51I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”
52The Jews quarreled among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us [his] flesh to eat?”53Jesus said to them, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you.54Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day.55For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.56Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.57Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me.58This is the bread that came down from heaven. Unlike your ancestors who ate and still died, whoever eats this bread will live forever.”
Proverbs 9:1-6, Ephesians 5:15-20
This week we dive into the heart of the sermon Jesus delivers in Capernaum the day after the feeding of the five thousand. Jesus is making a bold declaration to the gathered crowd: he is the “living bread” that has come down from heaven.
We saw last week that the rabbinic sages believed that the manna God provided to sustain the Israelites in the wilderness was present in heaven before the creation of the world and would return with the Messiah when he appeared. Jesus thus claims to be Messiah when he says he has come down from heaven. He has brought with him “the bread of the angels” (Psalm 78:25) as evidence of his divine status. But Jesus is just getting warmed up! The teaching that follows will drive a wedge between some of the disciples and himself, as Jesus now equates the bread from heaven with his flesh that he will give for the life of the world.
In the synagogue the response is immediate. A quarrel breaks out. How can Jesus give us his flesh to eat? That would amount to cannibalism. In fact, the Greek word that comes out in our translation as “flesh” seems carefully chosen to unsettle them. The word is sarx, and it refers to the actual flesh that is stripped off an animal. This is the kind of flesh Jesus says his disciples must consume if they want to inherit eternal life.
Can Jesus be speaking symbolically? His hearers cannot think so. Manna is not symbolic. It was real, collected and consumed by the people daily for almost forty years. They placed a golden vessel filled with manna in the tabernacle next to the Ten Commandments (Exodus 16:32–34). The new manna Jesus speaks about must be greater than the original. If the original was literal, even more so the new manna. That is the source of the confusion in the synagogue that day.
In the face of the quarrel, Jesus does not back down. To the contrary, he repeats and underscores this teaching. His disciples will have to eat the flesh of the Son of Man (a title for the Messiah from Daniel 7:13) and drink his blood if they want to have his life within them. His flesh is true food and his blood is true drink. The particulars of how the body and blood of Jesus are to be consumed are not yet revealed, but the teaching is clear: the body and blood of Jesus have to be consumed to attain eternal life.
This is blasphemy to many in the synagogue. There are strict prohibitions against both in the Law. How could any of this please the Father? Confusion reigns in the chamber. No one has ever taught like this before, or since! Jesus knows this and reminds the skeptics that their ancestors ate the original manna—and they all died. This new manna from heaven will be food that will sustain the disciples until they experience eternal life.
We should take a moment to consider the character of the original manna as we continue to meditate on this challenging teaching. What was the provision of manna all about? God sent the first manna to sustain the Israelites during their forty years of desert wandering. It was miraculous from beginning to end. It was to be collected daily and would not keep for longer than twenty-four hours. But on Friday morning you were to collect twice as much, to feed your family over the Sabbath, for Friday’s manna would last forty-eight hours! Moses directs Aaron to collect a vessel full of the manna and place it in the ark of the covenant, and God promises that the manna collected in that golden vessel would remain fresh forever as a constant reminder of God’s generous provision and care.
Now take a moment to meditate on the new bread that has come down from heaven. This new must surpass the old just as the Old Testament prefigures the New and the New Testament fulfills the Old. If Jesus is the new manna he too is both miraculously present and divinely provided. The old manna sustained the Israelites but eventually ended. The new manna, the body and blood of Jesus, is present now and will remain with his followers until the end of time. The Old Testament manna ceased when the Israelites crossed into the Promised Land. The provision of the new manna, the body of Jesus, will cease when we cross into eternal life. That is why Jesus promises us that when we eat this bread we can know we will live forever.
I adapted this prayer from the website Faith and Worship. It captures the hope that we have in Jesus, the bread of life:
When the journey is long and we hunger and thirst, Bread of Life, sustain us. When the road is hard and our bodies weak, Bread of Life, heal us. When our spirits are low and we can’t carry on, Bread of Life, revive us. When the challenge is great and the workers are few, Bread of Life, empower us. And when the victory is won and we see your face, Bread of Life, you will rejoice with us. Amen.
Our challenge this week is to pay special attention to the liturgy’s Eucharistic prayers, where we learn how Jesus eventually revealed himself to the apostles at the Last Supper. The Eucharistic prayers are drawn explicitly from Scripture. Find your way to 1 Corinthians 11:23-26. Read this passage with the knowledge that this teaching was written to the Corinthian church in A.D. 52! The tradition St. Paul passed on here predates the Gospel accounts recorded in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. At the Last Supper we learn how Jesus will give us his body and blood as true food and drink. The story is still being told two thousand years later and is as compelling now as it was in the time of our Lord.