The Gift of Eternal Life (Part 3 of 4)
In the passage from the Bread Discourse of the Gospel of John (6:25-69), Jesus continues to explain the deeper meaning of the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand. Today’s verses focus on the promise of eternal life and Eucharistic themes, as Jesus declares: “the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (6:51). Previously the image of Jesus as the bread of life signified Jesus’ teaching and presence. Now believers may share deeply in the life of Jesus and his self-offering through the Eucharist.
Jesus goes on to proclaim that “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (6:53). To take this literally would be to see Jesus as actual food to be consumed. The idea that his followers were not only to eat his flesh but also to drink his blood made an already difficult concept totally unacceptable to his audience: “‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’” (v. 52).
Whatever is meant by eating the Lord’s flesh and thereby receiving life is incomprehensible. Even more horrifying than eating flesh is the notion of drinking the blood of the Son of Man.
In Jewish teaching, blood was always equated with life, and all life belongs to God. Dietary laws forbid consuming blood under any circumstances; and animals slaughtered for food had to be bled first. Violation of these laws meant being cut off from the community (Lev. 17:14-15; Dt. 12:23). Therefore, to speak of drinking human blood, even symbolically, was too terrible to contemplate.
Yet it is precisely such imagery that Jesus presents here as the sole means by which a person can attain eternal life. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day” (v. 54). Moreover, those who eat his flesh and drink his blood “abide in me, and I in them” (v. 56).
By the time of John’s writing, the Eucharist was established in the early Christian community. But John, unlike the Synoptic Gospel writers, wrote not to present and preserve Eucharistic practices, but to interpret those rituals. As is usual in the fourth Gospel, the words here operate on two levels. The flesh and blood Jesus offers through his death on the cross bring us eternal life. We encounter this flesh and blood through the spiritual sustenance of the Eucharist, in which Jesus comes to dwell in us and we in him. The effect of this startling imagery is a reminder of the radical nature of the self-giving of Jesus, lest the offering and taking of the bread and wine come to be thought commonplace or taken for granted.
Jesus was sent by “the living Father” (v. 57). Jesus has life in him because of the Father; and therefore, Jesus gives life to those who believe in the Father through the revelation of the Son. As Jesus lives through the Father, his followers will have life through him: the mutual indwelling between believers and Jesus derives from the union between Jesus and the Father.
Jesus goes on to make a distinction between “the bread that came down from heaven” (v. 58) and the bread, or manna, of the ancestors in the Exodus. God had preserved the community by providing the manna; but those who ate that bread died. In contrast, Jesus as the bread from heaven brings eternal life for every individual who partakes of it. John represents those who hear this as totally misunderstanding Jesus, and therefore being repelled. But here we see that through the bread and wine the Divine life of the Son of God was conveyed to believers. Those who partake of the living bread will also participate in Jesus’ relationship with the Father, his Resurrection and eternal life, for “the one who eats this bread will live forever” (v. 58). Through the bread that we eat, we abide in a community whose life is determined by the living and dying of Jesus. Thus, we share in his future of eternal life as well as a new quality of life in the present.
Richard Rohr writes in Eucharist as Touchstone (Albuquerque, N. M.: Center for Action and Contemplation, 2000): “The mystery of Eucharist clarifies and delineates Christianity from the other religions of the world. We have many things in common, but Christianity is the only religion that says that God became a human body; God became flesh, as John’s Gospel puts it (1:14). Our fancy theological word for that is the Incarnation, the enfleshment. It seems that it is much easier for God to convince bread of what it is than for God to convince us. … ”
Rohr offers these points for our consideration:
- He did not say, “Think about this,” “Fight about this,” “Stare at this,” but He said “Eat this!”
- It is a dynamic, interactive event that makes one out of two.
- If we did not have the Eucharist, we would have to create it; sometimes it seems that outsiders can appreciate it more than Christians.
- It is marvelous that God would enter our lives not just in the form of sermons or Bibles, but in food.
- God comes to feed us more than just teach us. Lovers understand that.
- When we start making the Eucharistic meal something to define membership instead of to proclaim grace and gift, we always get in trouble; that’s been the temptation of every denomination that has the Eucharist.
- Too often we use Eucharist to separate who’s in from who’s out, who’s worthy from who’s unworthy, instead of to declare that all of us are radically unworthy, and that worthiness is not even the issue. If worthiness is the issue, who can stand before God?
- The issue is not worthiness; the issue is trust and surrender or, as Thérèse of Lisieux said, “It all comes down to confidence and gratitude.”
- I think that explains the joyous character with which we so often celebrate the Eucharist. We are pulled into immense gratitude and joy for such constant and unearned grace.
- It doesn’t get any better than this! All we can do at Eucharist is kneel in gratitude and then stand in confidence. (Actually, St. Augustine said that the proper Christian posture for prayer was standing, because we no longer had to grovel before such a God or fear any God that is like Jesus.)
- Eucharist is presence encountering presence—mutuality, vulnerability. There is nothing to prove, to protect, or to sell. It feels so empty, naked, and harmless, that all you can do is be present.
- The Eucharist is telling us that God is the food and all we have to do is provide the hunger.
- Somehow, we have to make sure that each day we are hungry, that there’s room inside of us for another presence.
- If you are filled with your own opinions, ideas, righteousness, superiority, or sufficiency, you are a world unto yourself and there is no room for “another.”
- Despite all our attempts to define who is worthy and who is not worthy to receive Communion, our only ticket or prerequisite for coming to Eucharist is hunger. And most often sinners are much more hungry than the “saints.”
Today’s verses from Ephesians remind us that Christian life is to be lived as an alternative to the dominant culture. “Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise … because the days are evil” (5:15-16). The writer goes on to point out the temptations that surround them; thus, they are not to be foolish but to understand the will of God for them.
We are called to live a Spirit-filled life of moderation and sobriety. If we are to manifest God’s purposes in the world, there is no place for self-indulgent excesses that would detract from our witness. The presence of God in our lives will be manifested in communal praise, as they “sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (v. 19), giving thanks to the Lord “at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 20).