Gospel for Twentieth Sunday (16 August 2015)
Notes by Michael Whelan SM
I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I
live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” (John 6:51-58 – NRSVCE)
See Notes on the Gospel for the Eighteenth Sundaythe Gospel for the Eighteenth Sunday for further reflections on the links between John 6 and the Exodus Event. We cannot begin to understand either the Gospels in general or John 6 in particular without understanding the Exodus as their context.
John uses the Greek word sarx (σάρξ) for ‘body’ here. Everywhere else in the Christian Scriptures, when the word ‘body’ is used in reference to the Eucharist, the word soma (σῶμά) is used – see for example Mark 14:22, (Matthew 26.26–29, Luke 22.14–23 and 1 Corinthians 11.23–26. We should recall John 1:14: “The word became flesh”. John uses the word sarx here also.
Francis Moloney writes:
“Jesus gives his flesh to eat (vv. 52–59). The question that emerges from the dispute among ‘the Jews’ is a rejection of Jesus’ outrageous suggestion: ‘How .... can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ (v. 52). But it allows Jesus to conclude his discourse on his perfection of the Mosaic gift of bread from heaven through his gift of himself as the true bread from heaven. Unable to go beyond the physical, ‘the Jews’ by their question misunderstand Jesus’ promise. Jesus insists on a gift of flesh and blood for life by stating negatively (v. 53) and positively (v. 54) that whoever eats the flesh and drinks the blood of Jesus, the Son of Man, has eternal life now and will be raised up on the last day. The midrashic play on the verb ‘to eat’ provided by the Exodus passage in v. 31 has reached its high point. ‘Flesh’ and ‘blood’ emphasize that it is the incarnate life and very real death of the Son that are lifegiving food. Only the physical body of a human being produces flesh and blood. The argument of vv. 25–51 continues into vv. 52–59, especially in Jesus’ words that point to the resolution of a series of promises (cf. vv. 12–13, 27, 35, 51c). Jesus will provide a food for the life of the world, and that food is his flesh and blood. As the ancestors of Israel were nourished by the gift of the Torah, Jesus will nourish the whole world with the gift of himself. The people of Israel were nourished by eating the manna, perennially recalled in the nourishment provided for them by their total receptivity to and absorption of the Law. Now ‘the Jews’ are told of the absolute need to eat the flesh and drink the blood of the Son of Man. Unless they eat the flesh and drink the blood .... of the Son of Man they have no life (v. 53); whoever eats the flesh and drinks the blood .... of Jesus has eternal life (v. 54). The shift from the more respectable verb ‘to eat’ (phagein) to another verb that indicates the physical crunching with the teeth (trōgein) accentuates that Jesus refers
to a real experience of eating. Hints of the Eucharist continue to insinuate themselves into the words of Jesus (see below). Flesh is to be broken and blood is to be spilled. Violence has been in the air since Jesus’ behavior on the Sabbath led ‘the Jews’ to initiate a process that would lead to his death (5:16–18). Jesus now associates the separation of flesh and blood in a violent death as the moment of total giving of himself. Jesus, the Son of Man, will give of his whole self for the life of the world (6:51c) by means of a violent encounter between himself and his enemies (1:5, 11; 2:18–20; 3:14; 5:16–18) in which his body will be broken and his blood will be poured out (6:53–54). This is the ongoing presence of Jesus in the gathered klasmata (vv. 12–13), the enduring gift that the Son of Man will give, the food that will not perish (v. 27) but will forever satisfy all hunger and thirst (v. 35).
“The Passover context must not be forgotten. As once Israel ate of the manna in the desert and was nourished by adhesion to the Law given at Sinai, so now the world is summoned to accept the further revelation of God in the broken body and spilled blood of the Son of Man. In this way all will have life, now and hereafter (vv. 53–54). These claims are further developed through vv. 55–57. Earlier parts of the discourse are recalled as Jesus insists that his flesh really is food .... and his blood really is drink ..... This play on words recalls Jesus’ promise of the brōsis (food) that the Son of Man would give (v. 27), and his claim that over against all other bread from heaven, and especially the gift of the Law from heaven, the Father gives ‘the true bread from heaven’ ..... Jesus is the true bread from heaven (v. 35). On the basis of the entire discourse Jesus lays claim to his flesh and blood as authentically .... food and drink. The midrashic explanation of v. 31 continues: through a total absorption (trōgein is again used) of the revelation of God made available through the bloody death
of Jesus, believers will come to a mutuality in which they live in Jesus and Jesus lives in them (v. 56). This mutual indwelling (menein is used; cf. 15:4–7) flows from the union that exists between the Father and the Son (v. 57). Jesus’ words play on the verb ‘to live’ (zōein). He refers to the Father as ‘the living Father’ (ho zōn patēr) who has sent his Son who has life in him because of the intimacy between the Father and the Son. If the one who sends is ‘living’, then the one who is sent lives because of the one who sent him ..... He thus has authority to pass on life to those who accept the revelation of the Father in the Son (v. 57). The idea of the reception of the revelation of God in and through the Son is not new (cf., for example, 3:11–21, 31–36), but the imagery has been changed by the Passover context. No longer does Jesus speak of ‘belief in’ (cf. 3:12, 15, 18, 36), but of ‘the one who eats me’ ..... The expressions are parallel. As throughout the Gospel, unconditional commitment to the revelation of God in and through Jesus leads to life here and hereafter: the one who eats the flesh of Jesus will live because of him ..... As Jesus lives because of the Father (v. 57a), the believer lives and will live because of Jesus (v. 57b). (Francis Moloney, The Gospel of John, The Liturgical Press, 1998, 221-222.)
Chapter 6 of John’s Gospel has been understood within the Catholic tradition as offering us an extended mediation on the Eucharist.
The Eucharist is the ground and the summit of the whole Christian life in general and the Liturgy in particular, “for no Christian community can be built up unless it has its basis and center in the celebration of the most Holy Eucharist.” (Presbyterorum Ordinis (Decree on the Life and Ministry of Priests), 6.) St Paul reminds us that, “as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” (1 Corinthians 11:26 – NRSV.)
In the celebration of the Eucharist we are at the very centre of God’s life and action in the world now. In the Eucharist the Paschal Mystery is quite explicitly invoked and celebrated. This is the most intense form of Christian prayer. All other expressions of Christian prayer must manifest – at least implicitly – the fact that we are a Eucharistic Community. Christian prayer flows from the celebration of Eucharist and leads us back to it.
An authentic celebration of Eucharist carries with it all the implications and force of John’s simple claim: “The Word became flesh and dwelt in our midst” (1:14). This truth is the basis of everything we are and aspire to be.