Today’s reading: John 6:41-71
Today we continue with the Bread of Life Discourse. John explicitly identifies the problem the Jews had with what Jesus was saying:
The Jews then murmured at him, because he said, “I am the bread which came down from heaven.” They said, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” John 6:41-42
These are people who just the day before ate miraculous bread that was multiplied from just a few loaves to provide an abundance. Their tradition and scripture tell them that in the desert the manna simply appeared every morning. They have no problem conceiving of the idea that bread might appear or be multiplied. What they have a problem reconciling is that Jesus came down from heaven. They know he is a man, they watched him grow up. They presume that the things of heaven are not material and “real”. They are not flesh and blood.
Then look what happens:
Jesus answered them, “Do not murmur among yourselves. No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day. It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.‘…
As always Jesus is shedding new light on the scriptures. He is saying that the things of Heaven are real. The Jews doubt that he came from heaven but Jesus is saying the scripture that promised they would be taught by God wasn’t just an expression about being guided by the scriptures. Jesus has not only identified himself as the Messiah but having said that he came down from heaven and as the one who is doing the teaching, he is implying that he is God himself. We will be able to follow this pattern through the rest of the discourse. It keeps building. It keeps going up. Throughout the discourse, Jesus statements become more and more demanding, more visceral and more bold.
It is after this that Jesus says again, “I am the Bread of Life” and begins the second half of the Bread of Life Discourse. Jesus then introduces the concept that the Bread of Life is not of flour and water but is his body:
I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh. John 6:51
Remember, we can understand what is being said by how the crowd reacts!
The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” John 6:52
The question of the crowd shows that they understood Jesus to be speaking literally. The question of the crowd is not for Jesus to explain this metaphor more clearly. Rather, their question shows that because Jesus is speaking literally they believe the idea to be physically impossible. No one can literally give their flesh to another person to eat. But Jesus doesn’t stop there, he raises the steaks!
So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who EATS my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.
In response to the doubts of the crowd, Jesus does three (3) things. First, he repeats command (and not just once but twice).
Second, there was a strict prohibition in the Jewish religious dietary and sacrificial laws against the drinking of any blood. The blood was considered to be life itself and belonged to God. Jesus adds to the command that they must eat his flesh that they must also drink his blood. This would have been a show stopper for the Jews. They would have immediately reacted, probably with outrage. The Jews were taking Jesus literally and by adding the blood Jesus is provoking a visceral emotional response designed to challenge them at the deepest level. Some people suggest that the command to “eat the flesh” of Jesus is akin to “consuming the word of God” but by adding the blood to the equation Jesus puts a complete stop to that idea. To a Jew consuming blood was forbidden, so adding blood is taking the metaphor of consuming the teaching one step too far.
Third, in the original Greek, the Scripture changes the verb Jesus uses when he repeats the command to eat his flesh in line 54. The scripture switches from the verb “to eat” to the verb that means “to gnaw on” or “to eat like an animal.” The second command to eat his flesh and drink his blood is thus made even more visceral. It evokes the image of an animal literally pulling the flesh off a carcass with its teeth. This alludes back to the Passover Lamb! Go back and read the Passover account in Exodus. Since the Lamb had been an offering to God, every bit of the flesh must be consumed lest something holy is wasted. One can imagine Jews at the Passover cedar scrapping the bones clean with their teeth. Jesus is evoking what would be a common memory for every Jew, scraping clean the bones of the Passover Lamb.
As if Jesus had not made his point clear enough he repeats it one more time:
For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. John 6:55-56
Read verses 55 and 56 closely. “Indeed” means “in truth” or “in fact”. If we were to speak verse 55 in modern English it would read something like, “For my flesh is, in fact, food, and in truth my blood is drink”. Think about verse 56. If Jesus’ body literally becomes bread and you eat it, doesn’t that mean that he literally abides in you?
Note what is said next:
This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live forever.” This he said in the synagogue, as he taught at Capernaum. John 6:58-59
By John reminding us where this was happening he is using a signal to mark the end of the first part of the teaching. This is a common literary device from the time period. Prior to this point, Jesus is teaching. From here on, Jesus is responding to the reactions of his listeners.
Notice what happens next. Again, we can understand it by observing the reaction of the listeners. They have no doubt that Jesus is speaking literally. If Jesus meant only to “consume or take in his teaching”, would they have reacted this way:
Many of his disciples, when they heard it, said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” John 6:60
What could be so hard to understand if Jesus was being metaphorical? The Jews understood metaphor, it’s all over the Old Testament. On this teaching, Jesus was being literal and on this teaching, Jesus has pushed and pushed and pushed his followers to the edge of their human understanding but still, he goes further!
But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples murmured at it, said to them, “Do you take offense at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of man ascending where he was before? John 6:61-62
Jesus is saying to them, ‘If you saw me in my full power would you finally believe me then?’
The next verse is often misunderstood. Since people misunderstand it they often use it as a trump card to try and discount the entire discourse. However, it is not as difficult as it first seems. Jesus says:
It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. John 6:63
First, we know that here Jesus is no longer talking about his own flesh because we know the teaching part of the discourse ended in verse 58.
