“I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread which I shall 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, ‘Truly, truly I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed.” (John 6:51-56)
How often I have found myself repeating the words of the disciples just a few verses beyond this passage when trying to understand scripture: “This is a hard teaching; who can accept it?” (vs. 20)!
Sometimes this is because the teachings push me far past my limited ability to comprehend what is being said; other times it is because they challenge my own presuppositions and willingness to trust in the goodness of God in the face of a command that seems to go against everything I believe to be good and true. For many—particularly the Jews surrounding Jesus at this point—John 6 falls into both of these categories. It is indeed a hard teaching and the question it poses to each one of us is not only can we accept it, but will we accept it.
It is worth noting straight off the bat that there is an intimate connection between the topic of last Friday’s meditation and the entire thrust of Jesus’ teaching here. What is at stake here is the true nature of belief, evidenced by the fact that pisteuo (the word translated as “believe”) appears here nine different times. Significantly (as is the case throughout the whole of John’s Gospel) it always appears as a verb, never as a noun. Faith, for John, is never simply an abstract set of beliefs to which one mentally assents; it always necessarily entails action.
In and of itself this is challenging, for it sets as a standard for true faith a level of integrity between our beliefs and actions to which none of us has ever perfectly attained. We all act in ways that contradict the very truths to which we sincerely long to devote our lives. We have all been unfaithful, even the great St. Paul.
But Jesus’ teaching here deepens this challenge precisely because it equates the consummate expression of that faith with actions that literally scandalize (the Greek word for offense in vs 61 is skandalizei, meaning ‘to put a stumbling block or impediment’) his disciples. The promise that was given in chapter 5 is repeated here: those who believe in Jesus have eternal life (vss. 29, 40). But the criteria set her for the expression of that faith is for the Jews (and many of us) almost unfathomable: it is to eat the bread the Father gives from heaven, that is the flesh of the Son of God (vs. 51)
For many of us who have long been Christians—including those who believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist—the scandalous nature of this teaching has been smoothed over by repetition and familiarity. But Jesus’ words here are nothing short of shocking to the Jews for whom cannibalism was obviously prohibited and should also be for us. John records Jesus as making a series of linguistic choices that undeniably point to an uncomfortably visceral reality negating any attempt to overly abstract his teachings. Rather than a more general term such as “body” (soma), he has opted for “flesh” (sarx—‘the soft substance of the living body, which covers the bones and is permeated with blood of both man and beasts’ (Strongs)), which he uses seven times (vss. 51-56, 63). Then, when he speaks specifically about the practice eating this flesh, he transitions from using a more general term (phago, used 9 times leading up to vs. 54) to one that is, again, far more explicit and grotesque: trogo (used exclusively in vss. 54-58), which means to gnaw or chew and is even used of animals chewing their food.
The very idea of this should make us all shudder.
And yet Jesus makes it clear that his commands here do not entail an optional way of expressing of our faith. To the contrary, it is the essential means by which receive the Divine Life that God longs to give us (vs. 54) and we are warned that those who refuse to do so, implicitly refuse the gift of that life (vs. 53).
It is a hard teaching, indeed, but ultimately one of unfathomable beauty. While it may strain our ability to understand and challenge us to express our faith in ways that are profoundly uncomfortable in their visceral reality, it ultimately points us to the promise of the greatest gift ever given to those who would receive it, as well the profound humility of the one through whom that promise is fulfilled: that in Christ God would humble himself to death (even death on a cross!) for our salvation and then offer up his flesh and blood for the life of the world.
Early in the discourse when Jesus begins to speak about the Bread from Heaven the Jews ask him to give them this bread always. Today we can say with confidence that this request has been answered beyond their wildest imagining, for it is fulfilled every time the Eucharist is offered
Kathleen Durham is Vice President of Aligheiri Press and serves as an author, editor and speaker.