Daily Office Readings – Gospel ( John 6:41-51 )
Today’s passage in the Gospel is one of those readings that features quite a bit in our understanding of the Eucharist because Jesus equates his body with the bread from heaven, with the living bread, with the bread that gives eternal life.
These few verses are just part of the chapter in John that deals with the bread of life, and starts off with the miraculous feeding of the five thousand. The people listening to Jesus get fed with five loaves and two small fish, everyone has their fill, and the disciples gather up twelve baskets of leftovers. No one was left hungry. The people, happy to have had their fill, begin to crowd around him hoping to make him “king by force.” So Jesus retreats from them and goes up to the mountains to be alone.
The next day, the people find him in Capernaum, on the opposite side of the lake from where Jesus had just fed them with the bread and fish. So Jesus calls them out for obsessing over him by telling them that they were just looking for him because he had fed them and they had had their fill of food.
Then Jesus starts talking about how he is the bread of life, the bread that has come down from heaven, and how no one who eats of this bread will be hungry.
And they demand a sign, so that they can believe that he is who he says he is. But they’ve already had a sign. A miracle of self-replenishing food. Jesus fed them all, and he called them out for it at the beginning of the conversation when he starts talking about how he is the bread that never spoils. He called them out for wanting to eat their fill, rather than looking to acquire the bread of life.
Jesus has to repeat this declaration about how he is the bread from heaven a few times, which is why today’s reading starts off with the Jews becoming angry with him, wondering why exactly he is calling himself the bread from heaven, and how exactly he could have come down from heaven if he is what he claims to be. They even start talking about how they know Jesus and his family, and who exactly does he think he is, talking about coming down from heaven.
And Jesus just tells them to “stop grumbling” among themselves. Then he tells them that no one can come to Jesus unless the Father draws them. He continues to talk about how he is the bread of life, the bread from heaven, and then he makes the point that gets drawn out in all of our discussions of the Eucharist because Jesus draws a direct correlation between the bread of heaven and his flesh: “This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world. ” [Later, in chapter 13, Jesus makes it clear that the bread is his body and the wine is his blood when he institutes the Eucharist.]
The people grow angry, wondering how on earth Jesus could give them his flesh to eat. I think that point is why the people in today’s story couldn’t quite grasp what Jesus was saying: the Father hadn’t drawn them to understand this concept of Jesus as the bread of life. They don’t understand what Jesus is saying regarding the spiritual concepts regarding his body as spiritual food, nor do they understand how Jesus’ flesh could become something that they could eat.
Years ago, while working at the seminary I studied at, we were having a meeting, and there were two of us that attended liturgical churches where we had the Eucharist every Sunday. I’m unsure exactly how the the conversation came about, but talk suddenly turned to the Eucharist, and how we believed that the bread and wine were either the real presence of Christ, or, in fact, the flesh and blood of Jesus. We also mentioned that we take the Eucharist to visit those who can’t make it to church, because of this belief.
One of the others there stopped us and asked if we really believed that the wafer and wine were the body and blood of Jesus, to which we responded yes.
His response was a huff of disgust and then he said, “Magical Thinking.”
I responded by asking him if he believed in miracles, to which he responded in the affirmative. So then I said, “Not magical thinking, but miraculous thinking. If you believe that God can heal the sick (like someone with stage 4 cancer), then why can you not believe that Christ is truly present in the bread and wine? It’s just another miracle, and clearly not beyond the power of God to do so.” I’d like to say that changed his mind, but it was clear that he wasn’t going to understand how Jesus’ flesh could become something that we could eat. Or, perhaps, how something we could eat could become the flesh and blood of Christ.