Jesus, The Bread Of Life
HOMILY ON JOHN 6 By Fr. Robert Chiesa, S.J
On returning to Capernaum from their first preaching mission, the disciples told Jesus about all they had done and taught. There were so many people coming and going that Jesus and his disciples didn’t even have time to eat. So he said to them, “Let’s go off by ourselves to some place where we will be alone and you can rest for a while.” So they got into a boat and set out. The people, however, saw them leave, ran ahead by land, and arrived before Jesus and the disciples. When Jesus got out of the boat and saw the large crowd, he was moved to pity for them and began to teach them many things. It got late and everyone was hungry. That was the setting given in the 6th chapter of Mark’s Gospel.
The story of the feeding of 5,000 follows and we shift over to the 6th chapter of John’s Gospel, where the feeding miracle is followed by a long discourse about the bread of life. Having been fed by Jesus himself, the crowd is so deeply impressed that they try to seize him and make him king, but he escapes into the hills alone. The disciples get into the boat to return to Capernaum without Jesus and the crowd disperses. During the night Jesus comes to the disciples walking across the water. They are terrified at first, but he reassures them. They take him into the boat and soon reach land.
Meanwhile, back in Capernaum, the people are surprised to see Jesus there. He tells them, “You are looking for me because you ate the bread and had all you wanted, not because you understood the meaning of the sign I gave you. Work for the food that lasts for eternal life, which I am giving you.” “What work can we do to get that food?” they ask. Jesus says, “Believe in me. I have been sent to you by the Father.” Then they say, “What sign will you perform so that we can believe in you?” They have already forgotten about the sign he gave them the day before. “Moses gave our ancestors manna in the desert,” they say. Jesus tells them “It wasn’t Moses that gave you that food. It’s my Father who gives you the real bread from heaven.” “Sir,” they say, “give us that bread always.” Then Jesus makes that solemn and unforgettable claim: “I am the bread of life that came down from heaven. Those who come to me will never be hungry.”
That claim of Jesus starts the people grumbling: “Who does this fellow think he is? We know his father and mother. How can he say he came down from heaven?” Jesus answers, “Stop your grumbling. No one can come to me unless drawn to me by the Father who sent me. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate manna in the desert, but they died. Whoever eats this bread that comes down from heaven will not die. I am that living bread.” Jesus is referring to himself as the spiritual food that nourishes us, living among us to show us how to live—in union with others, in the service of others.
The first part of the Mass, the liturgy of the Word, puts us in touch with Jesus in the Gospel and shows us how his word is food for us, the bread of true life, fulfilling the signs and hopes contained in the Scriptures and drawing us into union with one another and with our Father in heaven.
But at this point in John’s Gospel Jesus goes on to say, “The bread that I will give is my flesh, given for the life of the world. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life.” Eating flesh and drinking blood! That was a very shocking assertion—but maybe not for us who are accustomed to the symbolic meaning of the bread and wine of the Eucharist in the second part of the Mass. The Christians who heard John’s Gospel in their community toward the end of the First Century were also accustomed to this symbolism since they had been participating in the Eucharist for 60 or maybe 70 years. But outsiders were accusing them of cannibalism, just as Jesus’ hearers in this Gospel find it “too hard to accept.”
Jesus faces their reaction directly. “Does this shock you?” he says. “There are some of you who do not believe.” And many of the disciples turned away from him “and no longer accompanied him.” Then Jesus turned to the Twelve—and now he turns to us—and asks, “And you—do you also want to leave?” I wonder how many of them looked around to see what the others were going to do. As usual, Peter spoke up for them all saying, “Master, to whom would we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.”
It is generally accepted among bible commentators that Jesus reached a point in his native Galilee when people began to be disappointed in him. He wasn’t the Messiah-King they were hoping for. Despite all his kind words of encouragement and powerful acts of healing, he did not seem to be the man who would call for an end to Roman occupation and “make Israel great again.” They began to drift away from him or even oppose him verbally. So Jesus turns his attention more closely to the disciples who decided to stay with him, urged on by Peter’s profession of faith.
Let us try to resonate with Peter as he assures Jesus that they have nowhere else to go. They are bound to him. Jesus challenges us, too: “Do you also want to leave?” I often say that we profess our faith with our feet. Before professing our faith using the words of the Creed here during Mass, we have already professed our faith with our feet—by making the effort to come to the Mass in the first place. So we say to Jesus, “No. We don’t want to leave you. We have come here to be with you. You are the eternal life we seek in the Gospel and receive in Communion.”