The Bread of Life

The readings for Sunday, June 18, 2017, Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, Cycle A, are
Deuteronomy 8:2-3, 14b-16a; 1 Corinthians 10:16-17; and John 6:51-58.

The Gospel for the Feast of Corpus Christi is the heart of the Bread of Life Discourse in the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John. In the skillful arrangement of catechesis in this chapter John be-gins with a miracle, the sign of Jesus feeding a multitude of five thousand with a few loaves of bread and a few fish on a mountain in the wilderness. John calls Jesus’ miracles ‘signs,’ because they signify some identity of Jesus. What is this identity? There was a popular belief that when the Messiah (the Christ) visits his people, the manna will be renewed in the wilderness. By this sign John proclaims Jesus the Messiah. The people fed by Jesus next recognize Jesus as the new Moses, called the prophet in reference to Deuteronomy 18:15-18. They go beyond this identity as the prophet and plot to make him their king. The irony of the story is that he really is their king, was so named in John 1:49, and would die under that title. John therefore used this sign to signify three identities of Jesus — Messiah, Prophet, King.

As the story continues John weaves a second sign into his catechesis. Jesus walks on water on the Sea of Galilee. What identity of Jesus does this miracle signify? In the Old Testament even the great Moses couldn’t do that. God had to step in and give Moses the power to part and dry the waters to make a path on dry ground. Only God can walk on water, as we see in Psalm 77:19; Job 9:8; Isaiah 43:16. By this story John proclaims Jesus as God. In case readers or hearers did not grasp this teaching, Jesus identifies himself to his frightened disciples as I AM, the personal name of God revealed to Moses in Exodus 3:14. Now that John has established Jesus’ identities as God, King, Prophet, Messiah, what Jesus (or John) teaches in the discourse that follows must be absolutely true. In case there is any doubt about the difficult teaching that follows, the Johannine Jesus repeatedly introduces solemn statements with a double oath, “Amen, Amen, I say to you….”

In the discourse John reveals three meanings of the term “Bread of Life.” In Deuteronomy 8:3 the manna which fed the Israelites in the wilderness is given a new meaning — “every word that comes forth from the mouth of the Lord.” From that time on, the manna was understood not just as physical food, but as a symbol of the Torah, the revelation God delivered to the Israelites through Moses. John builds on that Old Testament theme as Jesus and “the Jews” in the story debate the difference between the manna Moses gave, and the bread with which Jesus fed the multitude. As the manna of Moses came to mean the revelation that came through Moses, so the bread which Jesus, the new Moses, fed the multitude came to symbolize the teaching that Jesus brought from the Father. Thus John attributes to Jesus these words, “It was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, (but) my Father is giving you (right now) the true bread from heaven.” Thus the first meaning of the Bread of Life — the teaching that Jesus brings from the Father.

The second meaning of Bread of Life is introduced with these words of Jesus, “I am the bread of life.” John knows how difficult this catechesis is for his people. This is why he adds that acceptance of this teaching, Jesus as Bread of Life, comes only through faith. Another promise follows, sworn to by the double oath, “Amen, Amen, I say to you, those who believe (this) have eternal life. Then John repeats the words with which Jesus began this second revelation or meaning of Bread of Life, “I am the bread of life.” Therefore the Bread of Life is not only the teaching Jesus brings from the Father, but also the teaching that Jesus is.

The third meaning of Bread of Life is next introduced with this seemingly outrageous statement which begins the Gospel reading of this day, “I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever, and the bread which I shall give is my flesh for the life of the world.” No longer at this point is John teaching only that the Bread of Life is the revelation Jesus brings from the Father, nor only that Jesus himself as God’s ultimate revelation is the Bread of Life. John has reached the climactic moment of the catechesis which began with the feeding of the multitude. The third meaning of Bread of Life is Jesus’ flesh and blood in the Eucharist. There are immediate objections, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” As John continues his story, many disciples of Jesus leave him because they will not accept this teaching. And so it is among us to this day.