As we arrive at the fourth week of our readings from John 6, we arrive at the section that has been the most controversial over the centuries, as different Christian traditions have offered very different understandings and interpretations of this key text. Until verse 51, although Jesus has been speaking about the Eucharist, it has been through more easily understood spiritual language and imagery – the bread of life, bread from heaven, sharing and partaking. Once we arrive at verse 51, Jesus introduces a new concept in addition to his threefold declaration that he is ‘the bread of life’ when he says that the bread that ‘I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’
Immediately, the crowd reacts to this word flesh. Indeed, we are told that they began to argue or dispute among themselves; the Greek words that underlie this text suggest that the argument even became physical, perhaps with fights beginning to break out around Jesus as he spoke.If he intended his words to be merely spiritual or to only invite deeper faith and belief in him, you would expect that at this stage of the discussion, Jesus would begin to backpedal, and explain what he actually meant when he used the word flesh.
Instead, not only does he not soften his language, or retreat into a more spiritual discussion, he ramps up the language and begins to employ language in verses 54, 56 and 57 that suggests carnivorous animals tearing into the flesh of other animals. Very different from a nice spiritual sharing of bread that merely symbolises the body of Jesus.Since cannibalism was strictly forbidden by the Jewish law, it should be clear that the physical understanding of the invitation of Jesus cannot be pushed that far. But there is a middle ground that has been the consistent teaching of the church – to understand the Eucharist and what Jesus says here sacramentally.
In this understanding, we know that although there is no empirically discernible difference to the bread and wine before and after the consecration – when the priest repeats the words that Jesus said at the Last Supper and acts in the person of Jesus to change the bread and wine into the flesh and blood of Jesus (to use the more Jewish language of John’s gospel) – we believe that through the power of God at work when we gather to celebrate the Eucharist, God acts to change the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ – for us. That is perhaps the simplest – yet most sacramentally rich understanding that we need; how and why does God act in this way during Mass? He does it “for us.”
Recorded at St Paul’s, 10am (10’39”)
Sunday 20, Year B. John 6: 51-58