As Jesus presses the bread of life metaphor in John 6, most attentive readers will begin to think about the Last Supper. In both situations, Jesus makes an identification between himself and bread. Moreover, he calls on those around him to eat. To be sure, the original hearers of the bread of life discourse would not have had the Lord’s Supper in mind, but we who benefit from the fullness of revelation can make careful connections. So, in light of the connections, it’s worth reflecting on how the bread of life discourse informs the Lord’s Supper, and vice versa. I’ll make three points of connection.
First, the Lord’s Supper is more than a memorial. It is certainly true that Jesus said at the Last Supper, “Do this in remembrance of me.” Thus, the Lord’s Supper is not less than a memorial of the death of Christ. But it is also more than a mere memorial. And here is where John 6 informs our practice of the Lord’s Supper. In John 6, Jesus presents himself as the bread of life which provides lasting and sufficient nourishment for those who feed on it.
This means that the Lord’s Supper is a participation in the life of Christ himself. Picking up on the connection between John 6 and the Lord’s Supper, John Calvin says that this sacrament is “a spiritual banquet, wherein Christ attests himself to be the life-giving bread, upon which our souls feed unto true and blessed immortality [John 6:51]” (Institutes, 4.XVII.1). Thus, feeding on Christ is like eating bread in that just as bread nourishes the body of those who eat it, so Christ nourishes the souls of those who eat him. It is Jesus’ words in John 6 that help us to appreciate how eating the bread, which signifies his sacrificial body, go beyond mere memorial, for participation in the sacrament is participation in Christ’s very life.
Second, the Lord’s Supper is not an actual sacrifice. To balance the above point, we must remember that Jesus is clear in John 6 that he is making a spiritual point with a physical metaphor. Calvin says that “from the physical things set forth in the Sacrament we are led by a sort of analogy to spiritual things” (Institutes, 4.XVII.3). The connection between John 6 and the Lord’s Supper is mediated by Christ’s cross, which is the actual sacrifice to which both ideas point.
This observation constrains the connection between John 6 and the Lord’s Supper so that we don’t promote a kind of continuous offering up of Christ as a sacrifice. Christ’s flesh is not pulled forward through time for us to eat at the Lord’s Table. If that were the case, then the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ would lose its definitive nature as the act of his sacrifice is smeared across the timeline of history.
But instead of reaching back to pull forward the flesh of Christ on the cross to the sacrament, others might reach up and pull down the ascended Lord’s flesh for participation so that his physical presence is in, with, and under the bread. This brings me to my final point: the Lord’s Supper is real spiritual communion with Christ. Christ’s flesh is not pulled down from heaven for us every time we come to the Lord’s Table. Such a view does violence to the solidarity of Christ and his people, for if the flesh of his human nature were something other than the flesh of our human nature, how could we appeal to Christ now as our brother?
But at the same time, we do not want to give up the presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper, for doing so points us back towards the Supper as a mere memorial and undercuts Christ’s intentional use of the physical metaphor of eating his flesh and drinking his blood.
For this reason, it is better to maintain that our participation in Christ’s flesh and blood is a real spiritual communion though not a physical communion. Once more, Calvin is helpful: “the Lord bestows this benefit [that is, his life] upon us through his Spirit so that we may be made one in body, spirit, and soul with him. The bond of this connection is therefore the Spirit of Christ, with whom we are joined in unity, and is like a channel through which all that Christ himself is and has is conveyed to us” (Institutes, 4.XVII.12). Calvin’s approach best reflects the significance of the metaphor in John 6 but also the spiritual reality attached to it and made explicit by Christ when he said to his disciples, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (John 6:63 ESV).