Today’s passage is the Gospel reading from the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time, the 12th Sunday after Pentecost. It is the fourth of five Sunday readings on John chapter 6. We began John chapter 6 with the miracle of the five loaves and two fishes. We have already heard Jesus preach that he is the “Bread of Life.” He has also told the crowd that bread that Jesus gives is his own “flesh,” which he offers “for the rest of the world.”
Jesus Offers his “Flesh” (Life) for the Salvation of Others
In John 6, Jesus states that he offers his life for the salvation of others. But he does this without specifically mentioning his own death. That would be base, and he does not want to exploit the emotions of the crowd. He does say that his own ‘flesh’ and ‘blood’ are the ‘bread’ that will offer eternal life, so that he hints at the idea that salvation comes through his victory on the cross. Compare this imagery to the message in the Last Supper narratives in the Synoptics (Mt 26:28; Mk 14:24; Luke 22:20). There, Jesus is more specific. On the eve of Calvary, Jesus says his blood will be shed for “you” or for “the forgiveness of the sins of others.”
Unexpectedly, John’s Gospel shifts his Eucharistic theology here, to chapter 6, and in a context outside the Last Supper. John’s Last Supper narrative is quite extensive. At the Last Supper in John’s Gospel, Jesus preaches on a different matter: the relationship between Jesus, the Father, the Holy Spirit, and his disciples.
Why does John shift the eucharistic theology to chapter 6 (and chapter 21)? For starters, John does a few other things in his Gospel that are unusual. He never identifies himself by his given name, preferring instead the “beloved disciple” or the “disciple that Jesus loved.” John never identifies the mother of Jesus by her given name, either. If we consider that John omits his own name, the name of the mother of Jesus, and the blessing of bread and wine at the Last Supper, we can fairly conclude that John writes for a church that is experiencing, or that he fears will soon experience, persecution.
This thesis is further strengthened by John’s very favorable treatment of Peter in chapter 21. Chapter twenty-one is, in one sense a eulogy or tribute to Peter. This is the man John once looked up to with a mix of admiration, jealousy, and at times, genuine curiosity. John makes sure, in the final chapter of his Gospel, that we all understand that Peter was restored to Christ’s good graces (and that John himself witnessed this restoration). No doubt John wrote this after hearing, with much sorrow and disappointment, of the news of the death of Peter in Rome.
Jesus The Messiah, the Son of God
This “Bread of Life” discourse is also an opportunity for Jesus to emphasize his close relationship with God, and his role as the one mediator. It is not the style of Jesus to say publicly, “I am God, or the same being as the Father.” Rather Jesus uses euphemistic language and symbolism familiar to the Jews of his time to convey where Jesus stands in relation to God. For that reason, Jesus says he is “the Bread of Life.” He is drawing a parallel with the Old testament story of the manna in the desert. In Exodus 16:15, for example, we are told “This is the bread that the LORD has given you to eat.” Jesus therefore implies that he can do what God does: to nourish his people with sustenance. But the “bread” that is the “flesh” of Jesus is of far greater value than the manna in the Old Testament, since God offers himself, in the person of Jesus.
Jesus Uncharacteristically Infuriates An Audience
Here, in this Sunday’s passage, we get to the heart of the “Bread of Life” discourse. Jesus makes an astonishing claim, saying, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. He then reveals that he is speaking of himself, saying whoever eats my flesh… . This assertion must have come as a shock to the crowd. As the passage states, the Jews quarrelled among themselves. This is the same crowd of people that had witnessed him perform the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves the day before. Feeding a crowd of 5,000 is one thing, but saying one must eat of my flesh is an insult to a pious Jew.
But Jesus has already given some context for his statement. He blessed bread for the crowd of 5,000 the day before. He has spoken of the manna that came down from heaven. He has said that he is the bread of life. It is in this context, that Jesus says, you must eat of my flesh. He is anticipating the Last Supper and the Passion, and he is speaking symbolically. Admittedly, the crowd has absolutely no idea that Jesus is speaking of the near future. It also seems a bit unfair, from our perspective, for Jesus to hint at events that have not occurred, and yet expect his audience to understand. Why would Jesus do this?
