Jesus' feeding the multitude as a lead-in to the discourse on the Bread of Life (Jn. 5:25-59); and it is upon the discourse attention is to focus. It comes across as climactic, the most complex and yet most powerful expression of the theme to be found (at least since the Prologue). My impression is that the author means for it also to conclude this section of the book and his deliberate pursuance of our theme.
After having provided the multitude with bread on one side of the Sea of Galilee, Jesus had sailed across to where the crowd eventually caught up with him on the other side. The discourse takes place between Jesus and this company of Jews in a Jewish synagogue (Jn. 6:59). In this instance, the Old that is Judaism is represented by Jesus' audience. Conversely, the New that is Jesus is represented by his own presence on the spot. The subject of the discourse between them is bread.
There is, then, a line of thought (a negatively pointed line of thought) which characterizes "The Old That Must Be Superseded":
  1. "The food which perishes"--and which Jesus says ought not be labored for (Jn. 6:27). This was the bread of the other side of the lake--of which the people now want more, it being the only bread in which they have any interest. The prime difficulty with this bread is that it doesn't last, that it each day has us back to zero.
  2. If Jesus has any better bread, what "sign" can he show in proving his ability to deliver? (Jn. 6:29-30). It is downright amusing--for them to come up with this just a day or so after he had miraculously fed them. But Jesus' bread has nothing to do with miraculous signs (including the signs of priestly eucharistic miracle?).
  3. How about the bread from heaven, the manna of Moses that fed our fathers in the wilderness? (Jn. 6:31-32). No, even that is too much of the Old to rate as the New Bread Jesus has in mind. With the manna, people still, in time, died. Yet there does actually exist a new Bread of Life.
  4. They said to him, "Lord, give us this bread always" (Jn. 6:34). Yet as soon as they discovered what would be entailed in the eating of that bread, they changed their minds in a hurry--deciding they wanted nothing of it, ever.
  5. The Jews murmured at him (Jn. 6:41). The Jews then disputed among themselves (Jn. 6:52). Many of his disciples, when they heard it, said, "This teaching is difficult" (Jn. 6: 60). After this many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him (Jn. 6:66).
The Old side of the equation shows up as a universally negative and absolutely bleak response. Yet, if what Jesus was offering was eucharistic bread, the holy sacrament of bread and cup, such negativity would be entirely unexplainable. Whenever has anyone been known to turn down an offer of this sort, to say anything other than "Lord, give us this bread always"? Jesus must be thinking of his bread as something quite new, quite other than old sacrament.
As we turn now to trace through the Jesus side of the discourse, we will find it progressing in perfect step, showing the intensification of Jesus' demand that well accounts for the growing resistance of the people (Jesus' own disciples as well as Jewish opponents, remember). It gradually becomes apparent that his "bread" is the very opposite of sacramental wonder and blessing.
  1. There is a bread from heaven, a bread of life, that is far superior to the food that perishes (for which you so futilely belabor yourselves). This bread is better even than Moses' manna which your fathers ate in the wilderness (Jn. 6:26-33). "Sir, give us this bread always."
  2. "I am the bread of life" (vs 35).

    "Well, that does put the matter in a somewhat different light. But if we were to grant your premise that you are the bread of life, just how would you suggest we go about eating it, appropriating the food value for ourselves?"

    There is no difficulty at all in finding Jesus’ answer to the question. Not only through this passage, but through this Gospel as a whole, the key idea is to believe on him, to have belief in him. Yet just what is meant by "belief"? That's the question. "Belief" will be quite different, depending upon the frame of reference in which one is thinking. For instance, if that frame of reference is a sacramental system, "belief" generally means assenting to whatever creed the priest asks you to assent to and partaking of the sacraments believing that they will do for you what the priest says they will. Church history rather clearly bears this out: the more sacrament-centered the church becomes, the more "belief" becomes a matter of very cheap grace. Indeed, with infant baptism the grace becomes cheapest yet. Because they are incapable of giving anything, nothing is asked of the recipients at all.

