Sacraments in John’s Gospel

The fourth gospel does not include the “words of institution” at Jesus’ last supper, and it does not tell us that Jesus was baptized. Nevertheless, the Gospel of John is the most “sacramental” of the four canonical gospels.

Water, bread and wine frequently appear in the John’s gospel of signs. John baptizes in water, and so does Jesus. At Jesus’ command, wine is drawn from the jars of water used in cleansing rituals. Jesus tells Nicodemus that one must be born of water and the spirit. Jesus offers living water to a woman at a well in Samaria; at the Festival of Tabernacles he promises that rivers of living water will flow from disciples’ hearts. At Jesus’ command, a man born blind gains his sight after washing in the pool of Siloam. His disciples must bathe – and have their feet washed – before they may share the table with him.

Jesus feeds a multitude with a little bread and fish, and then explains that he is the bread from heaven. His flesh is like the manna with which God fed the Israelites in the desert. People must eat his flesh and drink his blood to live forever. He is the grapevine to which one must remain connected.

Some allusions are clear; some are only wisps of an idea. Did John really mean that? Christians who know and live the sacraments will see sacramental allusions in places that others might not. Blood and water flowed from his side on the cross; Jesus’ death is the foundation of the church’s sacramental life. Jesus says that when he is lifted up, he will draw all men to himself – lifted up, as on the cross – lifted up, perhaps, as the bread of communion ritual (and perhaps the Passover Seder before it).

The word “sacrament,” to be sure, is a bit of an anachronism. The author of John would have not used that word; no one in the apostolic era would have. The Gospel of John is not Catholic, Reformed or Baptist in its understanding of baptism or communion because those theologies did not yet exist. Knowing Philo is more central to interpreting John than knowing Thomas or Calvin. There are, in fact, multiple streams of ancient tradition that contributed to John’s unique way of looking at the life of Jesus.

John is clearly different than the synoptic gospels in his basic theological outlook. He brings a heaven-and-earth perspective to the life of Jesus that the synoptics do not share. John is more spatially oriented – above and below – and less temporally oriented. Ordinary human events signify and participate in heavenly realities. Like Isaiah in worshipping in the temple, John sees something more in human events than human eyes can see. And where Isaiah experienced a one-time theophany, John saw the glorious “real presence” of the divine throughout the life of Jesus and in the life of the church that worships him. The fourth gospel shares this perspective with the apocalypse that also bears John’s name. While John maintains an expectation that the kingdom will come at the end of the age, John emphasizes that “the time is coming, and already is” in Jesus. Jesus is a man who weeps and thirsts, but he is also the eternal logos, one in being with the Father. Both those who met Jesus in Jerusalem and those who worshipped him in Ephesus encountered the glorious, eternal God in heaven.

None of the New Testament authors had a full-blown sacramental theology; the New Testament church did, however, practice baptism and communion. I take it as a basic fact that John’s readers knew baptism and communion as church rituals rooted in the life of Jesus. The synoptic gospels, the book of Acts and the writings of Paul all reveal that baptism and communion were widely known within the church and connected with the Jesus tradition. Given the late date of John’s gospel, and the widespread practice of baptism and communion in the church, it seems highly unlikely that John was ignorant of the Jesus tradition associated with these rites.

Given that fact, some have argued that John’s gospel is intentionally anti-sacramental – that John spiritualized the church’s rituals and thereby stood apart from the mainstream of church tradition. John, some assert, wanted to downplay the physical acts of baptism and communion by removing their origins from the story of Jesus’ life. In this view, John had no use for the physical rituals of baptism and communion; God’s acts are purely spiritual.

Several elements of John’s writing are hard to incorporate into an anti-sacramental view of the fourth gospel. If John’s readers knew that most Christians ate and drank the Lord’s supper as a memorial of Christ’s body and blood, how could they take the words of John 6:53-55 as anything other than an endorsement of the sacrament of communion?

Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them.

Certainly John sees deeper and broader significance in Jesus as the bread of heaven, but the reader also hears a resounding echo of the words of institution and the ordinary practice of the Lord’s Supper. Those who share the Lord’s table have eternal life, and those who are separated from the Lord’s table are separated from life. Those who share the Lord’s table are spiritually nourished. Sharing the Lord’s table is the way – or at least a way – to remain united to him.

John’s gospel is also the only one that tells us that Jesus and his disciples baptized. The story of Nicodemus ends with John telling us that Jesus and his disciples baptized, and the story of the woman of the well begins with John telling us something very similar.

Furthermore, it can hardly be said that John has no interest in ritual. His interest in Jewish ritual is obvious. Many of Jesus’ great speeches take place during the great festivals of the Jewish year. The meaning of Jesus’ words depends on the hearers knowing and understanding the meaning of the festival they are observing.

When I say that the Gospel of John is the most “sacramental” of the gospels, I don’t mean that it proves any particular theory of the sacraments. What I mean is that John wasn’t particularly concerned with the question, “Why do we practice baptism and communion?” He was more focused on what the sacraments signify than how they came to be. He didn’t need to defend the sacraments or explain the sacraments, but in them he did see aspects of God’s glorious presence in Jesus. If John saw heavenly realities in the human events of Jesus’ life, it’s not surprising that he would also see heavenly realities in the church’s worship of Jesus, worship that included the rituals of baptism and communion. In John’s telling, all of Jesus’ life and teaching is infused with sacramental imagery.

John saw the life of Christ in the sacraments, and the sacraments in the life of Christ. He saw the waters of baptism in miracle at a wedding party, a conversation with an old Pharisee and an encounter by a Samaritan well. He saw the elements of Holy Communion in the same wedding miracle, and in a miracle with loaves and fishes.

These miracles are signs which point to the deeper significance of the sacramental rituals. Ancient Jewish and early Christian baptismal practices required (or at least favored) the use of “living water”; Jesus himself is the spring of living water. Communion involved the use of bread and wine. Jesus himself is the bread and the vine. The Holy Spirit is the power behind the church’s sacramental reality, and Jesus himself is the content.