We get the impression that Jesus is frustrated by the lukewarm faith of the crowd. Jesus says as much in verse 26, all but predicting that the crowd will reject his preaching with his opening salutation, amen, amen I say to you, you are looking for me not because you saw signs, but because you ate the loaves and were filled. Jesus senses that this crowd is looking for temporal, rather than spiritual satisfaction. So he challenges them with the expression, perhaps scandalous if taken literally, you must eat of my flesh.
Whoever Eats this Bread Will Live Forever
Jesus concludes today’s passage by stating a second time, that whoever eats the Bread of Life will live forever. What we have are two parallel analogies. Jesus is a) the means to eternal life, and b) the bread of life. We too, must seek a) eternal life, and b) remain in the flesh and blood of Jesus. But there is also an ecclesiological context to John 6. Jesus asks us to “remain in him” (vs 56). He uses the same phrase in chapter 15, at the Last Supper. In chapter 15, he says I am the vine, you are the branches… If you remain in me… Now remain in my love… (Jn 15:5-9). Jesus and the people of God are the church, and we must remain in him. One way to remain in Jesus is participate in the “Bread of Life,” the Eucharist, or the “Lord’s Supper.” That is what he means when he says, you must eat of my flesh.
A Matter of Faith? Of Course!
Some scriptural commentaries remind us that we cannot lose sight of the important role that faith plays. Some Reformed commentators even question whether there is actually any Eucharistic symbolism in chapter 6, since, in their eyes, salvation can only be about faith (alone). In response to the latter, it is well nigh impossible to ignore the overt Eucharistic symbolism in this chapter, and most Protestant scholars agree.
A Definitive Eucharistic Symbol
If you read John chapter 21 in tandem with John chapter 6, the eucharistic symbolism becomes obvious. If anything, John proves himself to be a master of the theology of the eucharist, as he connects two important events – the “bread of life” discourse and the mandate that Peter should “feed the sheep” the belong to Christ. Both eucharistic stories are preceded by an actual eucharist, or a simulation thereof. In John 6, the feeding of the multitude is a eucharist, while in John 21, Christ prepares fish and bread (yet again) for the disciples at the shore of the sea. In John 21, the breakfast of bread and fish recall the eucharist in John 6, but since Christ has risen, there is no need to present this second meal as a eucharist (and thus Christ does not bless the bread and fish in John 21). The eucharist is, post-resurrection, a domenical event requiring bread and wine. What was a thoughful, ad hoc action in John 6 (the feeding of the multitude) becomes something of a formal rite post-resurrection, based upon the Last Supper tradition described in the synoptic Gospels.
Some scholars would go further, viewing the Resurrection and the Eucharist as a sort of tautology: two sides of the same mysterious, supernatural equation. We believe that Jesus rose from the dead; therefore, he is present in the Eucharist (as he said he would be at the Last Supper). By the same token, because we believe that Jesus is present in the Eucharist, we affirm in a very radical way that Christ rose from the dead. Both of these matters – the Resurrection, and the True Presence of Christ in the Eucharist – are the most important matters of faith. As Jesus said, whoever eats this bread will live forever.
Jesus said to the crowds:
“I am the living bread that came down from heaven;
whoever eats this bread will live forever;
and the bread that I will give
is my flesh for the life of the world.”
The Jews quarreled among themselves, saying,
“How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”
Jesus said to them,
“Amen, amen, I say to you,
unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood,
you do not have life within you.
Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood
has eternal life,
and I will raise him on the last day.
For my flesh is true food,
and my blood is true drink.
Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood
remains in me and I in him.
Just as the living Father sent me
and I have life because of the Father,
so also the one who feeds on me
will have life because of me.
This is the bread that came down from heaven.
Unlike your ancestors who ate and still died,
whoever eats this bread will live forever.”