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“So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you (John 6:53).”
Someone pointed out how strange Christianity is in regards to this idea. That we are to eat his flesh and drink his blood. Some try to take it a purely symbolic. I would argue that isn’t the case. And historically, no one believed it for 1600 years, except maybe one tiny early heretical sect who had an agenda in denying the incarnation happened. In particular there was one group called the Docetists.
Docetism was a heresy which came up pretty early in Church history. Docetism was a branch of Gnostic philosophy. Gnosticism taught that the material world was evil or worthless, and only the spiritual was valuable. Salvation then was freedom from the physical. One needed to be part of the few who received the secret knowledge needed in order to be saved. In fact, that it was where the word Gnostic comes from, the Greek for knowledge, “Gnosis.” Salvation is by the mind, to escape the body. Now think, if you were trying to mesh Gnosticism with Christianity, what would be one of your biggest problems? The incarnation of course. How could the divine take on human flesh? Matter is evil or worthless, not fitting of the divine! So then, it must be that Christ didn’t really incarnate. He didn’t have a physical body, what was visible only looked like a body wasn’t. One can say that “this is Christ” but it isn’t really. The reality of Christ is purely spiritual. That is the heresy of Docetism.
This connection of Gnosticism with the denial of sacraments was present in the early Church, as Ignatius a student of the Apostle John and third Bishop of Antioch wrote “Take note of those who hold heterodox [speaking of the Doecetists] opinions on the grace of Jesus Christ which has come to us, and see how contrary their opinions are to the mind of God. . . . They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, flesh which suffered for our sins and which that Father, in his goodness, raised up again. They who deny the gift of God are perishing in their disputes” (Letter to the Smyrnaeans 6:2–7:1 [A.D. 110]).”
In fact it has long been held that John wrote his first Epistle in order to counter these gnostic heresies that were spreading. Look how he opens it up:
“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. (1 John 1:1-2 NIV)”
“Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world. (1 John 4:1-3 NIV).”
It seems highly improbable to me that the mainstream early churches which had Apostolic foundations and succession all happened to get it wrong when it came to the Sacraments. Something as important as to whether or not these were symbolic, would have been explained by the Apostles to their disciples. The evidence that they did not teach a symbolic sacrament seems to me to be so strong, that its denial is akin to those who say somehow all the New Testament texts had been corrupted and no one caught on. In fact, if the “real” Christians, before the supposed corruption, did believe in a non-literal view of Baptism and the Eucharist, then they have been awfully quiet about it. Since the only records of people saying otherwise, come mostly from heretical groups, which deny the core and established doctrines that many Christians would hold.
So then why eat Christ’s flesh and drinking his blood? The idea is that food, gives sustenance and provides the make up of what we are and life that we need. Aka, you are what you eat. In short Christianity deals with answering the problem of separation by the unity of Christ’s incarnation. Separation God (broken fellowship), our fellow man (not loving them as we ought, but even having good relationships separated by death), ourselves (our inner struggles and conflicts) and separation from our soul and body, resulting in death. God intended that all of these things be united, but sin and death separated them.
The sacraments (in this case the Eucharist) touches on the last part. God intended that spirit and physical world work as one. In a glorified state, aka we were created to participate in God’s own divine life. And all of creation is supposed to be perfected too. Christ at his incarnation healed human nature, and demonstrated this by defeating death and displaying what a glorified humanity looks like. Since we are both soul and body That’s why we partake of his flesh and blood. Since by eating of his glorified nature, we partake in it and are transformed by it. Being prepared for the future world/creation. We are receiving a spiritual blessing through physical means (bread and wine) because God things physicality is good. And wants matter and spirit to work as one in perfection.
In the new world when Christ returns, there will be great resurrection. The physical and spiritual realities will merge, each retaining its fundamental identity, but operating together in a new way. The sacraments of the Church are thus this new future reality, being brought forward and manifest into the present. Because Christ is the beginning of this new creation, this new humanity. So being united to Christ in baptism and being renewed by partaking of his flesh and blood in the Eucharist, we are participating in this new creation reality. And are by virtue of this mystical union, one with Christ, and one with each other. And thus one body. Bringing back the unity of all things that God first intended. But what will in the future be open and clear, we now take and accept by faith.
This doesn’t mean that everyone is personally reconciled to God in the end. But there a universal salvation of human nature that does apply to all people.
We see scripture tell us that Christ is the cause, sustainer and end (telos/design) of all things (Colossians 1:16-20). And the end which all things were to find in Christ was determined by God to be incarnational (Ephesians 1:9-11).
So Orthodoxy teaches that creation and all of mankind is redeemed precisely by Christ becoming man and by virtue of creation being united to Christ, in this union of the Logos with human nature. In other words, all creation is connected the body of Christ. That is how all mankind is rescued from death and brought to the final resurrection.
“For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. (1 Corinthians 15:21-23 NIV)”
Paul is saying that in Adam all people die, in Christ all are raised, but then he goes on to emphasise the salvation of the Church. Because salvation takes parts on two levels, on the level of nature, and on the level of person. All are raised by the work of Christ and given immortality (their nature is preserved). But not all synergistically co-operate with the grace now available to them, bringing their person in right relationship to God (personal salvation).
Everyone is in a sense united to Christ’s body. Otherwise they would not be preserved. And yet Christ still offers us His body to partake of in the Eucharist. And his glorified human body is still a visible and real body. So the question of salvation here is now about ones personal orientation to God. Which requires synergistic response and co-operation with grace. The fullness of which is concentrated in the Church. Christ’s body.