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.
Translation: I am the living bread which came down out of heaven. If anyone might eat out of the bread of me, that one will live into the eternal, and the bread that I will give is my flesh on behalf of the life of the cosmos.
Then, the Judeans were disputing among themselves, saying, "How is this man able to give to us the flesh to eat?" Then Jesus said to them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, if you do not eat the flesh of the son of humanity, and drink the blood of him, you do not have life in yourselves. The one chewing my flesh and drinking my blood has life eternal and I will raise that one up at the last day, for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. The one chewing my flesh and drinking my blood abides in me and I in that one. Just as the living Father sent me, and I am living through the Father, and the one chewing me, that one will live through me. This is the bread which came down out of heaven, not like the fathers ate and they died. The one chewing this bread will live into the eternal.
Background and situation: As we continue to wade through these (seemingly interminable) texts from John 6, the tension, as we shall see, keeps getting ratcheted up the further we go.
In verse 51, Jesus has again said, "I am the bread of life." As has been mentioned in previous posts on John 6, the Greek phrase "I am" is ego eimi, the Greek equivalent of YHWH, the divine name of God, to which is attached a predicate nominative, "the living bread."
The "living bread came down (katabas) out of heaven." Those familiar with the fourth gospel will recognize this as reflecting the "descending/ascending redeemer" motif which is common throughout the book.
The Word (logos)--the pre-existent divine expression of God, which was with God and was God (1:1)--entered into our reality and became flesh (1:14). The Divine, which exists outside of nature and time, entered into nature and time. The "essential" became "existential."
"My flesh": "If anyone might eat of this bread--literally, "the bread of me"--that one will live into the eternal, and the bread that I will give is my flesh on behalf of the cosmos."
The word for flesh is sarx. In many quarters of the Mediterranean world, the identification of the Divine with flesh would have seemed outlandish and offensive. This physical world is impure and corrupt, and no self-respecting god should have anything to do with it. This was a common view in Greek philosophy, which means it is a relatively common view among all westerners even to this day.
Jesus' remarks cause dissension among "the Judeans." (Again, "Judeans" refers to the Jews opposed to Jesus, not to Jews per se.) Note that they are not disputing with Jesus, but rather among themselves.
What's more, it wasn't a particularly polite discussion. They were quarreling and contending, perhaps even fighting with each other. (The word is emaxonto.) Was this because some of the Judeans were on Jesus' side? Or is it because two or more factions had contending interpretations of what Jesus has said?
Most likely, they were outraged at what they considered to be the offensiveness of Jesus' statement. They were contending "to themselves"--pros allelous. Granted, Greek pronouns can be tricky and have a variety of meanings, but the most common meaning of pros is "to" or "toward." In other words, they were outraged and sputtering to each other, but not necessarily against each other.
What would they have found offensive? Their question gives a clue. Literally rendered, they ask: "How is this person able to give to us the flesh to eat?" This question is similar in form to the question of Nicodemus in chapter 3: "How is a person able to be born being old?" (3:4)
In the fourth gospel, it is quite common for a dialog to have a double layer of meaning. Jesus speaks at one level, but his listeners hear at another. Consequently, the listeners have difficulty understanding. The Judeans, like Nicodemus, appear to be taking Jesus literally. Is he really going to give us his flesh to eat? Are we to be cannibals?
Having thoroughly confused and even angered these "Judeans," Jesus does not trim his sails. In what he says next, he will offend them even more. He begins by saying "very truly"--in Greek (by way of Hebrew), "amen, amen"--which points to the special importance of what follows.
...if you do not eat the flesh of the son of humanity, and drink the blood of him, you do not have life in yourselves. The one chewing my flesh and drinking my blood has life eternal and I will raise that one up at the last day, for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.
Eating flesh was forbidden. It was associated with vultures (Ez 39:17) and evildoers (Zech 11:9). Drinking blood was equally offensive. "You shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood," said Genesis (9:4). "You shall not eat...any blood," said Leviticus (3:17). "You shall not eat flesh and drink blood," said Ezekiel (39:17). (See also Leviticus 7: 26-27; 17:15.)
That was no doubt one reason the Judeans were offended. What's more, however, in its use of language, the fourth gospel ups the ante considerably. No longer is Jesus talking about simply "eating" (esthio) flesh, which would have been bad enough. Now, he refers to chewing or chomping (trogo). It's as if Jesus were saying, "Oh, you thought 'eating flesh' was bad. Listen to this."
