Commentary on John 6:51-58
Once again we are faced with a Gospel text that deals with bread and eating.
But once again, this is not simply a repetition of the last two Sunday texts. John is still exploring the truth revealed when Jesus fed the multitude (6:1-15), and is drawing us deeper into the meaning of that revelation.
The lectionary begins by picking up verse 51 from last Sunday’s text, because Jesus’ statement there about his flesh causes arguments to break out within the crowd and provides the opportunity for Jesus to move this conversation to the next level. The crowd begins to express their confusion over how Jesus can give his flesh for them to eat. This may be a good question for the preacher to raise in the sermon, because it is at the heart of John’s understanding of the church. Faith and eternal life are possible only because “the word became flesh” (1:14); but how does the church receive life from that incarnation? How is it that we, centuries later and without direct and unambiguous experience of Jesus in the flesh, receive his incarnate life?
Jesus again engages in “obnoxious discourse.” When the crowd is bothered and confused by Jesus’ claim to give his flesh, he makes an even more offensive statement: they will need to eat his flesh and drink his blood (verse 53). The vocabulary of the text only heightens the scandal. In verses 49-51, Jesus had spoken about “eating” the bread from heaven, using a very common word (esthio). In verse 53, however, Jesus switches to a less common word, trogo, a rather onomatopoetic word that has a connotation closer to “munch” or “gnaw.” It is a graphic word of noisy eating, the sort of eating an animal does. The audibility of the eating, however, is not the important point; this is eating that is urgent, even desperate. It is eating as though life depends on it, because it does.
Just what this “gnawing” means, however, is not easy to discern. In fact, verses 51-58 make up one of the most widely and hotly disputed passages in John’s Gospel. At the heart of the debate is whether or not these statements refer to the eating and drinking of the Eucharist, a question only compounded by the absence of Jesus’ words regarding his body and blood at the last supper in John.
There are good reasons for treating the theme of eating throughout this text as a metaphor for belief in Jesus. This is, in fact, how Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin read this text. The claim in verse 54 that those who eat Jesus will have eternal life and will be raised on the last day is an extension of the claims already heard in verses 40 and 47 that those who believe have eternal life and will be raised on the last day. Likewise, the language in this text about eating and drinking seems to be an expansion on what Jesus said in verse 35, where the one who comes to him and believes will not hunger or thirst. Read within the context of John 6, the “eating” and “drinking” of our text seem to be a reference to faith in Jesus.
But in John’s Gospel, of all places, we should beware of reducing truth to only one level. The statement of verse 51, which speaks only of “flesh,” is expanded in verses 53-56 to speak about both flesh and blood. Though our liturgical practice remembers the synoptic words about Jesus’ “body” (not “flesh”) being given, others in the early church (for example, Ignatius and Justin Martyr) did speak about the “flesh” of Jesus in the Eucharist. While on one level, feeding on Jesus’ “flesh and blood” can be understood as a reference to faith drawing life from the life of Jesus given for the world (verse 51), the church is also right to hear in these words a pointer to its own experience in the Eucharist as a tangible (incarnate) means by which that happens.
Forcing a choice between hearing these words as a statement about believing in Jesus or hearing them as a statement about receiving him in the Eucharist would be to drive apart what chapter 6 joins together. Without the familiar story of the last supper, this text is the primary reflection on the Eucharist in John. With that in mind, we need to notice the clear and insistent focus on Jesus himself as the one given by the Father, the one who is the Bread of Life from Heaven, the one on whom we must feed.
If this text is at one level a meditation on the Eucharist (and I believe that it is), then part of the point is that the Eucharist is life-giving because it is Jesus who gives it, and it is life-giving because it is Jesus himself who is given. The Eucharist is life-giving because it draws us deeper into relationship with Jesus, so that we may “abide” there (verse 56). There can be no proper understanding of the Eucharist apart from this life-giving participation in the life and the death of Jesus himself.
In earlier essays, I suggested that 6:24-35 are focused on Jesus himself as the gift from God that gives life, and 6:41-51 focused on Jesus as the center of faith to which the Father draws us. The long discussion around eating bread continues in today’s text, but now with the focus on Jesus as the heart of the church’s experience. We may rightly hear in this text the claim that an abiding relationship with Jesus himself is the heart and the gift of the Eucharist. However, it might pick up the emphasis of the text better to say that while this part of chapter 6 certainly brings to mind the Eucharist, it is not primarily about the Eucharist. It is primarily about Jesus himself as the food of eternal life from the Father.