Thought for the day
Jesus himself practised open table-fellowship, to express God’s unconditional love and acceptance. Before he died, he spoke words over the bread and wine, words which disclosed the meaning of his death and resurrection. When St Paul wrote to the Corinthians about the Lord’s Supper, he had to remind them that the sacrament is meant to be a communion among all who celebrate it and to have a practical affect in our lives. As Benedict XVI wrote: A Eucharist which does not pass over into the concrete practice of love is essentially fragmented (God is Love).
Lord, as gather around your table, help to recognise you in the breaking of the bread and in each other. May we live the communion we receive by practicing both service and reconciliation. Amen.
John 6:51 [Jesus said:] I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats from this bread he will live forever. The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
John 6:52 Then the Jews who were hostile to Jesus began to argue with one another, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 53 Jesus said to them, “I tell you the solemn truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in yourselves. 54 The one who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. 55 For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. 56 The one who eats my flesh and drinks my blood resides in me, and I in him. 57 Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so the one who consumes me will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven; it is not like the bread your ancestors ate, but then later died. The one who eats this bread will live forever.”
This passage comes towards the end of John 6, a very significant and important chapter in this Gospel. As is well known, this Gospel faces two problems regarding the celebration of the Eucharist: taking part without realising who Jesus is and taking part without any effect on your daily life. The writer tackles the latter in chapter 13, by making the radical choice of omitting the account of the Lord’s Supper at the Last Supper and replacing it with the washing of the feet. Clearly from that action, the Eucharist changes or should change the way we live. The writer tackles the first issue (taking part without a mature faith in Christ) in chapter 6. This chapter is made up of many sections but each section really climaxes with some point about the identity of Jesus. Peter’s rhetorical question at the end, “Lord to whom shall we go?”, points to the central teaching of chapter 6. In the middle of chapter 6, Jesus says “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” (6:29).
Kind of writing
(i) It has been shown by scholarship (and fairly widely accepted) that the long speech in John 6 is based on a Christian homily using rabbinic homiletical style (midrash). It is first of all a Christian homily because it is primarily about Christ.
At the same time, it is rabbinic because it fulfils the rules for such a homily and follows the overall shape. The rules included presenting a two-part text, treating the first half of the text in the first part of the homily and the second part of the text in the second part of the homily. This is fulfilled here very clearly. The key text is “He gave them bread from heaven to eat”. The homily reflects on the topic of bread from vv. 35-51 and on the function of eating in vv. 52-58. That we are in a preaching context is proved by the final verse: “He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum” (v. 59).
(ii) Where did the writer get the material? The writer of this Gospel is a person of deep prayer and reflection. Often he penetrates a teaching by reflecting in the context of his Bible (i.e. what Christians call the Old Testament). In our context, he is reflecting on both the identity of Jesus and the meaning of the Eucharist, using the bible story of the manna in the desert. What we have here is one of the writer’s poetic readings of the Jesus tradition, placed here on the lips of Jesus.
(iii) This writer often uses misunderstanding to trigger a deeper meaning. For instance, the Samaritan woman says “give me this water always” and it is clear she is still working on a material level. Likewise with Nicodemus when he wonders if a man can enter his mother’s womb to be born a second time (!). Here the misunderstanding is “must we eat this man’s flesh?” All these reactions are at the wrong level and something else is meant at another level. That something else is actually more shocking in some ways. Eat here means to be nourished by. Giving flesh and blood means, in this Gospel, the gift of the whole person of Jesus on the cross, i.e. the lifting up of Jesus. The challenge here is not first of all the literal or even sacramental eating of Jesus/his flesh, but rather being, in faith, nourished by his death on the cross. This was, as we know, the big stumbling block for Jews. It is not without difficulty even today for ourselves
Old Testament background
The background is the story of manna in the desert from the Old Testament. This story is mentioned in Exodus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Nehemiah and Psalm 78. The repetition is a measure of its significance.
