The Living Bread (John 6: 52-58)
by T.V. Philip
T. V. Philip, born in India and a lay member of the Mar Thoma Church, has worked and taught in India, Europe, USA and Australia. He is a church historian, and a former Professor at the United Theological College, Bangalore, India. The following appeared in The Kingdom of God is Like This, by T.V. Philip, jointly published by the Indian Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge and Christava Sahitya Samithy (CSS), Cross Junction, M.C. Road, Tiruvalla-689 101, Kerela, India. The material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
John 6: 52-58:
He who eats my flesh and drinks my’ blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me. This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live for ever. (John 6: 56-58)
The main purpose of the fourth Gospel is to show who Jesus is. The fourth Gospel contains a number of long discourses which Jesus had with different people: with Nicodemus, with the Samaritan woman, with the Jews, and so on. These discourses are meant to bring out the significance of the person and work of Christ.
In this Gospel, different metaphors are used to describe the person of Christ. He is the living water, the life giving water; he is the living bread, the bread which gives eternal life; he is the light of the world, the light of life; he is the good shepherd, the shepherd who gives his life for the sheep. Whether he is water, bread, light or shepherd, whatever metaphor we use, he is the true source and giver of eternal life to the individual as well as to the world. He is the source of true and authentic human existence.
Chapter six of the Gospel contains a long discourse on Jesus as the true bread. The chapter begins with the feeding of the five thousand. Jesus never neglected the physical needs of the people. He came to proclaim good news to the poor. He told them, ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be satisfied’. He felt sorry and distressed when the people were hungry and sick. He did not want to send the people away with their stomachs empty. He fed them with five loaves and two fishes. The entire multitude was satisfied. God provides; the resources of God are sufficient, more than sufficient, for human needs. He asked the disciples to collect the leftovers so that God’s gift may not be wasted.
The next day the crowd followed him. Jesus knew why they had come. He told them that they had come because their hunger had been satisfied by eating bread, not because they understood who it was that gave it to them. People were interested in the bread but failed to see the giver behind it.
Our failure is in worshipping the gift rather than the giver, the creature than the creator. Jesus told the people, ‘Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life’. This was the beginning of the discourse on the life-giving bread. People were fascinated to hear of a bread which gave eternal life, just as the Samaritan woman was excited to hear of the water of life. ‘Sir, give me this water so that I won’t be thirsty again’, she asked. Similarly the people asked: ‘What kind of work do we need to do to obtain the bread of life?’ Once a rich young man came to Jesus and asked: ‘What good thing must I do to inherit eternal life?’ People of all ages and all places have asked this question. Many in India, China, Europe, Australia and America are asking the question: ‘What shall we do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus’ reply to the people was that there was no need for them to work to earn eternal life. It is a free gift of God. The prophet Isaiah told Israel:
Come, all who are thirsty, come to the waters; you who have no money come, buy and eat. Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost. Why spend money on what is not bread, and labour on what does not satisfy. (Isaiah 55: 1-2)
This is the human predicament. We labour, labour very hard, and are not satisfied. We spend money on that which is not real bread. The prophet is calling people to come and drink freely of the living water. Jesus told the people, ‘I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst’.
What is this bread that Jesus offers? Jesus said, ‘The bread which I give is my flesh, the drink which I give is my blood’. The bread which Jesus gives is himself, his own flesh and blood, his body which was broken on Golgotha for our salvation. ‘Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood’ means those who identify themselves with the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. By eating this bread they become participants in his dying and so in his risen life. Jesus went on to say, ‘He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him’. To eat his flesh and drink his blood is to abide in Christ. Jesus said: ‘I am the vine, and you are the branches. He who dwells in me, as I dwell in him, bears much fruit’.
For the fourth evangelist, to eat his flesh and drink his blood, is to believe in Jesus, to abide in him. It is to have an inter-personal relationship with Jesus. Just as the life of the vine gives life to the branches, those who abide in Jesus participate in the life of Christ.
As the evangelist was writing the discourse on the bread of life, there was no doubt that the picture of the last supper which Jesus had with his disciples was before him. During the last supper, Jesus took the cup and said, ‘Drink from it all of you. This is the blood of the covenant which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins’.
The Eucharist we celebrate Sunday after Sunday, the bread and the wine we partake, is a sign, an effective sign, of the broken body and the shed blood of Jesus Christ. As we partake of the Eucharist in faith, it becomes for us a means of communion with the risen Christ and his risen life. It is a means of abiding in Christ.
Jesus said: ‘The bread which I give is my own flesh; I gave it for the life of the world’. The fourth Gospel is very emphatic that Jesus Christ broke his body for the life of the whole world. So eating his flesh and drinking his blood is not simply for the sake of our personal salvation alone. It is not a private affair, but a public matter.
Jesus does not give his flesh and blood only for our personal salvation; it is also the bread and drink for a journey into the life of the world, bearing witness to eternal life in Christ. The Eucharist is the food for our missionary journey into the world for its salvation.
Every time you eat this bread and drink this cup
You proclaim the Lord’s death till he comes.