Gospel: John 6:51-58
The Scandal of the Living Bread
In what ways does Christianity cause scandal?
With the advent of the fall elections, reporters and political operatives will leave no stone unturned for scandalous "dirt." Gossip, innuendo, hints of duplicity. Any hot tip or shadowy suggestions that cause the righteousness in all of us to stand up, boldly shake its finger, and declare, "I'm better than that!"
There is, of course, a different kind of scandal, the type that places itself in the noon day sun for all to see. Some call it the scandal of straight talk. Others call it, "the scandal of truth." The weight of the scandal does not rely on strident speech or passionate response. The subject of the scandal itself can whisper volumes. For it snaps an issue into clear focus and delineates clear lines for opposing camps.
Facing a crowd, Jesus himself was the subject of scandal. He challenged. He divided.
Jesus said to the people
51 "I am the living bread God sent from down from heaven.
If someone eats this bread, he will live forever.
The bread I will give is my flesh.
I give it so the world might really live!"
52 This caused heated argument among the people. "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" they shouted.
53 "Listen!" Jesus replied.
If you don't eat the flesh of the Son of Man,
and drink his blood,
you're not really alive.
54 The person who chews on my flesh and drinks my blood
has eternal life.
I will raise him up on the last day.
55 For my flesh is the only food that really matters.
And my blood is the only drink that really matters.
56 The person who chews on my flesh,
and drinks my blood
stays close to me.
And I stay close to him.
57 The living Father sent me.
And I live because of the Father.
So, the person who chews on me
will live because of me.
58 This is the bread God sent down from heaven.
It's not like the manna our ancestors ate.
The person who chews on this bread will live forever!"
In John's gospel, Jesus cut to the heart of Christian fellowship and the scandal it caused the Judaism of the Pharisees. Christian community was not based upon adherence to the Torah and its traditions, but upon union with its risen Master. In a very real sense, Christians gathered and became one with the Lord at a meal that celebrated his death. This meal and its implications stood out as the lightening rod that divided Christian from Jew.
51 "I am the living bread God sent down from heaven.
If someone eats this bread, he will live into the (final) age.
The bread which I will give is my flesh in behalf of the life of the world."
52 Then, the Jewish people were arguing (passionately) with each other, saying "How is this man able to give us his flesh to eat?"
6:51 "living bread" has two possible references: 1) "the bread that gives (eternal) life," a reference to Christ's self-giving, or 2) an echo of the phrase "the living God," a revelation of Jesus' divinity. While the verses support self-giving, the life offered can only come from God.
Notice the shift in verb tense. Jesus is the bread that has come down from heaven (a reference to the Incarnation), but will give the bread at some future point (a reference to the Paschal mystery of his passion, death, and resurrection which Christians celebrate in the Eucharist).
6:52 "The Jewish people were arguing (passionately) with each other" is literally "The Jews were arguing angrily with each other." Jesus' statement caused a strong reaction in the crowd. Their passions were aroused by the scandal of his words.
"How is this man able to give us his flesh to eat?" The question they asked was rhetorical. The answer was, "Of course not!" In the minds of Jesus' contemporaries, eating the flesh of anyone would be a grave sin against God. Of course, they missed Jesus' point. The offer of his flesh was not cannibalism, but eternal life.
These passages picked up the discussion Jesus had with his Jewish audience. (And, through the words of John, early second century Christians had with their Jewish counterparts.) In John 6:41-50, Jesus identified himself as "the bread that comes down from heaven." Many sympathizers in his audience could interpret Jesus' words as symbolic. As a prophet, Jesus spoke the word of God and that word fed the hungry soul. In that sense, Jesus comparison was palpable.
When Jesus compared heaven's bread to his flesh, the code word "flesh" drove such sympathizers away. To a people who thought in such concrete terms and who held life itself with such high esteem, language that graphic grated at their ears. Eating flesh was more than cannibalism. It took away human life, a gift from God most high and the pinnacle of his creation. Such an act stood contrary to the Torah and its traditions. Judaism honored and strove to save life. No Jew in his or her right mind would ever eat the flesh of another human being.
Of course, when he made the comparison, Jesus had something much deeper in mind.
53 So, Jesus said to them, "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 in yourselves.
54 The (person) gnawing on my flesh and drinking my blood
has eternal life.
And I will raise him up on the last day.
55 For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink.
56 The (person) gnawing on my flesh and drinking my blood remains in me, and I (remain) in him.
6:53 "you do not have life in yourselves" Jesus shifted the verb tense back to the present. This implied a judgment against the skeptics in his audience. Unless they partook in the Son of Man (a clear reference to Eucharist), they had no life in them. Their spiritual death opposed the life given by the "living God."
