All they wanted, to be honest, was lunch.
Many of these folks had come the day before. That was the day Jesus took a small boy’s picnic sack and served 5,000 people. Some in the crowd today were newcomers, but news of free food travels fast. Most people, then as now, like to eat more than they like to do just about anything else.
So the throng around Jesus was larger today, and all expected to be fed. He proceeded to do this, but not with fish and bread as before. Jesus multiplied mysteries and served up revelations about who he was and what God was doing in their midst, in this generation, before their very eyes. Ho hum, said the crowd. What’s on the menu for today?
I am, Jesus cried out, steering the lesson down the only lane these people seemed prepared to go. But the folks kept peering around for the magic trick that would fill up their bellies. After all, isn’t that what Moses did when he brought down manna from heaven? That’s how Moses got people to follow him across an open desert. Where’s the bread, rabbi?
I’m the bread, Jesus said plainly. You won’t be hungry again if you come to me. He’d said something similar to a Samaritan woman at a well not long ago: Come to me, and you’ll never be thirsty again. That woman understood, dropped her bucket and ran home to tell everyone about Jesus.
But not this crowd. They kept yammering on about Moses. Don’t you remember how Moses brought quail into the camp when the people got sick of manna every day and wanted to sink their teeth into some animal flesh? Where’s the meat, rabbi?
My flesh is true food, Jesus told them forcefully. My blood is true drink. That’s when the mood of the multitude darkened. Some thought Jesus was being bizarre. Others were confused. A few wondered if he was edging toward blasphemy. What exactly was he claiming? That he himself was manna from heaven or the miraculous flock of quail—God’s gifts to a starving nation? They’d come out today to see the trick, to get a meal they didn’t have to earn by the sweat of their brow and the work of their hands. They wanted their daily bread, that’s all. And Jesus wasn’t providing.
What this rabbi was serving up was a double Amen at the start of his pronouncements. Amen is a word that’s supposed to ratify the testimony of another. It properly comes at the end of a declaration, delivered by those who agree with what’s been said. It’s not meant to affirm one’s own words before they’re even spoken. This guy doesn’t give anyone a chance to deliberate over his words. He verifies his own truth!
I am the truth. This is what Jesus was saying, expressing an authority no backwater rabbi had a right to. He wasn’t a high priest or even of the priesthood. He wasn’t a Pharisee or a scholar of the law like the scribes. He was just some preacher from Galilee, shouting Amens to his own claims. And those claims were more than fantastic. Just consider what he’d said in the last hour: I am living bread. I am flesh for the life of the world. I am manna from heaven. Eat this bread and live forever.
After this day, the crowds around Jesus would be smaller. Maybe if he’d served up some sandwiches that afternoon, then perhaps they could have swallowed the rest of his talk—at least until the dishes were cleared.
John, Chapter 6 is the pivotal hour of Jesus’ ministry, according to the fourth gospel. It’s the longest chapter in the book and arguably the most crucial. For this reason, we hear it proclaimed in the church’s liturgies some 31 times on Sundays, weekdays, and special feasts. In Cycle B—the second year of our three-year Sunday lectionary—passages from John, Chapter 6 are proclaimed a jaw-dropping five weeks in a row. This run of readings from the most complex chapter of the deeply mystical gospel strikes fear in the heart of the ablest preacher. Producing five homilies in a row about Jesus and bread is a challenging task.
But don’t pity the pastor too much. John, Chapter 6 is repeated so often in our assembly because it’s the nut we need to crack if we’re to get at the meat inside: the theology of Eucharist. John’s gospel, we should note, is the only one that doesn’t contain a narrative of the institution of the Eucharist on the night before Jesus died. John, peculiarly, presents a Last Supper without any supper. Instead, the night begins with Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. Then John follows this action with a chapters-long final teaching. It’s a marvelous, mystical night, to be sure, without a calorie in sight.
Clearly, Eucharist isn’t absent from John’s narrative, even with this omission. Jesus presents himself as food and drink to a hungry crowd early on. And unlike the accounts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the Eucharist Jesus serves in John’s gospel is deliberately more visceral and graphic. In the more familiar Last Supper accounts, the other three gospels report that Jesus furnishes the terms for our everlasting supper by declaring: “This is my body” and “This is my blood.” John’s narrative alone chooses the word “flesh” in place of body, repeating this distinction enough times that we can hardly ignore it.
What’s John driving at with his unique word choice, rendered faithfully from the Greek into English? The three eucharistic accounts from Matthew, Mark, and Luke all point to the coming sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. This is the sacrifice of a man, his body and his blood. In the context of supper, on the night before Jesus suffers, Eucharist faces squarely into the sacrifice of a life about to be offered on the cross.
John chooses to treat the matter of Eucharist early in the story, back when Jesus still teaches crowds around the sea. John, of course, is writing a generation after the other gospel writers. Nearing the turn of the first century, the church is an established phenomenon of the Greco-Roman world, if still deeply suspect. It’s also decisively torn from its Jewish context and viewed as heresy to those who revere Moses as their primary prophet. So the moment of decision is no longer the first-generation question of those still grappling with the shock of the crucifixion: Will you, Jewish believer, sit at the supper of Jesus and accept this crucified Lord as the fulfillment of the law and prophets?
For John’s audience, the question is more like: Can’t you see, Jewish believer, that the teacher Moses simply delivered divine gifts to sustain your earthly existence? Compare that with Jesus, who is the gift of God, and the eternal nourishment of his people.
In the end, the crowds around Jesus in John, Chapter 6 weren’t entirely wrong. This business of Eucharist really is a question of where our next meal is coming from. The moment of decision remains the same, for them and for us. Do we fix our hungers on worldly fare, or fill ourselves with the life that Jesus offers? One way or the other, we truly are what we eat.
This article also appears in the April 2020 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 85, No. 4, pages 47-49). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
Image: The Miracle of the Loaves and the Fishes, Basilica di Sant’Appollinare Nuovo (6th century) from Wikimedia Commons.