Joshua 24:1-2a, 15-17, 18b
Ps 34 R/. Taste and see that the Lord is good.
Eph 4:32-5:1-2, 21-32
Jn 6:53, 60-69
This Sunday, we wrap-up chapter 6 of John’s Gospel, the ‘Bread of Life Discourse’, as we continue with the core of Jesus’ explicit teaching on the Eucharist.
You’ll remember that last week we looked at how Jesus was very clear, through repetition and strong language, that He was speaking literally to the crowds: unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you (Jn 6:53). Today our Gospel takes up right where we left off and continues this very conversation with the crowds.
Once again, we see that the crowds have clearly understood that Jesus was being literal in asking them to eat His Flesh and drink His Blood. And take note of John’s change in language: no longer is he speaking about the crowds of anonymous followers; now John tells us it’s Jesus’ own disciples who struggle with His words and say, This teaching is difficult; who can accept it? (Jn 6:60).
This question reinforces that Jesus is unmistakably saying that we must truly eat His Flesh and drink His Blood in order to have union with Him and divine life within us. I say this because, were Jesus only speaking figuratively, this question was an opportunity for Him to soften His teaching and change His words. ‘Relax, I’m only speaking symbolically’, He could have said… Jesus did just that for Nicodemus a few chapters earlier, when speaking of having to be born again (Jn 3:1-21, but especially vv. 3-5).
But here, Jesus doesn’t correct His disciples — precisely because they haven’t misunderstood! Rather, Jesus again continues to push the point: Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? (Jn 6:61-62). In other words, ‘you think this is difficult because you don’t realise who I am(!); if you knew that I am God, then you would accept my words and see that this is indeed true and possible…’ This will be part of Peter’s answer at the end of our Gospel (v. 69).
Jesus’ identity is at the heart of what He’s saying. This will come into play again at the Last Supper when Jesus institutes the Eucharist. You see, my brothers and sisters, the Word of God is alive and active (Heb 4:12); it has creative power: what the Word of God says comes into being, as we see in the first Creation account:
God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.
God said, … ‘Let the earth bring forth living creatures … And it was so.
God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, … And it was so (Gen 1:1-26).
And again, in the Psalms: By His word the heavens were made, by the breath of his mouth all the stars (Ps 33:6).
My brothers and sisters, God’s Word is alive and active: it brings into being what it says. And so, at the Last Supper, when Jesus said the words of institution — this is my Body… this is my Blood —, through the power of His Divine Word, the bread and wine became His Body and Blood. And it’s this same mystery of the power of God’s Word that continues to act for us today in the Mass. Every time I extend my hands over the bread and wine, I do so to call down the Holy Spirit so that when I give my voice to Jesus to speak once again those very words, the Spirit transforms them, according to the words of Jesus, into the very Flesh and Blood of Jesus, crucified and risen. My brothers and sisters, our faith in the Eucharist as being truly the Body and Blood of Jesus rests solely on the authority and power of Jesus’ words. We believe because He said it would be so. This is why to believe in the Eucharist requires an act of faith: we must have faith that Jesus is who He says He is and that He has the power to do what He says He will do.
This is what Jesus is getting at as He continues His answer to His disciples: It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life (Jn 6:63). Jesus isn’t here undoing His previous statements; this isn’t Jesus telling us that it’s all just a metaphor. Rather, Jesus is precisely pointing us to the power of His word and His authority as being rooted in His divine nature: ‘The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life, because they are the Word of God! You cannot understand them by using the natural senses of the flesh, but only with the spiritual senses of faith’. This is why Jesus says again, For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father (Jn 6:65).
In other words, Jesus acknowledges that indeed it’s a difficult teaching, one that requires faith and trust in God in order to believe and understand. If we rely only on our physical senses, then we’ll see nothing more than bread and wine. But if we allow the Word of God to dwell in our hearts and strengthen our spirit, then we’ll come to recognise that it is indeed Jesus Himself who is present before us, hidden under the appearance of Bread and Wine. Belief in the true presence of Jesus in the Eucharist requires an act of faith; or rather, it is an act of faith!
For this reason, John tells us, many of [Jesus’] disciples turned back and no longer went about with him (Jn 6:66). This is the only place in the Gospels where we hear that some of Jesus’ disciple abandoned Him because of His teachings. So here again, had Jesus been speaking only symbolically or metaphorically He had an opportunity to correct their way of thinking… but He didn’t; He let them leave for their lack of faith in Him. How this must have saddened Him!
And we get a sense of that sadness as Jesus turns to the Apostles and asks them, Do you also wish to go away? (Jn 6:67). Jesus doesn’t doubt the faith of His Apostles, but rather, like Joshua in our first reading, He’s asking them to make a choice: ‘Will you follow them, or will you follow me?’ And isn’t this the perennial question that Jesus asks His disciples? Isn’t this the very question that Jesus asks us every time we gather for Mass: ‘Do you follow the world, or do you follow me?’
Page from a Missal, Tempera and gold on parchment, Paris, ca. 1270-80.
In every age, the Christian is confronted with this difficult teaching on the Eucharist (as well as others). If the Cross is the stumbling block for Jews and Gentiles (cf. 1 Cor 1:22-23), then the Eucharist is the stumbling block for Christians. And how many, over the centuries, have left Jesus on this very point! Did you know that only Catholics and Orthodox accept Jesus’ teaching on the Eucharist and believe that He is truly and substantially present in the Eucharist, that the bread and wine truly become His Flesh and Blood? This is one of the major reasons why Protestants left the Church; they couldn’t accept this teaching! (Interestingly, it’s also one the truths that frequently brings them back!)
And so it’s not by accident that Peter is the one who responds, both for the Apostles and for Christians of every age: Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life (Jn 6:68). In these words, we get a sense that Peter and the Twelve also struggle with Jesus’ teaching, but since they know He’s the Son of God — We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God (Jn 6:69) — they’re willing to overcome their lack of understanding by placing their faith in Him. In other words, ‘We, too, find this a hard teaching, but who else can we follow? Only you are the Son of God; only you are the Messiah, the Christ. If we stopped following you, we’d be lost and spiritually dead. We don’t understand, but we believe in you, and because we believe in you, we also believe your words’. That’s why Peter’s response is really a double act of faith: faith in Christ and faith in the Eucharist; faith in God and faith in the Word of God.
And so one question remains: What will be our answer? Will we stumble on this teaching and turn away from Jesus, or will we stay close to Him, like the Apostles, and pray: Lord, I believe; help my unbelief! (cf. Mk 9:24)?
I invite now to kneel.
[Kneeling toward the Tabernacle:]
Lord Jesus Christ, we firmly believe that you are truly and substantially present in the Blessed Sacrament of the altar. Humbly kneeling before you, in union with all the faithful on earth, we adore you and worship you with all our heart. Grant, O Lord, that we, who declare our faith in this fountain of your love and mercy, may drink from it the water of everlasting life. Amen.