A member of our congregation received an email from a Roman Catholic friend who said the Roman Catholic Church is the only true church because the Catholic Church alone teaches the physical body of Christ is present in the Lord’s Supper as taught in The Gospel of John, chapter 6. This sister in Christ is referring to the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation which says the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper literally turn into the body and blood of Christ. The implication of her statement is, “Your church is bad. You should leave it and join our church.” In this essay I will endeavor to show why the Catholic interpretation of John 6 in regards to the Lord’s Supper is wrong and therefore cannot be used as an argument for the perfection of the Catholic Church that compels Protestants to leave their churches.
One of the big themes in the Gospel of John is that people took Jesus’ teaching too literally and thus missed the spiritual point he was trying to make. Jesus says that to truly understand his teaching, you must look through his literal metaphors to see the spiritual meaning behind them.
For example, in John 3 Nicodemus was about to reject Jesus because he tried to understand Jesus’ metaphor about being born again too literally. Nicodemus said, “Must a man crawl into his mother’s womb again!” Jesus said, “No, I’m talking about spiritual rebirth. When I said you must be born again, I was using a physical metaphor to represent a spiritual reality.”
Another example is found in John 2 where Jesus said, “I am going to tear down the temple and rebuild it in 3 days.” The crowd couldn’t understand this teaching because they took it literally. They said, “It took 46 years to build this temple. He can’t do it in 3 days!” The text then tells us that the crowd misunderstood Jesus. Jesus was really talking about his body being “torn down” in his death and being “rebuilt” in his resurrection. He was just using the temple as a metaphor.
This theme arises over and over and over again in the Gospel of John. The person of faith is able to see the spiritual reality behind Jesus’ metaphors whereas the unbeliever stumbles over the literal sense of his words.
Thus when we get to John 6, we find that the people rejected Jesus because they interpreted his words about” eating his flesh” literally. They thought it was gross that he was going to make them “eat his physical body”. Jesus tries to correct their literalism. He says, “Does this offend you? The Spirit gives life but the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit.” In other words, “If I was speaking about eating my physical flesh, then I would be saying nothing, but that is not my point. I am talking about the spiritual world and using my flesh as a metaphor. As long as you keep focusing on my physical flesh, you will never understand what I am talking about.”
Jesus’ says the crowd couldn’t see the spiritual meaning of his words because they stumbled over the literal metaphor. In other words, they made the same interpretive error that our Catholic brothers and sisters make when they say the elements of the Lord’s Supper turn literally into the body and blood of Christ. Ironically, in the very passage they use to support their doctrine of transubstantiation, Jesus goes out of his way to say such an interpretation completely misses the point of his teaching.
If a Roman Catholic is going to try and get a Protestant to leave the Protestant church by saying the proof of the Roman Catholic Church’s perfection is found in their interpretation of John 6 on the Lord’s Supper, then I must say the exact opposite is true. John 6 actually contradicts the Catholic doctrine of the Lord’s Supper.
Our Catholic sister’s email added that Jesus’ words for “eat” literally mean “gnaw or chew.” They are very graphic and thus cannot be taken spiritually she argues. I would respectfully disagree with my sister. Every human word can be used metaphorically. I know of no teacher of literature of any type that would say the graphic words of a language can never be used symbolically.
I would quickly note that I am not saying that Catholics aren’t Christians because they make the same interpretive error as those that reject Jesus. While the Catholic church takes Jesus’ words wrongly by interpreting them literally in John 6, they do understand and believe the spiritual content of the words: that the Lord’s Supper represents what Jesus did for us on the cross and that we must believe in that work to receive eternal life. The crowds that rejected Jesus never got this far. I merely make the point that their interpretation of John 6 is inaccurate and therefore it cannot be used to prove their superiority to Protestantism and that Protestants must therefore leave their churches to join the Roman Catholic Church.