For church last Sunday, I attended the Missouri Synod Lutheran church, its Sunday school class on patristic interpretations of the Gospel of John, and the “Pen” church.
Here are some summaries, followed by links:
A. At the Missouri Synod Lutheran church, we were celebrating Transfiguration Sunday. The youth pastor and the pastor were both discussing Christology. They said that Jesus as a human being on earth was still divine, but he was hiding his divinity from people; the youth pastor suggested that this was because a premature revelation of Jesus’ divinity would anger people and they would put him to death before his time. According to the youth pastor and the pastor, Jesus showed Peter, James, and John his divinity at the Transfiguration. The pastor likened that to the Eucharist: the Eucharist looks like a simple meal, if it can even be called a meal, for it is not enough food to fill one up. But divinity accompanies the elements of the Eucharist. The pastor also talked about God being present in the seemingly mundane things of life.
Similarly, at the Sunday school class, the teacher was saying that Jesus hid his divine nature in becoming fully human. Jesus still drew from it in doing miracles, however.
A while back, I wrote a blog post about J.R. Daniel Kirk’s A Man Attested by God, in which Kirk argues that the synoptic Gospels do not depict Jesus as pre-existent or ontologically divine when he was on earth. The post is here, in case you want to read it. Unfortunately, I did not refer to Kirk’s discussion of the Transfiguration. If my memory is correct, Kirk argued that, at the Transfiguration, Jesus was showing Peter, James, and John the glory that he would have after his resurrection, not any ontological divinity that he possessed.
Regarding Jesus doing miracles through his inherent divine nature, I referred in my Church Write-Up last week to passages in which Jesus does miracles through the power of his Father or the Holy Spirit (Matthew 12:28; John 5:31-38; 14:10; Acts 10:38); I noted, however, John 2:19, in which Jesus seems to affirm that he has the power to resurrect himself from the dead. Here is that post, if you want to read it. I wondered if there were ancient Christian thinkers, after the time of the New Testament, who acknowledged that Jesus performed miracles through the power of the Father or the Holy Spirit, as opposed to drawing on his own divine nature. I do not have an encyclopedic knowledge of patristics, but, in my post here a while back, I discussed the debate between Theodoret and Cyril of Alexandria: Cyril thought Jesus did miracles through his own divine nature, whereas Theodoret said Jesus performed them through the empowering of the Holy Spirit.
B. The Sunday school class talked a lot about the “real presence” of Christ in the Eucharist. We were reading patristic sermons about John 6, in which Jesus talks about how eating his flesh and drinking his blood brings a person eternal life. The sermons we were reading applied that, at least in part, to the elements of the Eucharist. An elderly woman then asked, “In light of this, why do Reformed people teach that the bread and the wine are merely symbols for Christ’s body and blood?”
The teacher replied that the teaching that the bread and the wine are merely symbolic originated after the sixteenth century, whereas, before then, the widespread Christian position was that Christ was actually present in the bread and the wine. He stated that the Catholics, the Lutherans, the Anglicans, and the Orthodox are very similar on the Eucharist. Luther differed slightly from the Catholics, the teacher said, in that the Catholics believed that the bread and the wine literally became the body and blood of Christ, whereas Luther thought that, on some level, they remained bread and wine, even though they were connected to the spiritual.
The class then talked about what the church did to leftover elements of the Eucharist. One practice that some Lutheran churches perform is to send the wine back to the earth. That reminded me of what my Grandpa did when our family observed the Lord’s supper every year: he would burn the leftover matzos. We did not believe in the “real presence” but saw the Lord’s supper as commemorative, but my Grandpa’s idea was that the bread was holy and could only be used for holy purposes.
My understanding is that Zwingli believed that the bread and the wine of communion were symbolic, and Zwingli lived during, not after, the sixteenth century. Still, I wondered if the belief in the real presence was the universal belief until the Reformation.
Here are some links, some more scholarly than others:
In this post, Nathan Busenitz, whose book Long Before Luther I wrote about here, cites patristic statements that he believes support the view that the elements of the Eucharist are symbolic and commemorative; he states that Catholic apologists misunderstand the patristic passages that appear to support a “real presence” in the elements of the Eucharist. Meanwhile, some Catholics in the comments section accuse him of misunderstanding. And this Catholic article trots out patristic statements, from many of the same people whom Busenitz cites, that appears to support Christ’s “real presence” in the Eucharist. Could the reality be that they believed in both/and, or does one view preclude the other?
I wondered if the Waldensians of the twelfth-thirteenth centuries believed in the “real presence.” The reason that they came to mind was due to my Armstrongite heritage, which depicted them as part of the “true church” in the medieval era. What I found was different people saying different things. Here and here, one can read the view that the Waldensians rejected transubstantiation. Here, one can read the view that they believed in it.
Another comment on this issue: I think that, in John 6, eating Christ’s flesh and drinking his blood relates to believing in Jesus and coming to him, not so much the Eucharist. I believe that on the basis of v 35: “And Jesus said unto them, I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst.” But I can understand that other Christians interpret eating Christ’s flesh and drinking his blood in John 6 in light of New Testament passages about the Lord’s supper, which call the bread Jesus’ body and the wine his blood (Matthew 26:26-28; Mark 14:22-24; Luke 22:19-20; I Corinthians 10:16; 11:24-27).
A question: Does the Missouri Synod believe that communion services that do not believe in the “real presence” can still contain the “real presence” and be legitimate communion services?
C. At the “Pen” church, the pastor preached about abiding love. His focus was on marriage and romance. He said that there are three Greek words for love: eros is romantic and sexual love; phileo is a friendly love that contains give-and-take but can break down under pressure; agape is self-sacrificial love that is concerned about the well-being of the other person. The pastor said that we practice agape when we grasp God’s love towards us: that God will stay with us and will never leave. That way, we are filled, and our love spills out towards others. Many of us, by contrast, run on empty and the slightest thing can set us off.
Some links and thoughts:
Many evangelical preachers, writers, and laypeople assume that there is a difference between phileo and agape, when, in reality, they were often used interchangeably. See my post here. Still, I appreciate what the pastor was saying. There are relationships out there that are give-and-take. There are relationships out there that are brittle. Hopefully, there are also relationships out there that are solid, and disinterested love is a real thing.
I recalled a sermon that a United Methodist pastor preached about three years ago, about the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). He said that the man who asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?”, did not necessarily have sinister motives. He was just wondering something: did he have to pour out agape love on every single person, or could he do so with a few select people? I have heard Christians casually say that we are supposed to “love everybody,” but can we? Can we truly have a selfless, sacrificial, giving love towards everyone, even everyone we know? Would we not naturally show that love to some over others? On the other hand, I am not suggesting that we should only love our friends and family and forget about the outside world. Anyway, I wrote about that sermon here, and you can read there my other thoughts about that sermon.
Finally, can I believe in God’s unconditional love for me? That is difficult. I can try, but, before long, some Christian will come along and say or imply that God loves me if I behave, or that I cannot use God’s love as cover for sinning, or not forgiving, or not loving my neighbor. Then there are biblical passages about God leaving those who deny or forsake him (II Chronicles 15:2; II Timothy 2:12). And yet, the Bible is a record of God’s faithfulness: God provides for Adam and Eve after their sin; God is faithful to disobedient Israel; Christ dies for people while they are yet sinners.