Commentary on John 6:51-58
The lectionary text for this Sunday again includes the final verse from last week’s passage.
This is important to set the context within Jesus’ revelatory promise: “I am the living bread which came down from heaven . . . . The bread I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
These words offered to the Jews heightened the already conflicted atmosphere. In last week’s text, the Jews were grumbling (verses 41, 43). The verb in verse 52 indicates an escalated tension: they are now arguing among themselves. They question how Jesus is able to offer his body for them to eat.
Jesus ups the ante by adding drinking the blood to eating the flesh. In what scholars debate as either eucharistic or incarnational language in verses 53 and 54, Jesus confronts the Jews with a choice through first a negative and then a positive situation. (See a similar construction in verses 44 and 45.)
In a double negation, Jesus states “if you do not eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life in yourselves.” Then in the next verse in a straightforward positive statement he says, “those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day.”
Last week the choice was that of relationship — coming to Jesus. This week, it is that of participation — eating and drinking the body and blood. For the Jews, either choice was a difficult one. Either demanded a break with tradition.
For our context, it might be helpful to consider two different approaches. The first is to ask why these were such difficult choices for the Jewish audience in the story. What would make it hard for the Jews to agree to eat flesh and drink blood? Were these practices foreign? Unclean? Pagan?
The second is to imagine some similarly disjunctive contexts that might cause difficulty for us today. What practices of the faith seem to clash with our traditions? What in our traditions seem to clash with faith practices?
This is not simply a text about an appropriate theological understanding of the elements at the communion table. It is not simply a text about how real Jesus’ incarnation is — flesh and blood. It is richer in that it invites full relationship and participation in the life-giving power of Jesus. This is not always as easy as one might imagine.
Results of Eating and Drinking
Virtually none of us can resist the selfish “What’s in it for me?” mentality. It is interesting to note that throughout chapter 6 and Jesus’ dialogue with his questioners, he gives credence to this thought. Here in this last of the four texts, there is a clear answer to the question. If we eat the body and drink the blood, we can expect:
- To have life ongoing (verse 54)
- To be raised on the last day (verse 54)
- To abide in Jesus (verse 56)
- To have Jesus abide in [me] (verse 56)
- To live because of/for the sake of Jesus (verse 57)
- To live forever (verse 58)
It could be interesting to focus on what these things mean. Not in some poetic sense at this point, but what if the sermon could focus on what recognizing who Jesus is and believing that really means for our lives?
It can be both challenging and instructive to note how Jesus has, to this point, clearly played off their misunderstanding. It all began four weeks ago (for us) when the crowd misinterpreted the sign of feeding the huge group with only a little food. All of the conversation, since the miracle, has been about bread — explaining it, defining it, identifying it. But it really has not been about bread at all. It has been about Jesus and who he is.
The point missed in the feeding sign was who Jesus was. The sign was to point to Jesus. Instead they got full of food and went back to how things were before. They went back to the literal level and missed the depth and riches that were right in front of them. By the end of the conversation, Jesus is telling them that they ate the wrong thing. They ate bread and fish and they should be eating flesh and blood. You cannot hear that on a literal level. It is too deep for that.
But another miracle was in that first text. Embedded there was the short story of the disciples’ simple recognition of Jesus in the dark once they heard his voice. That voice was enough to take away their fears. No grand miracle. Just a simple recognition of who Jesus was. That was a literal story that went much deeper.
Who is Jesus? Jesus is the Son of God, sent from above, to feed the world for all time. Jesus is he who sustains the world in a way that makes living possible. Jesus is the one who speaks and we know he is here. Jesus is the one who draws us to himself. Jesus is the one who can help us understand even when everything in our histories cries out that it does not fit.
How can your congregation discover Jesus in these texts?