6:54 (56-58) "The (person) gnawing on my flesh" John chose the verb "gnaw" to show the graphic nature of Jesus' statement. In the mind of the Christian, there is a direct connection between partaking in the very being of Christ and eternal life. They are one and the same.
6:55 "real food...real drink" The word "real" in this context does not refer to physical existence, but to the ultimate meaning of life. In the greater scheme for the believer, Christ is the only thing that matters. His flesh and blood are the only food and drink that matters. Hence, "real" means "only."
How could Jesus (and, through John, second century Christians) rebut the claim Christians were a secret cult of cannibals? The key lie in the phrase "the living bread." The note for 6:51 explained the possible references for the phrase. Taking these two reference together, the "living bread" kept giving (Christ's gift of self) without being exhausted (the divine source of the bread was unending). How could eating something so alive and life giving be cannibalism, the eating of the dead?
But it was not enough for the follower to simply take polite bites. He or she needed total involvement (hence the verb that meant "gnaw" or "chew"). The Christian should continuously gnaw on the living bread like a good barbecued pork rib. The act was to be messy. The act required total immersion, total concentration, total commitment. The act itself caused scandal.
Jesus punctuated the act with the words "flesh" and "blood." In the Semitic mind, the word 'flesh" equated with the person and "blood" equaled life. Those who ate the flesh of the Son of Man and drank his blood joined themselves to his very being and his life source (i.e., the Spirit). In other words, Jesus described union with himself in the starkest, most graphic terms.
But Jesus did make his point. He offered his followers a source of life so powerful, it could only come from God. He demanded involvement so great, all other possession, positions, and relationships were secondary. A relationship with Jesus was the only thing that was real, the only thing that mattered.
57 Just as the living Father sent me,
and I live through the Father,
the (person) gnawing on me will also live through me.
58 This is the bread that has come down from heaven,
not as (the manna) the fathers (of our people) ate and (then) died.
The (person) gnawing on this bread will live into the (final) age.
5:57 "the living Father" is the only occurrence of this phrase in Scripture. In John's gospel, Jesus used the adjective "living" to thread his Jewish roots (faith in the "living God"), his relationship with God (the "living Father"), and his offer to his followers ("living bread"). In this sense, "living" meant "divine."
5:58 "not as (the manna) the fathers (of our people) ate and (then) died." This confusing phrase compared the "living bread" from heaven to the manna the Hebrews received in the desert. They died in the natural course of life, not from the manna itself. The bread Jesus offers, however, insures true life.
These last two verses summed up Jesus' arguments. The source of Jesus' life and mission was the "living Father." So, what Jesus offered his followers came from the Father. That which God offered before (symbolized by the "manna" given to the father of the Hebrew nation) was not life-giving. The flesh of the Son of Man did give life, eternal life.
Catechism Theme: The presence of Christ by the power of his word and the Holy Spirit (CCC 1373-1381)
"In the blessed sacrament of the Eucharist, 'the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity, of the Lord Jesus Christ and, therefore, the whole Christ is truly, really, and substantially contained.'" (CCC 1374 quoting St. Thomas Aquinas, S Th III, 73, 3c)
At Sunday worship, we offer ourselves to God. Christ, the High Priest, combines our meager offering to his great sacrifice to the Father. Eucharist is the means Christ chose to reveal and realize his self-giving on the cross. Hence, Eucharist does not create the passion of Christ anew. It "remembers" that seminal event in such a way that risen Christ (wounds and all) can make himself truly present and truly unite himself to his followers.
In the species of bread and wine at the Eucharist, the risen Lord makes himself present. While the bishop or priest invokes the words of institution (thus acting as the instrument of Christ or "in persona Christi"), the conversion of the bread and wine into the blood into the Body and Blood of Christ remains the initiative of God (specifically, the Holy Spirit). The offer to partake in the "living bread" is God's offer of unity with Christ and his followers (his "body," the Church). Thus, it is a means to eternal life.
How have you experienced Christ in the Eucharist? How has Eucharist changed your perception of the Church and its members?
The challenge Jesus presented, the scandal he caused, still remains today. Two thousand years later, even after the rise and fall of European Christendom, it cannot dull us or detract from the power of risen Christ. While culture may treat the Jesus with weak lip service or even condescending disdain, he still lives. That fact divides and unites.
If his presence causes scandal, what he offers can scandalize no less. And he offers himself to us as the living bread. Let us eat his Body. Let us drink his Blood. And, let others know we are his followers, for we belong to him.
As you prepare to receive the Eucharist this week (or as you prepare to receive Eucharist for the first time), list the things you offer to Christ. Remember his sacrifice on the cross was a scandal. You cannot do worse. So hold nothing back. Offer him your successes and failures, your shining moments and your sins. Reflect as you give to him what he gave to his Father. Everything.