Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said,
“I am the bread that came down from heaven.”
They were saying,
“Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?”
Jesus answered them,
“Do not complain among yourselves. No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying,
“How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”
So Jesus said to them,
“Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”
He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum. When many of his disciples heard it, they said,
“This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”
But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them,
“Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe.”
For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. And he said,
“For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.”
Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.
This is one of those passages where we hear of Jesus saying words which shock and offend. I chose to look at this passage precisely because I have found it hard to grasp. I’m guessing that many other people have too. It turns out we are not alone – John records in this passage that some of those who heard Jesus speak were offended! We can imagine them saying “Who does he think he is?” “The bread come from heaven?” They certainly took offence at the very suggestion. But then it got worse: Eat his body! Drink his blood! “This teaching is too difficult!”
Jesus speaks of something gruesome: eat his body, and the word means to munch, to chew thoroughly, even noisily; drink his blood – but no Jew is to eat or drink anything with its life-blood in it! Our passage connects us to the Last Supper, and to Holy Communion. I have a confession to make: I really struggle when people serve the bread and wine and say “This is the body of Jesus; this is the blood of Jesus’” when what I can see is clearly a piece of bread or a wafer, and a cup of wine or juice. My struggle with today’s passage is that Jesus’ words are clearly about physical eating, digesting, and drinking. We cannot get away from that. But Jesus’ body has never been physically eaten, nor his blood physically drunk.
Some of those who heard Jesus speaking, taking his words literally, were offended, and some of his followers turned back. Jesus, however, frequently used literal language and descriptions to describe spiritual truths. So what spiritual truth is in our passage? I found a suggestion that – when eating and drinking we choose take into ourselves something which is outside us, and then it becomes part of us. If we take this as a description of living out faith, then Jesus in whom we put our faith, wants us to reach out and take Him to ourselves, actively and purposefully. Perhaps reminding us that His prayer for us is that we may be one with Him, just as He is one with the Father.
Jesus, bread of life; help us to admit our struggles, and help us to wrestle with your words, Jesus, living bread; we thank you that you are always reaching out to us, in many ways. Help us to respond to you; help us to learn how put our faith in you, more and more, and in many ways. Jesus, bread of life; we thank you that your prayer for us is that we may be one with you as you are one with the Father. Help us to learn how to become one with you, more and more, and in many ways. Amen.
The Rev’d Annette Haigh is the minister of the Goyt and Etherow Pastorate in Derbyshire.