John 6:51-58: Understanding the Text
John 6 is a dense chapter with lots of little episodes. The chapter starts with Jesus feeding a crowd of 5000 men, (plus likely an equal number of women and additional children), with 2 fish and five loaves. There are 12 baskets of leftovers. The people get super excited about this and want to make Jesus king by force. That’s not what Jesus wants to see happen, so he withdraws into the mountain.
While he is hanging out on the mountain, his disciples get in a boat, and start rowing to the other side. The winds come up and as the disciples look over the water they see Jesus. “Don’t be afraid, it’s me.”
Jesus gets in the boat and they arrive at the other side of the lake.
Meanwhile on the original side of the lake, the crowd realizes that Jesus and the disciples aren’t there anymore. So they go looking for him. Eventually they find him. “What does God want from us?” they ask.
“The work God calls us to is to believe in the one God has sent.”
The people then ask for a sign. As if they have forgotten that Jesus fed thousands of people, (themselves as a matter of fact), the night before. They bring up Manna, and Moses. Jesus says, “I am the bread of life.”
Here’s how John 6:48-59 read:
I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’
The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ So Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live for ever.’ He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.
It’s probably not true, but when I first started preaching I used joke that I get assigned the most obscure or difficult passages of scripture when it’s my turn to preach.
This time I have validation – Knowing that this was a tricky passage I borrowed some reference books from Pastor D’s office this week.
As I worked through my writing process this, I laughed when I came across this line in the New Interpreter’s Bible, describing Jn. chapter 6:51-58 says these are “the most controversial and hotly debated verses in the fourth gospel.”
It really centers on verse 53 – unless you eat the flesh of the Son of the Man – you have no life in you.
First of all, it’s a pretty disturbing image, the word translated as eat, is a little more descriptive than “eat” it’s closer to gnaw, chew or devour. Sort of gross.
So we hope that Jesus doesn’t mean he actually wants us to walk up and tear off a chunk of his forearm. So we have to work out what the deeper significance of eating his flesh is. There are basically 2 major camps.
1- Because John doesn’t have a last supper narrative, this first group argues that this is John’s equivalent of instituting the Eucharist or Holy Communion. Participating in the sacrament of communion therefore leads to life.
2- The second group argues that Jesus is God revealed, but God is also revealed by the word of God and by the presence of the Holy Spirit. God is revealed as we believe in the one he sent, the one who does what the Father says. Therefore, Jesus isn’t telling us to having a wafer and juice on the first Sunday of the month, but is instead telling us to abide in Christ, believe in the Father, know God’s word and live by the Spirit.
Which is it Katie? Is this about communion or about belief?
My humble prayerful and researched opinion is that the answer is – YES. Eating his flesh is both participating in Holy Communion and by spending time in God’s revelation, Jesus, the word, the spirit, making a choice to live as though Jesus is true.
Last year I heard a speaker, Sara Miles, at Hamline University. Ms. Miles is a left-wing journalist, raised by agressively aetheist parents. One Sunday morning when she was 46, while her spouse and child were asleep. She went for a walk and ended up in an Anglican church near her home in San Francisco. She tasted the bread and drank the wine and met God. This act of feeding, and sacrifice was so powerful to her that she was baptized, started preaching and started a food pantry in the sanctuary of her church. Wanting the food pantry to be as much like communion as possible, it is open to all, participants don’t need to show proof of residency, income. They just come and get good food, around the same altar that Christ’s body and blood are broken and poured out upon each Sunday.
Her story is told in her bookTake This Bread
My story is different. It wasn’t communion that brought me to Jesus. It was two Old Testament stories, the word of God that brought me to Jesus.
But scripture and communion continue to feed me.
Communion and scripture continue to feed Sara Miles.
Jesus’ command is fairly straightforward – eat my flesh. It’s a simple recipe. But somehow we don’t seem to be able to get it
I love cookbooks. One of my favorite features of cookbooks is the trouble shooting guide, that way if your recipe doesn’t turn out, you can look at the trouble shooting guide and figure out what to do different next time. So if your muffins are too pointy you over mixed, or added too much leavening, or if they are pale, your oven wasn’t hot enough.
So for your consideration tomorrow I would like to offer:
The Bread of Heaven – Flesh Eaters Troubleshooting Guide.
Disclosure: The links for movies, dvds and books will take you to my Amazon affiliate page. You pay the same price that you would elsewhere, but I get a very small percentage of the money that Amazon takes. Don’t feel any pressure to buy, I just like these things.