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After SVS 2010: Matt Croasmun, The Cross, Eucharist, and Imitation in the Gospel of John

Today is our final installment. After SVS 2010 is an extended dialogue with presenters from the first annual Society of Vineyard Scholars conference, held Feb 11-13, 2010. Monday through Friday until March 26th we’ll profile an SVS presenter and dialogue with them around their paper. Click here for a brief intro and link directory of the series. Full text of papers are available to SVS members.

Matt Croasmun: “The Cross, Eucharist, and Imitation in the Gospel of John”

This paper consists of two parts. The first is an exegetical exploration of the “missing Eucharist” narrative and peculiar chronology of the passion narrative in the Gospel of John in a literary-canonical mode. Here, it is shown that the Gospel of John indeed includes a Eucharistic narrative and that this event takes when it does in the Synoptic accounts, though, in John’s chronology, Eucharist happens on the cross, as Jesus eats his food (bringing to completion the work of the One who sent Him) and drinks the cup which He obediently receives at Gethsemane. Using the foot-washing narrative as a lens through which to interpret this displaced Eucharist, the mimetic significance of Jesus’ death and His Eucharist is contrasted with the mnemonic function of Eucharist in the Lucan-Pauline tradition. The second part of the paper considers the systematic coherence afforded Vineyard theology as a whole in emphasizing the mimetic function of Jesus’ death. Here, it is noted that Johannine texts have long served as the source for the Vineyard’s basic mimetic stance towards the ministry of Jesus: that is, the Vineyard reading of the gospels has been a call to Johannine imitation of the Synoptic Jesus. The exclusion of the Cross from this exegetical program is a result of a confusion regarding the inimitable nature of Jesus’ death, understood exclusively as once-for-all atoning sacrifice. Receiving from John a Eucharistic theology that regularly invites us into imitation of Jesus’ obedience to the will of the Father and self-lowering love of others exhibited on the Cross promises to bring greater systematic unity to the Vineyard’s hermeneutical strategy in the gospels and to provide the Cross a more central place in the movement’s theology as a whole.

Q: How did you become interested in your topic?

A: Several years ago, before I started Divinity School, I sat in on Harry Attridge’s course on the exegesis of the Fourth Gospel. Harry has substantial interest in the sacramental theology of this text. And, of course, the key problem with thinking about sacraments—especially Eucharist—in John is that there is no institution narrative. So we puzzled over this problem quite a lot in that course and I remember continuing to puzzle over it long after.

Around the same time, I was reading Bill Jackson’s history of the Vineyard church and noted there that the Vineyard had taken some flack for not teaching the Cross as much as the critics would have liked. I suppose it’s a sign of the times, but I’m really interested in the ways that larger narratives frame and in some sense control our theological reflection. So, in thinking about the problem Bill Jackson had highlighted, it occurred to me that perhaps integral to this problem was the Vineyard’s narrative of the Kingdom. Was there something about the way the Vineyard was understanding the Kingdom that left the cross on the sideline? When I went and read the Vineyard Statement of Faith, my suspicions only grew. Eventually, I stumbled upon the possibility that it is the radical imitation of Jesus (which is really the heart of Wimber’s hermeneutic of the gospels) that could provide the “hook” in the Vineyard’s meta-narrative on which to hang a distinctively Vineyard—distinctively “Kingdom”—theology of the cross.

The last piece of the puzzle for me is the methodological approach I’m trying to take in the paper. A mentor and friend of mine gave me Stephen Moore’s God’s Gym to read when I was in Divinity School. Of course, Moore’s conclusions are profoundly troubling—though, I think worth wrestling with. But I found his method of interpretation absolutely exhilarating. It was playful, it was deadly serious at times. It broke down the walls of historical criticism that have always seemed fundamentally out of touch with the ways that actual people of faith read the biblical text and encounter God there. So, I guess I wanted to try my hand at something that might skew toward the “literary” in approach. Interestingly, I was surprised at how little push back I got on this at the SVS conference. I thought for sure some large number of folks would want to skewer me for going right at the fissures in the biblical text, making much of them, and playing out their tensions exclusively in a stubbornly non-historical, literary way. Does this count as “exegesis”? Is “exegesis” a good description of what people of faith are actually after in their encounter with God in the biblical text to begin with?

Q: How do you think your paper is relevant to the Vineyard movement at large?

