John 6:51-58

Eucharistic Bread

John 6:51-58     Bread from Heaven to Eat

51 I am the living bread come down from heaven.  
Whoever eats this bread will live forever. 

The narrative had expounded at length on the first part of the Scriptural text that the crowd had cited in their discussion with Jesus: He gave them bread from heaven to eat [verse 31]. Now it would address the issue of eating the bread. Jesus would develop the metaphor even further. To emphasise the depth of personal and engaged commitment involved in truly believing in him, he invited his listeners to eat this bread of life. How might this be done?

Most scholars believe that the following short passage was included at a later stage of the text’s editing. Obviously, it had a direct eucharistic content. It may have been deliberately inserted here in order to give a definite eucharistic nuance to all that Jesus had said (and done) immediately before, and during, the discourse. Equally importantly, the extended context of the earlier passage served also to interpret Eucharist.

Flesh Given for the Life of the World

And the bread that I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

The words used: flesh given for the life of the world contained echoes of the words of eucharistic institution spoken by Jesus over the bread at the Last Supper as recounted in the Gospel of Luke: This is my body, which is given for you [Luke 22:19].

The text gave starkly concrete application to what Jesus had said at the beginning of the discourse: ... God’s bread is what comes down from heaven and gives life to the world [verse 32]. The use of the word flesh, rather than body, was deliberate. It was blunt, its meaning almost confrontational and shocking. It was the word used in the Prologue to emphasise the earthy reality of the incarnate Word of God. Associated with given for the life of the world, it threw readers’ minds forward to the flesh of Jesus which would eventually be beaten, torn and nailed to a cross. Eucharist is not a sanitised encounter simply with the glorious Christ. The world recovered its openness to true life when Jesus consented to be murdered, rather than to compromise his identity and his mission. He was killed precisely because of his insistence on loving as the only way for communities and individuals to experience genuine life. He carried his wounded flesh with him into eternity [20:20].

Once again, the text emphasised that Jesus died, not simply for the Jewish nation, but for the world. Jesus, like his Father, does not have favourites. God is the God of all peoples and nations, of all religions and none. All peoples, in the mind of Jesus, are brothers and sisters to each other. Eucharist is not about excluding, but including all who are prepared to open themselves to him in faith.

The text invited readers into the heart of Jesus, and all that motivated him. He yearned for the world to be different, to become genuinely alive. The consistent inertia that he encountered would have been real source of inner pain. He was aware of the power of cultures and of social and religious systems to blind and imprison people in their ignorance and unresponsiveness. He was prepared to lay down his life for that dream, hoping that his innocent death would confront people with their apathy and expose the readiness to violence lurking, often unremarked, in their hearts. 

52 The Jews objected strongly among themselves, saying,
“How can this man give his flesh for us to eat?” 

Consistent with his usual narrative technique, the author used the challenge voiced by the crowd as his way to develop the reflection.

53 So Jesus said to them, “I am telling you honestly,
unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man
and drink his blood,
you will not have life in yourselves.

The previous invitation became non-negotiable condition – unless. The reference to the flesh of the Son of Man contained the reference to suffering as price of integrity; and integrity as criterion of judgment. The reference to drinking his blood had no previous connection to the broader context of the discourse, and was included solely because of its eucharistic relevance. As later believers would gather to celebrate Eucharist, where they would eat the flesh and drink the blood of the Son of Man, they would consciously and deliberately commit to the way of Jesus – the way of integrity, the way of love and vulnerability, and the suffering inevitably associated with them.

54 Whoever devour my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life,
and I shall raise them up on the last day. 
55 For my flesh is true food and my blood true drink.

The word translated as devour in this verse [used generally to describe how animals eat] is more strongly descriptive than the word used in the previous verses. The directness of the word would have accentuated, to Jewish ears, the offensiveness of the whole concept. One way or the other, the author wished to emphasise for the sake of the disciples in the Christian community the need radically to engage with Jesus.

The text used the same terms to describe the effects of devouring his flesh and eating the bread of life [verse 51]: having eternal life even in the present, and being raised up on the last day. Though the text did not clarify that devouring his flesh would happen sacramentally by eating the bread of the Eucharist, the context connected the two in the minds of the already-Christian readers of the Gospel.

