The eight verses that constitute today’s gospel reading represent the climax of the lengthy Bread of Life Discourse in chapter six of John’s gospel. The first fifty verses have been concerned with the spiritual nourishment that Jesus has brought into our spiritually famished world. In fact, Jesus declares, in v. 35, that he is “the bread of life,” that is, the nourishment that provides the kind of spiritual life that cannot be threatened by illness or death. He makes it clear, however, that this nourishment is available only to those who believe in him, that is, to those accept and adopt in their lives his teaching about unselfish love.
In the climactic verse fifty-one, we find the first mention of the Eucharist itself: “the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” This verse, therefore, represents John’s version of the institution of the Eucharist, which is found here in his gospel rather than at the Last Supper. This radical change gives John ample opportunity to insist, in the previous fifty verses, on the importance of a believing, rather than a merely routine, reception of the Eucharist.
John uses much more graphic language than the other evangelists in his description of the institution and the implications of the Eucharist. When the audience of Jesus resists his statement about his “flesh for the life of the world,” he repeats and reinforces his original words: “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” (v. 53).
This forceful statement not only insists on the importance of receiving the Eucharist but it also means, as we see everywhere in this gospel, that the meaning of the Eucharist must be reflected in the lives of those who receive the sacrament. For this is Body-broken and Blood-poured-out for others. Accordingly, we will participate fully in the benefits of the Eucharist only to the extent that we imitate, in all aspects of our lives, the generosity and unselfishness that we see in the life of Jesus himself. The Eucharist will certainly help us to be more thoughtful and compassionate and forgiving but this cannot happen without our own serious commitment to love and service of others.
John then goes beyond the other gospels in spelling out the practical implications of conforming our lives to the demands of the Eucharist. The most significant consequence is presented in v. 57: “Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me.” This is a truly daring and wonderful assurance that we fragile human beings can hope to share in the very life of God. We can actually enter into that flow of life that courses between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And to the extent that this happens, through our commitment to God’s unselfish way of loving, our eternal life will be assured.
Demetrius R. Dumm, O.S.B.