A: First, on the meta-level, I think the paper is relevant inasmuch as it might serve as a invitation to further reflection on the Kingdom and the Cross. How does the Cross fit into the Vineyard’s narrative of the Kingdom? I think I’ve offered a textual way into something like an answer to this question, but, presumably, there are others.

Second, in terms of the specific answer I offer, I really do think that it’s crucial when we talk about “doing the stuff” to consider Jesus’ death as an integral part of “the stuff” that Jesus was doing. We need to anticipate that imitation of Christ’s rejection, humiliation, and death is an integral part of imitatio Christi. I suggested in broad strokes in my paper that this mostly looks like self-lowering love of others; obviously, there’s so much more to explore there. A necessary caveat to that—the response I should have given to the excellent question posed from the feminist point of view—is that, of course, Jesus’ death is precisely also His exaltation—John uses the pun on Jesus being “lifted up.” So our imitation of Christ in his death is not fundamentally self-destructive; it is our salvation and access to true power and authority.

Q: What do you think might be the practical implications of what you’re exploring?

A: In our church, we’ve changed some of the ways we do communion. First of all, we take communion every week—partly because we want to make sure that the cross is shaping everything we do and are becoming. We receive communion right after the sermon, which has given us the discipline of having to have every talk land us back at the foot of the cross. At the same time, because we do communion every week, we have freedom to let the invitation to the table look radically different from week to week. That’s been a great practice for us. And, certainly, a fair number of communion invitations in our church are invitations to imitate, rather than simply “remember.”

Matt will be available for questions and interaction in the comments below


Matt Croasmun lives in New Haven, Connecticut and is a PhD student in the Religious Studies Department at Yale University. He is studying New Testament, focusing on mythological language in the Pauline epistles. He has been in the Vineyard for 12 years, serving in worship and youth ministry, and helped to plant the Elm City Vineyard in New Haven where he and his wife Hannah provide senior leadership.

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  1. matt, i thought the both/and reminder of mimetic and remembrance aspects are truly important.

    the gospel of John has been in my thoughts lately, and i think the imitation aspects and the cross dovetail with what i was getting at in a recent post on a missiological pneumatology from John: http://deepchurch.org.uk/2010/03/25/come-holy-spirit-engaging-a-missiological-pneumatology/

    question: i think this is terribly important to engage people in creative and redemptively imaginative ways, because too often we think of imitation as rote and not a place for re-imagining imitation…besides re-engaging communion, are there others ways that your community have tried to embody a theologia crucis?

  2. Thanks for your paper Matt, I really enjoyed it!

    I have actually pulled some thoughts from it recently in some sermons…

    I really enjoyed the part of your paper that you were expecting to evoke crowds with stones… ;-)

    Thinking through the specific theological reflections of one Gospel author written intentionally over the backdrop of the other authors theological visions… marvelous! I think it helps to illuminate just what Scripture is, and how we should be reading it.

  3. Matt Croasmun says:

    @ Steve Hamilton

    Thanks for the comments. I definitely hear what you’re saying re: imitation. Obviously, there’s so much more there than eucharistic theology.

    It’s a hard thing to talk about, because I suppose in a certain sense, the cross is so central to Christian theology that we desire to describe anything we do in the church as a cruciform in some sense. Works of justice are cruciform, inasmuch as they require aligning ourselves with the weak, with those who have been rejected by society.

    These, of course, are grand, celebrated actions of the reawakening American Church. But, of course, the smaller activities of the Christian life are also fundamentally cruciform: loving those who are hard to love, putting others before oneself. These are mundane but crucial, right? I often remark in our church that often I’m more certain I’d be willing to die for my wife than I’d be to do an extra set of dishes…

    I think the fundamental way that we’ve talked about cruciform living has been simply in terms of obedience. Taking Paul’s emphasis on Christ’s obedience as central to the significance of Christ’s death (e.g. Phil 2), we’ve understood that obedience to the will of the Father in the face of opposition (whether at the political/social or interpersonal level) is the essence of cruciform imitation.

  4. Josh Hopping says:

    The first thing I thought about when I read your Abstract was the difference between the modern and postmodern worldview. i.e. John’s Eucharist was more about what Jesus did (postmodern meganarrative) versus what He said (modern facts).

    Maybe I’m crossing wires here…but that’s what popped into my head. =/

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