(with gratitude to Brant Pitre and Mike Aquilina)
Two weeks ago, we were unfolding the Bread of Life Discourse, in the Gospel of John, Chapter 6, which finishes in today’s Gospel Reading. I described John Chapter 6 as basically having four parts (as far as our Lectionary readings go): The miraculous feeding of the 5000, then the first half of the Bread of Life Discourse, then the second half of the Bread of Life Discourse, and ending with the reaction of the people.
We saw that Jesus’ emphasis in that first half was “believe”: “whoever believes has eternal life.” And the second half of the discourse, here, Jesus’ emphasis is “eat”: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever, and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”
You might remember also that in the first half of the discourse, the focus of Jesus is to establish faith in his divinity, as the foundation of the second half, in which Jesus establishes that his flesh and blood are real food and drink.
Another parallel: in the middle of the first half, it says, “The Jews murmured about Jesus because he said, ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven,’ and they said, ‘Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph? Do we not know his father and mother? Then how can he say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?’ Jesus answered and said to them, “Stop murmuring among yourselves.” and then Jesus further drives home the truth of his divinity.
Then, in the middle of the second half, it says, “The Jews quarreled among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ and then Jesus further drives home the truth of his flesh and blood being real food and drink. “Jesus said to them, ‘Amen, amen, I say to you: unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you.”
So… those who do not consume flesh and blood; they have biological life, but not his life; they have temporal life, but not eternal life. Jesus says, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is real food, and my blood is real drink.” So you are what you eat, right? If we eat natural food, we attain and preserve our natural life. And if we eat supernatural, spiritual, eternal food, we attain and preserve our supernatural, spiritual, eternal life. Our human substance is united into communion with his divine substance, because he is the one mediator between God and man, the one in whose nature humanity and divinity are in communion. “Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, but they died; this is the bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat it and not die.” The Manna was bread from heaven, but it was not heaven itself. Those who ate that bread still died. But we who eat the bread that God gives which is God himself, “whoever eats this bread will live forever.” Not naturally, but supernaturally. We will still endure natural death, but we live eternally, in communion with God.
And now at the end, the people respond... “Many of Jesus’ disciples who were listening said, ‘This saying is hard; who can accept it?’” Why would they say, this teaching is hard? Does Jesus clarify for them that the bread is just a reminder, a symbol, of his love for them? No. He says, “Does this shock you? What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life, while the flesh is of no avail. The words I have spoken to you are Spirit and life.”
Now this is the verse that creates all the problems. What Jesus says is not to soften the previous 60 verses, but rather, he ties it to the resurrection, the ascension, and the power of the Holy Spirit.
He doesn’t say, “my flesh is of no avail,” especially after he just said repeatedly and emphatically that his flesh is real food. He says the flesh is of no avail.” What does “the flesh” mean everywhere in scripture? It means appearances, the fallen, natural, material world. It means that he’s not referring to eating the natural flesh of a dead man, but that the Bread of Life is the divine transfigured flesh of the resurrected Christ. And by the power of the Holy Spirit, which gives life, it will be his flesh. Since when does “spiritual” mean “just symbolic, less than real?” A spiritual reality, a sacrament, is not less than what it appears to be, but infinitely more. The Eucharist is not made less by calling it spiritual: it is a more profound reality. The manna, the bread from heaven in the New Testament cannot be less than the manna of the Old Testament. That’s not how biblical (typology) fulfillment works: it’s always more real (sacramentally) in the New Testament. So the bread from heaven of the New Testament must be more than the bread from heaven in the Old Testament, and in the Old Testament, it was physical bread, which was given by God, and gave (at least temporal) life to God’s people during the Exodus. So the New Testament manna, the new bread from heaven, must be more. Indeed, it is more! Jesus is “the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”
But by appearances, which is of no avail it will appear to the senses to be bread. Even his disciples said, “This saying is hard; who can accept it?’” Is that because they understood Jesus incorrectly? Well, what happens next?
Chapter 6, verse 66 (John 6:66): “As a result of this, many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him.” These disciples understood exactly what Jesus meant, and it was too hard for them. They left. And Jesus watched them leave, because he, too, understood exactly what he meant, and he knew it was hard, but it was the truth. He didn’t correct their misunderstanding, because they didn’t misunderstand. Rather, he turned and said to the Twelve. “‘Do you also want to leave?’ Simon Peter answered him, ‘Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.’”
I’ll end with this final thought. This past week I was listening to a podcast by Catholic speaker Mike Aquilina on this topic, and he made this observation: At the beginning of the chapter, there is a crowd of 5,000. Then it was Jesus’ disciples and the Jews (the religious leaders). Then, as Jesus continues, it was just the disciples. Then by the end, it was just the Twelve. And finally, it comes down to just two, besides Jesus, being referred to directly: Peter, who we just heard from, and Judas, about whom it says, “Jesus knew from the beginning the ones who would not believe, and the one who would betray him.” As the chapter unfolds, Jesus’ teaching on his real presence in the Eucharist becomes more intense, and the choice of responding to that teaching become more focused. In the end there are two options: Peter or Judas.
This is perhaps where Judas spiritually left Jesus: on the teaching of the Eucharist. When did Judas outwardly leave Jesus? At the Last Supper, when Jesus took the bread and wine, and said, “This is my body” and “This is the chalice of my blood.”
Jesus knew Judas’ heart, that he had inwardly rejected this essential truth, but outwardly remained, hung on, as one of the Twelve. And we know the rest of the story of Judas, and we know the damage that is caused by duplicity among believers. Those disciples who did not accept the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist and left Jesus showed more integrity than one who outwardly pretends to believe in Jesus, but inwardly rejects the truth of his word. Peter or Judas. To whom shall we go?