    Let’s try putting the matter in terms of Jesus’ own imagery: what would strike you as the most appropriate consistency and texture for a heavenly "bread of life"? "Well, if its as good as he says it is, one would think it should go down easy--be something like sponge cake, or perhaps theologically preferable, angel food cake." That seems to me to be quite accurate to human religious logic (and probably the very reason the one particular cake got the name "angel food"; it's heavenly!). And I now suggest that it was precisely to forestall such cheap-grace interpretations that Jesus proceeded to shift his image.
  3. The bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my FLESH (Jn. 6:51).

    With this, for the first and only time in his Gospel, the writer returns to his Prologue for its keyword FLESH. There, deliberately, it was meant to be offensive to all that preferred their religion on the level of abstract Logos. Here, just as deliberately, it is meant to be offensive to all that prefer to keep their religion on the cheap-grace level of twinkie sacraments.

    In the verses that follow, where Jesus talks about our eating his flesh, the Greek word translated "eat" is actually much stronger than that; it would better be read: "masticate," "chomp," "chew," or "gnaw." Quite definitely, the point is: for us to get the food value out of the bread of life which he is--that isn't going to be easy. We have here the concept Bonhoeffer spelled "c-o-s-t-l-y grace."

    Jesus, by the way, is not the first person to fight the cheap grace of sacramentalism. The classic Hebrew prophets carried the battle in their day. Micah, for instance, answered the question, "What does the Lord require of you?" by opining that he certainly does not require the sacrifices of priestly temple-cult: not burnt offerings, thousands of rams, ten thousands of rivers of oil (nor even eucharistic celebrations). No, what God requires is the costly discipleship of doing justice, practicing steadfast covenant-love, and walking humbly with God (Mic. 6:6-8).
  4. "The bread which I wil give for the life of the world is my flesh" (Jn. 6:51). The shift to the future tense ("the bread which will give") surely is not meant to say that the eating is postponed, that Jesus' hearers cannot count on getting his bread until that future time when he decides to give it. No, the phrase, I am confident, is meant simply to clarify and intensify the character of the "flesh" which the sentence is saying Jesus' bread is. "I will give" undoubtedly is a reference to the crucifixion, that event in which the flesh of Jesus plays its most costly and most meaningfu1 role.

    The sentence does not use the word "blood"; but the implication may be there in any case. When this bread is given for the life of the world it takes the form of bleeding flesh.
  5. In the verses that follow, then, when the talk is about our gnawing his flesh and drinking his blood, the "blood" is probably meant to be linked to the "gnawed flesh"--together underlining the earthly pain, trauma, and cost involved in the flesh of the crucified Jesus being bread for us. The biblical author is pre-writing what Bonhoeffer wrote only long centuries later: "What has cost God much cannot be cheap for us." If Jesus has died for us, we had better be ready to chew that flesh and drink that blood by dying with him (that, through his bread of life, we might also be raised with him, of course).
So I wouldn't try to deny that Jn. 6:53-56 carry deliberate hints of the eucharist. Yet, if so, they are ironic. For how could anyone think that "believing" in the sacramental efficacy of a cost-free ingesting of a bit of bread and wine has any sort of equivalence to the "faith" John 6 talks about, i.e. the so very costly discipleship of gnawing the flesh and drinking the blood of Jesus, which is a going with him through the fatal agonies of crucifixion?
With a final consideration, then, we will be content: If the passage was meant to suggest a sacramental-bread ritual, what possible grounds would there be for the Jews murmuring and many, even of his disciples, drawing back? Cheap grace is always as welcome as can be, has never been known to have offended anyone.
The NEW of Jesus has superseded all the OLD of sacramentalism--even, it is here hinted, the supposedly new eucharistic sacramentalism, which actually is old cheap-grace in Christian guise.

This chapter, on purpose, is of essentially negative value and did not set out to accomplish anything much. Consequently, it now can be seen as having done what it wanted to do--and that without our having to make any great claims for it. With succeeding chapters we will expound the positive recital aspects of baptism and the Lord's Supper. Yet now we are free to do that without fear that we have prejudicially ignored any great sacramental traditions within the New Testament. We have taken pains to show that none such are there. So, now, neither we nor the New Testament need spend more time being anti-sacramental; we are free to be entirely pro-recital.