This Bread Is My Flesh

Ordinary 20B

John 6: 51 58

Introduction

In this reading we arrive at the climax of John 6. It matters not whether we claim that we do, or don't interpret the Bible literally; nor whether we agree that the Bible says what it means and means what it says. This is one of those passages about which people tend to suspend their normal mode of reasoning and take a position which suits their chosen belief pattern.

This is a beautiful passage, and it is all about the Lord abiding in the disciple, and the disciple abiding in the Lord. This abiding is to be understood as the closest possible relationship: one of total unity surpassed only in the unity between each member of the Holy Trinity.

It would be a pity if we were to put constraints on our Lord as he tries to express the unity he yearns for with his disciples, and to block him as he offers all that he is and does as our source of sustenance and fullness of life. The Church is collapsing on all fronts and Christians of different traditions are more at home with the barbarians coming over the walls than they are in one another's presence. This text is a good one for us to listen to with total openness and to take our Lord at his word, and to consign prejudices where they belong — in Hell. to help us in our pursuit of what Jesus taught, we have included, out of respect for our varied readership, readings from both Protestant and Catholic sources.

Some Notes On the Text

Verse 51

Our reading commences with the closing verse of our previous text:

"I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of the bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world."

Verse 52

That statement of Jesus started an angry argument among his listeners. They argued with one another but their anger was pitched at what out Lord said. They asked in their bewilderment, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" In the United Bible Societies "Translators Handbook" (John), Newman and Nida comment:

Some Greek manuscripts have 'Flesh'' rather than his flesh, and the evidence for the inclusion or omission of his is about equal. However, the context makes it clear that Jesus' own flesh is referred to. Even though the manuscript evidence may not absolutely support the inclusion of this word, it is obligatory on translational grounds.

No translation of this passage can completely eliminate the problem of readers or hearers in understanding it. In fact in some societies people will almost inevitably understand "eating his flesh" as a reference to cannibalism. The total context makes it clear that this meaning is not intended. But in no way can one be faithful to the meaning John intends and at the same time avoid all problems of misunderstanding. If this discourse produced serious problems even for followers of Jesus it is inevitable that it will produce difficulties for the present day reader. However, the presence of serious difficulties does not give the translator a warrant to rewrite the passage.

It is perfectly obvious no one could understand what Jesus was saying. On reflection we must be fair; this teaching could not be understood by any human person. However, it could be received by faith, as the Apostles had done: listened to, reflected on, and believed.

Verse 53

In verse 53 our Lord states negatively what he presented positively in verse 51. This is really the beginning of the final section of his long discourse. He adds the new dimension of drinking the blood of the Son of Man, and eating his flesh. Even for us, let alone the Jews in his time, we have to take that thought slowly. Actually what Jesus us saying is that a person must receive him totally for the purpose for which he was sent: to live, to die, and to rise again, thus revealing the love and mercy of God.

We simply have to accept the fact that when he said "eat", his chosen language, the linguists tell us, could only mean "to chew. He doesn't say, "Eat my body," but, "Eat (or chew) my flesh". This term is carefully placed in this part of the discourse four times. Newman and Nida (U.B.S.) have a helpful comment on interpreting this language: "Whatever the source of meaning of, 'eat this flesh……drink this blood,' these terms cannot be de-metaphorised. The picture of eating flesh and of drinking blood may be offensive in some cultures (the Jews themselves were forbidden to drink blood). However, meaning and symbol are so closely related here, that one cannot de-metaphorise without destroying the meaning of the passage."

For further reading see "Sadler on John 6: 52 and 53"

Verses 54 and 55

Jesus continued pressing his essential message home to his critics:

Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is real food; and my blood is real drink.

It may be in this last sentence that after one and a half millennia, Christians decided to become divided. The traditional understanding had always been that the word real meant physical and spiritual in the same sense that we were created body and soul: physical and spiritual. A new meaning was given more recently at the Reformation to be that real meant a higher level of reality; i.e. pointing to the spiritual significance of the flesh and blood as being more real than the physical aspects.

Here is the tragic fracture in Christianity! Perhaps St. Paul sensed our vulnerability when he reminded us that the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. In other words, the physical and the spiritual can dwell together, echoing Jesus' words in verse 56. Hopefully meditation on this passage could help Christians of opposite pursuasions to humbly evaluate their understanding of this vital discourse of Jesus in the interests of hearing correctly what he wanted to convey. Our experience is that we can all profit from the exercise.

Verses 56 and 57

We now reach the climax of our Lord's long and very ernest instruction. His words are very beautiful:

Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me.

Jesus is talking about communion: our remaining in him, and his remaining in us. We defer to a venerable divine of the Church to comment. (Read "Sadler on John 6: 56 58" )

Verse 58

Jesus rounded off his lesson by picking up phrases from the earlier parts and making a forceful statement:

This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your forefathers ate manna and died, but he who feeds on this bread will live forever.

We offer another summing up by a great German scholar of the late 19th century, Bishop Knecht.

The promises made by our Lord in this discourse. He promised to give us a food, the effects of which would not be passing, but would endure for ever. This Food is Himself: He is the living and life-giving Food which came down from heaven. He promised to give His Flesh for the life of the world, and to offer this His Flesh to be our Food. When the Jews were scandalized at the idea of His giving His Flesh to be eaten, He did not say to them: "You have misunderstood Me." On the contrary, He re-affirmed the very thing which had scandalized them, and asserted repeatedly that His Flesh was meat indeed and His Blood drink indeed, and that those only will have life who eat His Flesh and drink His Blood; though, at the same time, He signified that the Flesh which He would give to be our Food was His glorified Body. When many of His disciples were still offended at the idea of His giving His Flesh to eat, and refused to believe His words, our Lord preferred to let them go, rather than retract or explain away one syllable of the words He had spoken. It is therefore undeniably true that our Lord promised to give His Body, His Flesh and Blood, to be the Food of His servants. Our Lord gave this promise at the time of the third Pasch, kept during His public life, and He fulfilled it a year later when, at the Last Supper, He instituted the most holy Sacrament of the Altar.

Conclusion

What can one say, after all that? Surely it is a time for silence and reflection on this treasured record of the teaching of the Lord Jesus. We will take our own advice and keep silence adding only an invitation to read the earliest writings of the first great Christian teachers after the Apostles in which they uphold the teaching of Jesus, as they understood what was passed on to them.

Early Christian Writings

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