Ex 16:4 Then the Lord said to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not. 5 On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days.” 6 So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, “In the evening you shall know that it was the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt, 7 and in the morning you shall see the glory of the Lord, because he has heard your complaining against the Lord. For what are we, that you complain against us?” 8 And Moses said, “When the Lord gives you meat to eat in the evening and your fill of bread in the morning, because the Lord has heard the complaining that you utter against him—what are we? Your complaining is not against us but against the Lord.” 9 Then Moses said to Aaron, “Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, ‘Draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your complaining.’” 10 And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked toward the wilderness, and the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud. 11 The Lord spoke to Moses and said, 12 “I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, ‘At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.’” 13 In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. 14 When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. 15 When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.”
New Testament foreground
(i) There are two contexts for this material. The first context is a chain of stories in Mark, the sequence of which is closely followed here (see box in the notes).
This sequence is actually about the identity of Jesus and leads to the confession of Peter at Caesarea Philippi (Mk 8:37).
(ii) The second context is the Lord’s Supper and, especially, the words over the bread, “This is my body”, even though John does not give us the Lord’s Supper in John 13.
Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch, as you really are unleavened. For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed. (1Corinthians 5:7)
Verse 51 The reference is to Exodus 16:4. “I am the bread of life” is one of the seven “I am” sentences in this Gospel. In the Fourth Gospel, all teachings/doctrines are “collapsed” into the person of Jesus. Moses gave bread; Jesus is bread. When does Jesus give his flesh in this Gospel, given that there is no Lord’s Supper? Jesus gives his flesh for the life of the world when he is lifted up on the cross. All the words are important: the gift is for the life of the world and all who eat it will live.
Verse 52 At the narrative level, his opponents take Jesus literally, evidently shocked by his proposal. This is a good example of crass misunderstanding, a technique of this Gospel. The material level is not where it is at.
Verse 53 Jesus pushes the misunderstanding to the extreme of apparent cannibalism. This first “explanation” is negative: you have no life in you. It should be noted that “to eat” means to be nourished by Jesus, that is to have faith in him.
Verse 54 The present effect (they will have eternal life) and the future result (I will raise them up) are presented. In both verses 53 and 54 what is meant is feeding by faith on the passion and resurrection of Jesus. There is a “definition” of eternal life in this Gospel: Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. (John 6:47) And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. (John 17:3)
Verse 55 In the context of this Gospel, the “giving” takes place on the cross and the primary giving is the self-giving of Jesus. The word “true” is a clue: Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (John 14:6)
Verse 56 Mutual indwelling is an important theme in the Fourth Gospel. The deceptively simple word “remain/abide” is used richly: Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. (John 15:4; cf. also John 1:32-33, 38-39; 2:12; 3:36; 4:40; 5:38; 6:27, 56; 7:9; 8:31, 35; 9:41; 10:40; 11:6, 54; 12:24, 34, 46; 14:10, 17, 25; 15:4-7, 9-10, 16; 19:31; 21:22-23)
Verse 57 “Just as” has powerful force in this Gospel. It means more than a formal parallel. Rather, the life from the Father passes through the Son to all who believe in him. The mission continues in us.
Verse 58 This forms an “inclusion” with the start of the homily; it also expresses a final negative contrast between the mother religion, Judaism, and its offspring, Christianity. However, it ends on a positive note: will live forever.
Pointers for prayer
1. Jesus tells us that to have life we need more than physical nourishment. How have you been aware of deeper hungers? What has met that deeper longing in you?
2. Jesus tells us that it is not just something he gives us which will give us life, but himself in his life, death and resurrection. How has your faith in the person of Jesus fed you?
3. Jesus speaks about ‘drawing life’ from him. In day to day living what are the practices which support your faith and help you to draw life from Jesus?
4. The Eucharist is one of the ways in which we draw life from Jesus. Recall with gratitude how the Eucharist has been a source of nourishment and life for you.
5. Perhaps you can also think of human examples of people drawing life from one another. From whom have you drawn life? Who has been able to draw life from you?
O God of pilgrims, you accompany us always on the road of life. You fed the people of Israel in the desert. Today, you feed your people through Jesus Christ, our living bread of life.
May this food so satisfy us that we may always hunger for that true life found in you alone.
We make this prayer through our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. Amen.