“Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them.” (Matthew 5:17)
In my last post Jesus had multiplied the loaves and fish to feed 5000, which had led the people to pronounce he was the prophet that had come into the world as had been foretold by Moses (John 6:14, Deuteronomy 18:15-18). The people approached Jesus with an expectation that he would provide a new manna so that they might believe in him (John 6:30-31). This leads Jesus to one of his most significant teaching moments recorded in the New Testament, the Bread of Life discourse.
Jesus speaks a great deal about the need to have faith in this teaching. I would remind us that while some Christian groups view that faith simply means an intellectual assent to Christ dying for their sins, from the Catholic perspective when the Bible speaks to faith, in reality it means much more. It is a choice to pick up our cross daily and follow Christ (Matthew 10:38, Mark 8:34, Luke 9:23), to seek and follow God’s will in all things (Matthew 7:21), to be obedient to him (Hebrews 5:9), and to cooperate with God’s grace to conform us to his image. And this change in us happens most certainly as we allow our faith to “work through charity” (Galatians 5:6). This difference was covered thoroughly here.
In this teaching Jesus strongly indicates that it will require strong faith to just believe what he tells them. When the people asked Jesus what signs did he perform, they reminded him that “Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” (John 6:31). Jesus replies to them “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven; my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven, and gives life to the world.” (John 6:32-33) And in response the people say “Lord, give us this bread always.” (John 6:34)
Jesus then tells them “I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst. But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. All that the Father gives me will come to me; and him who comes to me I will not cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me; and this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up at the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that every one who sees the Son and believes in him should have eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day.” (John 6:35-40) Jesus identified that he is the bread of God that comes from heaven to give life to the world. And he spoke of the need to believe in him in order to be saved. Some will tend to dismiss the entire Bread of Life discourse as Christ simply telling people to have faith. And if he had stopped here, then perhaps that would make sense. But he continued…
At this point, the Jews began to murmur because Jesus, whose parents they know and who lived among them has claimed he has come from heaven. It sounds like he is claiming to be more than a man among them. Jesus answers them by becoming even more clear and forceful — “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.’ Every one who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. Not that any one has seen the Father except him who is from God; he has seen the Father. Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (John 6:43-51)
Jesus identified that he is the bread that comes down from heaven that is the fulfillment of the OT manna their ancestors had eaten in the desert, and yet died. And he identifies this bread with his flesh. Jesus does give his flesh for the life of the world, and not in a merely symbolic way. He literally gives his flesh for the life of the world, just as the Passover Lamb was literally sacrificed in the Old Covenant. Yet for the Passover to be completed, the Israelites had to eat the flesh of the lamb. Not symbolically, but literally.
By this point the Jews were most confused and agitated, and asked a very reasonable question given the circumstances. “The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’” (John 6:52) There is no doubt that they took the words Christ said very literally. Christ had an opportunity here to return to speaking about faith, or tell them they’ve misunderstood. Instead he doubled down, and continued to drive his point home with quite strong language. “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. 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. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me. This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live for ever.” (John 6:53-58)
Jesus again associates this bread, the new manna that will be provided, with his flesh. And he expects it to be eaten. But the Jews can’t understand how that would be possible. And even many of his disciples questioned him – “Many of his disciples, when they heard it, said, ‘This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?’” (John 6:60). If they had believed Christ was merely speaking symbolically and about faith, why would it be a “hard saying” that couldn’t even be listened to? Jesus replied to them “Do you take offense at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of man ascending where he was before? 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. But there are some of you that do not believe.” (John 6:61-64)
When 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,” some want to use this to dismiss everything Christ has said as being only “symbolic” because he says his words are “spirit,” and the “flesh” is of no avail. This would be a misunderstanding of the way Scripture uses these terms, and I will go into detail in my next post why these words of Christ do not reduce what he has said to be merely symbolic.
Also as evidence to the literal nature of his words we then see “After this many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him.” (John 6:66) It was clear that his disciples did not view his words as only being symbolic and simply about the necessity to believe in him. Those who already believed in him were shocked at what they heard. And he let them walk away because they could not accept what he said. Would Jesus ever let any leave him because they misunderstood something he said, without attempting to clarify for them? I believe this is the only time in the Gospels that Jesus was abandoned by his own followers over something he taught.
And then Jesus asks the twelve “’Will you also 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.’” (John 6:67-69) The apostles are as confused as everyone else, but their faith in Christ is such that they know they must stay. And while they may not have understood “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” nor understood how this would be the new manna — “the bread from heaven,” their faith would bring them to celebrate the Passover liturgy with Christ the night before he died. And there they would hear the words about the bread “This is my body which is given for you,” and about the wine “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” (Luke 22:19-20). And the question “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” would be answered for them. And as the manna had sustained the Israelites on the journey to Promised Land, the Eucharist sustains and sanctifies us as we are prepared for a life in heaven.
When we pray “Give us this day our daily bread,” in the Lord’s prayer, we can most certainly understand it to mean the things necessary for our physical life. But the catechism says this as well — “Daily” (epiousios) occurs nowhere else in the New Testament. …Taken literally (epi-ousios: “super-essential”), it refers directly to the Bread of Life, the Body of Christ, the “medicine of immortality,” without which we have no life within us.” (CCC2837). As the Israelites received daily “bread from heaven,” so do we receive Christ in the Eucharist, the fulfillment of the heavenly manna.
The quote from the Catechism that the Eucharist is the “medicine of immortality,” is from St. Ignatius of Antioch, a Catholic bishop and written in about the year 107. He also says in writing about the Gnostics that “They abstain from Eucharist and prayer because they refuse to acknowledge that the Eucharist is the flesh of our savior Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins and which the Father by his goodness raised up.” While some would dismiss the importance of his writing since it is not Scripture, we should perhaps consider this question. Who is better to offer us the correct meaning of John Chapter 6 – someone reading it many hundreds of years later, or someone who was taught and ordained by the apostle John?
In my next post I will address the objection sometimes heard that because Jesus says that his words are “spirit,” and the “flesh” is of no avail this is evidence that he is speaking only symbolically, as well as the reason that the Old Testament prohibition of drinking blood is not applicable to the Eucharist.