Today’s gospel passage is taken from the Bread of Life Discourse in John’s gospel. The first verses presuppose that we know about the miracle of the multiplication of loaves and fish that has just been described (6:1-15). At this point, there is a serious disconnect between Jesus and those who have witnessed that miracle. They see only the spectacular nature of the miracle whereas Jesus wants them to see that this is really a preparation for discovering in him the true and only sufficient source of nourishment: the “food that endures for eternal life” (v. 27).
The crowd does not catch the meaning of Jesus and so they ask what God expects of them. They no doubt expect to be told about observances that will please God. But Jesus poses a far more difficult challenge. They are now expected to “believe in the one (God) sent” (v. 29). Faith in Jesus and acceptance of his teaching is the primary requirement. And when they ask for a sign like the manna given to Israel in the desert, Jesus states his claim as the new manna that gives perfect nourishment: “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst” (v. 35).
It is important to note that, though Jesus identifies himself as “the bread of life” (v. 35), he is not yet speaking about the sacramental Eucharist. The emphasis in this segment of the Bread of Life Discourse is placed on the faith-acceptance of the teaching of Jesus. In other words, he is nourishment first of all as one who offers us the life-giving words of God about the meaning of our lives. Moreover, this divine message, if it is to nourish for eternal life, must be accepted in a way that leads us from self-centeredness to unselfish love and sacrifice for others.
It is for this reason that Jesus states that he is the bread of life for the one who “comes” to him and “believes” in him (v. 35). There is no reference yet to eating or drinking, which will come later. It is very important to understand this point because it reminds us that only a believing reception of the Body and Blood of Jesus will bring us true life. Unfortunately, it is only too easy to receive the Eucharist without a true and effective commitment in our daily lives to the ideal of unselfish behavior that is so perfectly represented by this sacrament.
To put the matter another way, we are being challenged by Jesus to avoid a magical or mechanical understanding of the power of this supreme sacrament. It does not nourish us spiritually simply by the action of receiving it. There must also be a firm intention to change one’s life in a way that is in harmony with this supreme Sacrament of Jesus’ giving of himself for us.
Demetrius R. Dumm, O.S.B.