Jesus takes a different approach with these Judeans than he took with Nicodemus. Nicodemus appears to hear at a literal level, while Jesus seems to be speaking at a "higher" or "more spiritual" level.
Here, Jesus does the opposite. Yes, the Judeans hear at a literal level, but instead of responding at a "higher" level, Jesus responds at a "lower" one--not just "eat", but chomp. (The word "flesh," incidentally, occurs six times in six verses (51-56). Compare with just eight occurrences in all of the synoptics put together.)
The fourth gospel's view of the eucharist: John chapter 6 is speaking of the eucharist. As mentioned last week (John 6:41-51), the Johannine community (c. AD 90) appears to be grappling with its' understanding of holy communion.
Exactly what is happening in the eucharist? The debates over transubstantiation and "real presence" are far in the future, but the Johannine community is wrestling with this question already in the late first century. The fourth gospel leaves no room for some kind of metaphorical or "spiritualized" understanding of the eucharist. They are indeed "munching flesh."
Then Jesus says, "The one chewing my flesh and drinking my blood abides in me and I in that one." The word menein--"abides"--appears dozens of times in the fourth gospel. It points to a major theme, which is the mutual indwelling between Jesus and his disciples, which is like unto the mutual indwelling between Jesus and the Father. No book of the New Testament describes the relationship between the Lord and his followers with greater intimacy.
The fourth gospel has strongly stressed the importance of "faithing into" Jesus. As has been mentioned, seemingly ad infinitum, the translation of pisteuein as "believe" often leads to a wrong impression. The fourth gospel is interested in much more than simple beliefs about Jesus. It calls for radical trust--not merely a "head trip," in other words, but an orientation of one's entire self in and toward Jesus so that the "the one faithing" abides and remains in him. (I count at least eight encouragements to "faith" in the span of 6:29-69.)
"Faithing" leads to participation in the eucharist. As Fr. Ray Brown puts it, "(W)here the original discourse stressed the necessity of belief in Jesus, the new discourse stresses the necessity of eating and drinking the eucharistic flesh and blood..."
Our liturgy is structured according to the pattern of John 6. The scriptures are read and preached (6:35-50), the purpose of which is to encourage faith, which is then followed by the Great Thanksgiving, the taking of Jesus into our bodies (6:51-58).
Just as the living Father sent me, and I am living through the Father, and the one chewing me, that one will live through me. This is the bread which came down out of heaven, not like the fathers ate and they died. The one chewing this bread will live into the eternal.
This is the only use of the phrase "living Father" in the New Testament. Compare 6:26: "Just as the Father possesses life in himself, so he has granted that the Son also possess life in himself." The one who shares in the eucharist shares in God's own life.
Psychology of the eucharist: Psychologically, as is fitting for a gospel which stresses the importance of "abiding" and mutual-indwelling, the eucharist is about integration, the "taking in" of the revered leader into one's own self or ego. If eating appears in a dream, for example, it often represents an advance of the ego, provided that the person "eats" or appropriates whatever the food represents. In mysticism, "taste" represents an instrument of interior perception. Through "spiritual taste," one perceives the true nature and reality of what is taken into the self.
Not all food is good for us, of course. As someone has said, a sick body desires sick food. An alcoholic, for example, desires the very food that makes that person sick in the first place. Part of the treatment of addiction is to get people off sick food and into healthy food.
The same is true for "spiritual food." All kinds of "spiritual food"--all kinds of "bread"--are available to a person, but not all of it is spiritually healthy. This is why Jesus talks about himself as the true bread.
This is also why Clement of Alexandria referred to the whole of John chapter 6 as relating to "the mystery of the bread," and went on to say: "The Word is figuratively described as meat, and flesh, and food, and bread, and blood and milk. The Lord is all these, to give enjoyment to us who have 'faithed' in him."
In John 6, Jesus promises "life eternal" to those who eat his body and drink his blood. "Life eternal" is the fourth gospel's way of speaking about what the synoptics call the "kingdom of God."
In 6:54, "life eternal" is given right now. Not only is the verb in the present tense, but the word for "life" (zoe) refers to the basic principle of life itself--not biological life, in other words, but life in touch with the source of all life and, thus, life that never dies. As the communion prayer puts it:
Almighty God, you provide the true bread from heaven, your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Grant that we who have received the sacrament of his body and blood may abide in him and he in us, that we may be filled with the power of his endless life, now and forever. Amen.
Image: The Last Supper, Salvador Dali