We also know that Jesus is no longer talking about his own flesh because we know that he is God incarnate. His flesh will be the flesh that is sacrificed on the cross and redeems the world. His flesh will be resurrected and glorified. In this verse, “the flesh is of no avail” Jesus simply cannot be speaking about his own flesh because we know that it is his flesh that will save the world. In context, we see that this statement is part of the answer to the crowd’s unbelief in what he has just taught them.
Remember, these are people who just the day before ate their fill of miraculous bread. The slept out in a field overnight to hear Jesus teach again in the morning. When they found out that he had moved on they followed after him. Why did they do this? The simple answer is because they had faith, they were moved by the spirit but their faith is tested and found wanting. They listen to the sermon with earthly concerns. Their faith is defeated by their stomachs. Isn’t this what often happens? Why do we sin? Isn’t it almost always attached to some physical desire? Whether it is pornography, or alcohol, or lying/cheating to get money to buy what we need, don’t we justify sin so that we can obtain physical needs? Isn’t for all of us, “the spirit willing but the flesh weak”? This crowd has come and followed Jesus for a full day. They have eaten of the miraculous loaves and fishes, yet they fall away as quickly as they came.
Next is John 6:66, sometimes is sometimes referred to as, “the saddest line in the Bible.”
After this many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him. John 6:66
This is the ONLY time in the Bible when people, who are initially described as disciples, leave Jesus over one of his teachings. And Jesus lets them go. He doesn’t call them back. He doesn’t try to explain or clarify. He doesn’t try to soften it. He is willing to lose disciples over the proper understanding of this teaching. By implication, he is willing to let YOU walk away over this.
Finally, we see what Faith really is:
Jesus said to the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life; and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.”
Peter speaks for all the Apostles (and indeed for all of us). They don’t understand it either. It is a hard teaching. You can sense in Peter’s response almost a longing for understanding. A desperate prayer, “Lord I believe but help my unbelief.” The Apostles don’t understand but they stay with Jesus because they trust him. The difference between the true faith of the Apostles and the faith of the disciples who leave is that the Apostles stay with Jesus EVEN THOUGH they don’t understand, even though the teaching is hard to accept. What are we to do?
How is this any different than the Catholic Church today? In fact, in a way, it identifies the Church. Only one Church can make the historical claim to the Church founded by Jesus Christ. Look how the world responds to this Church. Have not thousands of disciples walked away over its hard teachings? Is the Church not repeatedly told that to be more “modern” and “welcoming”? That it must change or soften what it teaches? Has it not refused to change and thereby sadly had to allow even more to walk away? Is not every other denomination defined by how it is “not Catholic?” How many people do you know that have separated themselves from the Church because of its teaching on pre-marital sex, divorce, contraception, abortion, and marriage, etc.?
Questions are not wrong. Jesus always answered the questions of his disciples. Not understanding his not wrong. Peter and the Apostles did not understand. They are not wrong for not understanding. What is wrong? Walking away is wrong. Having faith that allows the concerns of the world to intrude is not faith at all.
Finally, how do we know which interpretation of the Bread of Life discourse is correct? The literal interpretation that says that at the Last Supper Jesus really does change bread and wine into the true food of his body and blood or the symbolic interpretation that says he was only describing an elaborate metaphor? Remember that Paul says that we are to hold fast to the “traditions that have been handed on to us, whether by word of mouth or written epistle”. What then was the understanding (the tradition) of the first Christians? What did those that learned the teaching directly from the Apostles and practiced Christianity when it was young think?.
Here are some quotes from the early Church Fathers.
Ignatius of Antioch
“I have no taste for corruptible food nor for the pleasures of this life. I desire the bread of God, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ, who was of the seed of David; and for drink I desire his blood, which is love incorruptible” (Letter to the Romans 7:3 [A.D. 110]).
“Take note of those who hold heterodox opinions on the grace of Jesus Christ which has come to us, and see how contrary their opinions are to the mind of God. . . . They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, flesh which suffered for our sins and which that Father, in his goodness, raised up again. They who deny the gift of God are perishing in their disputes” (Letter to the Smyrnaeans 6:2–7:1 [A.D. 110]).
“We call this food Eucharist, and no one else is permitted to partake of it, except one who believes our teaching to be true and who has been washed in the washing which is for the remission of sins and for regeneration [i.e., has received baptism] and is thereby living as Christ enjoined. For not as common bread nor common drink do we receive these; but since Jesus Christ our Savior was made incarnate by the word of God and had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so too, as we have been taught, the food which has been made into the Eucharist by the Eucharistic prayer set down by him, and by the change of which our blood and flesh is nurtured, is both the flesh and the blood of that incarnated Jesus” (First Apology 66 [A.D. 151]).
“If the Lord were from other than the Father, how could he rightly take bread, which is of the same creation as our own, and confess it to be his body and affirm that the mixture in the cup is his blood?” (Against Heresies 4:33–32 [A.D. 189]).
“He has declared the cup, a part of creation, to be his own blood, from which he causes our blood to flow; and the bread, a part of creation, he has established as his own body, from which he gives increase unto our bodies. When, therefore, the mixed cup [wine and water] and the baked bread receives the Word of God and becomes the Eucharist, the body of Christ, and from these the substance of our flesh is increased and supported, how can they say that the flesh is not capable of receiving the gift of God, which is eternal life—flesh which is nourished by the body and blood of the Lord, and is, in fact, a member of him?” (ibid., 5:2).
Tomorrow: John 7:1-24