The Bread of Life

Believe and Receive

bread-of-lifeThe Gospel of John has rightly been called the Eucharistic Gospel.  At first blush, this appellation may surprise some readers.  After all, the Gospel of John contains no narrative of the Last Supper that includes the words of Eucharistic institution, as the Synoptics offer us.  Instead, the Gospel is filled with Eucharistic images and language intended to help us go deeper into that mystery of Christ’s Body and Blood. It is the fruit of decades of spiritual reflection on this gift by Jesus’s Beloved Disciple, the last of the Gospel writers.

The Bread of Life Discourse

This Fall, the Sunday Gospel readings led us through the most explicit language of Jesus regarding his flesh and blood offering. It’s called the Bread of Life Discourse (John 6:35-58).  This teaching of Jesus follows on the heals of the feeding of the multitude, a Eucharistic symbol in itself.  I have a special fondness for this discourse because, like many converts, it played a part in my conversion to Catholicism (Tweet this). I marvel, even now, that somehow I missed or minimized the very clear teaching of Jesus regarding this gift.

Why don’t non-Catholics see the Eucharist in John 6?

One of the keys to understanding how our non-Catholic friends may miss the Eucharist in this sermon is to understand one of the primary lenses through which they read the Scriptures.  For many, the primacy of the doctrine of sola fide (that we are saved by faith alone) becomes a “way” of reading not only Paul, but also Jesus. It colors how they see many texts. For me, as a Protestant minister, this discourse was about saving faith.  I wasn’t completely wrong on that point, as you will see, but that singular focus blinded me to the Eucharistic elements that follow.

Let me explain.

The Bread of Life Discourse is divided into two parts: John 6:35-47 and John 6:48-58. The divisions are discerned literarily by Jesus’s words “I am the bread of life” which begins the first half (vss. 35-47) and it’s repetition opens the second (vs 48).

In the first half, Jesus will focus on believing in him.  Take a moment to  read John 6:35-47and note that “believing” in Jesus will open eternal life to us.  In fact, even earlier Jesus says, “This is the work of God, that you believe in the one he sent” (John 6:29). Those are the verses that captured my attention as a non-Catholic, and somehow I mentally stopped there.  But, Jesus’s focus on faith was strategic.  We must truly believe in his divinity and that he is sent by the Father in order to receive the second half of the discourse where Jesus explicitly teaches about consuming his flesh and blood (vs. 48-58).

From Believing to Eating

Notice, while reading the second part of the discourse, that the primary verb changes from believing to eating. His audience in Capernaum did not miss this language shift.  Look at their response in vs. 52, ““How can this man give us [his] flesh to eat?”  In the next verse, the language is unambiguous, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you” (John 6:53). “Amen, amen” is a way of telling your audience to pay special attention to what follows, as it is of great importance.

Many, who didn’t possess the necessary faith in Jesus’s divinity and origin, rejected this teaching and stopped following Jesus (John 6:66).  Jesus asked the Twelve whether they will leave also.  Peter, speaking on behalf of those who believe, declared, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.  We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:68-69).  It is their belief in who Jesus is (part one) that opens their hearts to receive his teaching about the Eucharist (part two).  It is only in reading the discourse as a whole that we see the complementarity of believing in Jesus so we may then receive him in the Eucharistic meal.

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