We’ve been given a passage from the sixth chapter of John’s gospel for our reflection today, the Feast of Corpus Christi, the Body of Christ. Today, I’d like to reflect on the meaning of the Eucharist by focusing on one sentence from that passage: “The bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”
Let’s begin by noting that John’s gospel, the last to be written, breaks from the pattern and style of the other gospels. When we notice that John’s text is departing from the other gospels, we know that he’s doing so to clarify his personal insight into the Christ-event. So, with that in mind let’s move on.
You might think that we would begin this reflection on the Eucharist by looking at the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. However, John’s account of the Last Supper doesn’t include Jesus giving new meaning to bread and wine: “This is my body – This is my blood.” Rather, John devotes his account of the Last Supper to Jesus’ final teaching and prayer for his disciples. He transfers his Eucharistic teaching from the Last Supper setting to the sixth chapter of his gospel. This is how John unfolds the teaching.
He begins with an account of the multiplication of the loaves and fish, clearly a Eucharistic image in all the Gospels. But John adds details not used by the other gospel writers to enrich his teaching. Also, keep in mind that by the time John’s gospel is written the Christian community is quite established and is reflecting on the meaning of the Eucharist and its effect on the community. This is reflected throughout chapter six.
John’s account notes a boy who volunteers five barley loaves, the bread of the poor, and two fish to help feed the crowd. This detail is a subtle reference to the kingdom of heaven as it’s described in Mathew’s Gospel. “Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3-4) By noting this poor boy offering all the food he had, John is highlighting the giving nature of the Eucharistic Community as it’s described in the Acts of the Apostles. “The community of believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common.” (Acts: 4:32)
This boy’s generosity is an essential component for this Eucharistic manifestation of the kingdom of heaven. It’s what the Christian Community is based upon. Five barley loaves and two fish, freely and lovingly given, can feed five thousand people. But this isn’t a one-time miracle. There are still twelve baskets of leftovers remaining to feed other crowds that are hungry, not only for food, but for the bread of life!
John then moves on to another scene. He shifts from the grass-filled field of the multiplication of the loaves and fish to the sea. The disciples get into their boat to sail to the other side of the lake. A storm suddenly strikes. They’re filled with fear but become even more fearful when they see Jesus walking toward them on the water. As he’s urging them not to be afraid, they suddenly realize that they’ve arrived safely at the shore.
Like the accounts of the resurrection and the transfiguration, the disciples recognize Jesus but also realize that he’s different. He has transcended time and space and the laws of nature. He can walk on water! His message is the same here on the stormy lake as it will be at the garden tomb. “Do not be afraid!” Fear has no place in the Eucharistic community because the risen-transfigured Christ is always with them, feeding them and banishing their fears.
As his narrative goes on, the crowd that had been fed with the loaves and fish the previous day find Jesus and his disciples on the other side of the lake. Jesus gives them an interpretation of the miracle they had witnessed. It’s during this teaching, called the Bread of Life Discourse, that Jesus proclaims to the crowd, “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.” (John 6:51)
“I am the living bread that came down from heaven” evokes the image of the manna that fed the Jewish people during their journey to the Promised Land. However, manna was only a symbol of what was to come. The “living bread from heaven” is the transfigured-resurrected Christ, whose living presence nourishes the community as it sows the seeds of the kingdom of God on earth.
When we eat this bread, we share in the divine life of the resurrected – transfigured Christ who lives forever. However, this heavenly bread isn’t magical food. A single bite of this bread doesn’t automatically transport us into the life of the eternal One. There’s much more to the Eucharist, “the living bread that came down from heaven.”
Jesus’ continues his explanation. “The bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” This statement is so wonderful, and so essential to an understanding of the Eucharist. Christ is not only resurrected and transfigured; he’s, at the same time, profoundly bound to the earth. John stresses this idea by his use of the word “flesh,” sarx in Greek. This doesn’t mean just a human body. John would have chosen the Greek word “soma” if he meant merely “a body.” Sarx is flesh and blood – corruptible, like the carcass of a dead animal. John stresses this aspect of Christ quite graphically in his account of Thomas after the resurrection who declared to the other disciples who have been telling him that they had seen the risen Lord: “Unless I see the marks of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nail marks, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”
John is teaching that the resurrected transfigured Lord is, at one and the same time, flesh and blood. He’s with the Father eternally, but in no way has he abandoned any of us. Christ, the bread of life, is the food of the Eucharistic community – a fragile, flesh and blood community. He’s the bread that came down from heaven, connecting the divine life to the world – offering it eternal life. We remind ourselves that while we live in this wonderful, still-evolving earth we have the mission to sow the seeds of the kingdom of heaven. We remind ourselves, today, that as his Eucharistic community we are the body of Christ.