What does Jesus mean when he says, “ I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If you eat this bread, you will live forever.” (the first verse of this week’s extract from John 6 – John 6:51-58). It is obviously important (and, incidentally, one of the sayings that mean you can’t just take Jesus as a wise teacher. This is either a madman, or someone – really important!)
It doesn’t help that Christian tradition has divided into 2 very different ways. Some take this, admitting it has something to do with the eucharist / communion, as little more than a visual aid. Jesus tells us we ought to eat together, and this is a picture of fellowship and a reminder of the story of the Last Supper, which leads on to his sacrificial death.
On the other hand, others will give almost magical significance to the bread of communion, seeing it as the guarantee of Jesus’ presence in power, and the celebration of the eucharist as the answer to all problems, and the only real way to worship. And rather than just scratch our heads, we ought to go back to the text and see what Jesus is saying and John recording for us:
6:49 “Your ancestors ate manna in the desert, but they died.
6:50 But the bread that comes down from heaven is of such a kind that whoever eats it will not die.”
On the way out of Egypt, the Israelites learnt to rely on God, who gave them manna to eat. The crowd who enjoyed the feeding of the 5,000 know that story, but Jesus wants them to look beyond a free lunch. What else is available? Life – real, lasting, quality life. But how is it to be had? (Their big question, and ours!). The answer is not complicated, though some will not see it.
It is neither just a question of how you think and form your opinions. Nor is it a matter of doing the right rituals. It is – Jesus. He will be / has been the sacrifice. We will live if we feed on him. But how? Some of the crowd seem to suspect cannibalism, or at least a very un-Jewish drinking of blood. It is symbolism – but more, sacrament (“the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace”).
We feed on Jesus as we hear, understand, and put into practice his teaching. We feed on Jesus as we come, perhaps tired, or preoccupied, or doubtful, and make ourselves a part of his people, his body. We feed on Jesus when we do what we think he wants, or directs us to. It means we recognise our need of him, and asking for his help, become committed to learning and following.
We feed together in the service we call “eucharist” (thanksgiving), (or “Holy Communion”, “Lord’s Supper”, “Mass”, “Liturgy”, “Breaking of Bread”). Publicly gathering and admitting our need to be fed, strengthened, livened up. Tiny quantities of bread and wine; eaten, absorbed, becoming part of us. We are no longer independent, our own masters. It is not the physical act of eating that is vital – we remind those “nil by mouth”, the coeliacs and the alcoholics of this. Yet it helps to go and take, with empty hands, in company of others who need Jesus too.
This text is simple, and yet difficult. It makes clear that it is never enough to be impressed and influenced by Jesus. We must make a closer identification, so that he and I are linked, even mixed. On the other hand, the dependence is on God / on Jesus (yes, the two are very close here) – and not on having a priest available, or getting yourself ordained.
It is easy to see how tradition has sometimes distorted the meaning, because the challenge of letting Jesus in so that he becomes part of us, and we of his body, is always great.