Bread for the Journey, Wine for the Soul (Part 4 of 4)
This morning we conclude our consideration of John’s “Bread of Life” discourse, yet in reality we are only just beginning. Bishop Dan Edwards, writing in God of Our Silent Tears (Los Angles: Cathedral Center Press, 2013), tells this fable:
Once upon a time, a crow asked God to explain eternity.
God agreed to reveal eternity to the crow after it performed a task. The crow was to take a tiny piece of soil in its beak and fly away from the earth for a year, deposit its cargo, and then return to repeat the process — until he had moved the entire earth.
So, the crow set out to move a beakful of earth the distance of a crow’s flight in one year. The crow did this, one beakful at a time, year after year, century after century, millennium after millennium, until it had moved the entire earth.
The crow then flew to God’s throne and said, “I think I’m beginning to understand eternity.”
“You don’t have a clue,” God said. “Put it back.”
When it comes to contemplating the meaning of the Eucharist we don’t really have a clue.
Both today’s Gospel reading (Jn. 6:56-69) and the passage from Joshua present choices to be made. Joshua challenges the Israelites to “choose this day whom you will serve” (Josh. 24:15). When many of Jesus’ followers left him, Jesus asked his disciples, “Do you also wish to go away?” (Jn. 6:67).
In today’s final reading from John’s Bread Discourse, Jesus continues to explain the deeper meaning of the miracle of the feeding of the multitude (Jn. 6:1-15). The actual discourse ends at 6:59, with verses 60-69 recording the response to these words of Jesus — by those who could not accept his teachings, as well as those who remained faithful.
As this morning’s Gospel’s passage begins, Jesus proclaims, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them” (6:56). He goes on to say that he is the living bread that came down from heaven, and whoever eats this bread — unlike the ancestors who ate the manna in the desert — will live forever. When Jesus speaks of partaking of his flesh and blood, this is an invitation to participate fully in his life, death, and resurrection by believing in him — trusting and abiding in him, and thus taking him into ourselves.
But many who heard these teachings were offended and chose to interpret the words about drinking blood and eating flesh on a literal, material level. Perceived in this limited way, these concepts were impossibly scandalous. “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” (v. 60). But even those who grasped those images of flesh and blood represented sharing fully in the life of Jesus found this hard to embrace. Such misunderstanding of Jesus’ words is frequent in the Gospels as Jesus challenged his followers to look beyond the obvious to new ways of seeing.
Jesus is aware of his own disciples’ misgivings and presents another saying: “Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?” (v. 62; cf 1:51; 3:13). If the disciples were to see Jesus ascend in the same manner as did the great spiritual leaders of the past, would they be more likely to accept his hard sayings? But Jesus transcends all those who have gone before. To make God known, Jesus has no need to ascend from earth to heaven. Because he was with God in the beginning (Jn. 1:2), he comes from there; thus, his words have ultimate authority.
In verse 63, Jesus states that it is the spirit that gives life and that the “flesh is useless.” This is not meant to degrade the flesh, for Jesus is the Word made flesh (Jn. 1:14); but life in the flesh will not endure. However, the words that Jesus brings are spirit and life — and the enlivening power of the Spirit is eternal. To benefit from Jesus’ words, one must realize that they are words from heaven with value beyond the present world. The Spirit is the one who gives life; but the path to discerning these words is through faith.
But Jesus knew that there were those who would not believe him, as well as one who would ultimately betray him. Thus, he says that “no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father” (v. 65). God’s desire for us is even greater than our desire for God. It is through Divine inspiration that we turn to God; but the difference is that there are those who close their hearts to God’s invitation. Thus, many of the Lord’s followers abandoned him (v. 66).
Jesus then turns to the Twelve to ask if they too wish to leave. The reply from the disciples’ usual spokesman, Peter, resembles Peter’s confession in the other Gospels that Jesus is the Messiah (cf Mt. 16:13-23; Mk. 8:27-33; Lk. 9:18-22). Speaking for the Twelve, Peter affirms that there is nowhere else to go, for they “have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God” (v. 69; Mk. 1:24; cf 1 Jn. 2:20) who gives eternal life.
Whatever may be true of the disciples who have left, those who remain have arrived at belief in Jesus and are living in the faith and knowledge that Jesus is the way to everlasting life. Even though they may no more truly understand the hard teachings than did those who left, they have come to accept that Jesus is the Holy One of God whose holiness comes from the fact that he is of God.
The reading from Joshua is taken from the covenant renewal ceremony that follows Joshua’s farewell address to Israel (Josh. 23). As the leaders of all the tribes of Israel are gathered at Shechem, Joshua recounts the history of Israel, beginning with the call of Abraham; the liberation from Egypt; the years in the wilderness; and finally the conquest of Canaan under the military leadership of Joshua himself (24:2-13). All of these events happened as they did because the Lord God blessed and protected Israel.
Now they had to choose between the gods their ancestors worshiped and the gods of the Amorites — in whose land they now lived — or the Lord God of Israel. This is not about monotheism versus polytheism, as the worship of many gods was a fact in the ancient world. This is about the choice between the other gods and the God of Israel.
For Joshua and his household there is no question — they will serve the Lord (v. 15). This is a matter not only of individual commitment, but also of the will of the community; serving the Lord is a communal decision. Faced with this challenge, the people declare that they too will serve “the Lord our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt … who did those great signs in our sight” (v. 17). In the verses following today’s passage, Joshua reminds the Israelites that God will accept no rival. God had chosen to be faithful to Israel, and this gift of God’s grace was not to be taken for granted. This covenant was a reciprocal agreement that involved God’s choice as well as that of the people. Once again, the people reasserted their intent to serve the Lord with undivided heart and loyalty (v. 21).
Thirteen and Fourteenth century Christian mystic Meister Eckhart (c. 1260–1328) sums all of this up when he wrote:
The bodily food we take is changed into us, but the spiritual food we receive changes us into itself; therefore, divine love is not taken into us, for that would make two things. But divine love takes us into itself, and we are one with it.
This then is the meaning of the feeding of the five thousand. Eating and drinking are metaphors for fully sharing in the life of Jesus; and the call to follow Christ includes difficult and seemingly impossible demands. Yet to accept Jesus as the true bread from heaven is to find in him the climactic revelation of God that leads to eternal life.
Although we come to the end of Jesus’ “Bread of Life” discourse, we are actually at the beginning of grasping the mystery that is the Holy Eucharist.