Eating and Drinking Sacramentally

As has been stated previously, the Gospel was not written to convince or to educate unbelievers, but to foster the faith of Christian disciples. Baldly presented as they are in the text, Jesus’ claims about eating human flesh and drinking human blood, even if not taken literally but metaphorically, would have been so utterly offensive to his Jewish contemporaries as to be totally unthinkable. Only in the light of the institution of the Eucharist, surprisingly omitted in this Gospel, could they ever make sense. The only meaningful alternative to taking the words literally or metaphorically was to understand them sacramentally. To understand them sacramentally would have been equally impossible other than in the light of the actual institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper, where bread became body and wine became blood. Though never referred to explicitly in the narrative, Eucharist was obviously a familiar practice within the community of disciples. 

Whoever devour my flesh and drink my blood dwell in me and I in them.
57 Just as the living Father sent me
and I am alive because of the Father,
so too those who devour me will live because of me.

The repeated use of the term “devour/chew” served the purpose of accentuating the strength and depth of the union possible between Jesus and disciple. It was a union that enabled disciples to draw life from Jesus, as he, in turn, drew life from his Father in a shared commitment to the life of the world. The life of Jesus, drawn from his Father, truly nourished the life of disciples in a way similar to, though also immeasurably different from, the way that material food nourishes those who eat it.

The idea of dwelling in Jesus had already surfaced in the encounter between Jesus and his first disciples and, later, with some Samaritans. Then, it had meant simply either their passing an afternoon and evening [1.39], or two days [4: 40] together. This was the first time in the text that Jesus spoke of himself and his disciples mutually dwelling in each other. It would be a theme that he would explore at greater length and depth in his Last Supper discourses. In many ways, the themes of dwelling in, believing in, eating the bread of life, eating his flesh and drinking his blood were all alternative expressions for, and means to, the experience of eternal life, indeed, of eventual resurrected life.

Eucharistic Spirituality in the Gospel of John

The particular emphasis on Jesus’ flesh and blood served to highlight the vulnerable and wounded humanity of Jesus. The reflection was framed between the complaining of the Jews [verse 41] and the loss of faith and betrayal from within the closer circle of disciples [verses 66 and 71]; and foreshadowed the definitive rejection of Jesus by the leadership. The Eucharist presents believers with the vulnerable Christ.

Disciples were instructed to eat (even to devour) the flesh of Christ and to drink his blood. The otherwise shocking language invited a radical engagement with that wounded humanity. They were to be nourished by that broken flesh and spilled blood. They were to draw life from that flesh and blood. The imagery suggested that, since ultimately creatures become what they eat, disciples are to be transformed into that flesh and blood of Jesus, empowered and energised to live as he lived.

The chapter’s emphasis on Jesus’ fragile flesh and blood reminds disciples that the Eucharist is a clear encounter with the human Jesus, the vulnerable victim of people’s brutality. That brutality was the shape taken then by the world’s sin, in which everybody shares, just as really if less dramatically, and from which all need to be saved. Yet it was precisely his innocent, brutal death that over time alerted the world to its sin, illustrated the extent of his irrepressible and totally unconditional love, and enabled the world’s conversion. 

Through sharing in the Eucharist, disciples accept the stark reality of their sin, trust the love-inspired forgiveness of God, and, empowered by his risen life, commit themselves, with him, to the project of saving themselves and the world.

The flesh and blood of Jesus were given for the life of the world. So much is contained within that brief phrase. Jesus gave his life, motivated and empowered by love for humanity. He poured out his love, as he poured out his blood, indiscriminately, loving without counting the cost. Predictably, his love was exploited, since it was precisely to the sin-scarred world that he was sent. Jesus knew it would be. Yet, he chose to love with consummate freedom.

His purpose, his hope, was that the world might become alive. For Jesus, life, when lived without love, did not really qualify to be called life. He hoped that, in hindsight, his innocent and brutal death would make clear both the depth of his own love and the savage brutality to which life without love inevitably leads. His hope was that, once made aware by his innocent death of the violence lurking submerged in every human heart, the world would learn to love. 

Through their eating the flesh and drinking the blood of this Jesus, believers accept being so transformed as to love the world with the same love that led to his crucifixion – the love that he in turn had learnt from his Father. They seek to become love-saturated, love-directed. Union with Jesus in love moves beyond private dialogue and the comfort of intimacy to a shared commitment to the life of the sin-scarred world – a dedication, to the point of total self-sacrifice, to compassion, justice and forgiveness Their transformation can be such that their commitment is not reluctant, but, like that of Jesus, free, life-giving and even joyful.

The narrative resumed from where it had left off before the insertion of the reflection on Jesus’ flesh and blood. Jesus had just claimed that he was himself the bread that had come down from heaven: I am the living bread come down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever (verse 51). The narrative continued that thought and rounded off the discourse:

58 This is the bread come down from heaven.  
Unlike the fathers who ate and died,
whoever eat this bread will live forever.
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