Although many of the Jewish listeners who hear Him speaking in the synagogue at Capernaum are grumbling and murmuring in protest at His insistence that they eat His flesh and drink His blood, Jesus does not back down. In fact, He “doubles down” and quite graphically teaches a very real (as opposed to symbolic) call to eat His flesh and drink His blood. Let’s examine Jesus’ teaching in four stages.
I. REALITY of the Eucharist – Jesus begins by insisting on its reality, saying, “I 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.” Notice, therefore, that the bread is His flesh. The bread is not simply a symbol of His flesh, of His body, or of His life and teachings. It is not simply a way of remembering Him when He is gone. No, it is His flesh. Other scriptural passages also insist on the true presence of Jesus in the Eucharist and the truth that it is His Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity.
- For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me” (1 Cor 11:23-25).
- The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a communion in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a communion in the body of Christ? (1 Cor 10:16)
- Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself (1 Cor 11:27-29).
- When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and he vanished out of their sight. Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread (Luke 24:31, 35).
Thus, the Lord first teaches them of the reality of the Eucharist, of the bread and wine that He offers: it is in fact His Body and Blood.
II. REACTION – The Lord’s teaching provokes a strong reaction from His listeners: The Jews quarreled among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”
This is one of the most difficult moments of Jesus’ public ministry. The scene is the synagogue at Capernaum, the town where Jesus worked some of His greatest miracles. You’d think he’d have a really supportive audience here!
As it turns out, you might say he had no “Amen corner.” The old spiritual was demonstrated that goes, “Way down yonder by myself and I couldn’t hear nobody pray.”
As we continue with this Gospel next week, we will see that their revulsion is so severe that many leave Him and no longer walk in His company.
I wonder if Jesus had this moment in mind when he said of Capernaum, And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to Heaven? You shall be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that it shall be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you” (Mat 11:23-24).
III. REINFORCEMENT – Jesus does not back down. Their rejection leads Him to reinforce His teaching: Jesus 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. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.”
Yes, Jesus gets emphatic and uses the intensifier “Amen, Amen I say to you,” which is the Jewish equivalent of “Let me be perfectly clear.” He also switches His vocabulary from the polite word for “eat,” φαγεῖν (phagein), to τρώγων (trogon), which more graphically and almost impolitely speaks of gnawing on, crunching, or chewing His flesh.
Jesus wants to be very clear. His listeners now understand Him to speak literally, rather than metaphorically or symbolically. Jesus assures them that He expects to be understood literally. Why is He so emphatic? He wants to save us. He links the eating of His Body and Blood to eternal life: Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. In order to be raised up and to make the journey to eternal life, we must be sustained and strengthened for the journey by eating His flesh and drinking His blood.
It is just like the manna that sustained the Israelites for forty years in the desert as they journeyed to the Promised Land. Had they not eaten, they would have died in the desert. So it is for us in the desert of this world. Without our manna, our Bread from Heaven, without the Body and Blood of the Lord to sustain us, we will not make it to the Promised Land of Heaven.
Jesus insists and says, “Unless you eat …” because otherwise the journey will be too long for you! For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. I am the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die.
IV. REWARD of the Eucharist – Here Jesus’ words speak plainly of the reward in receiving the Eucharist: Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. Just 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. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Unlike your ancestors who ate and still died, whoever eats this bread will live forever. Note that Jesus mentions three rewards:
Intimacy – The Eucharist is called Holy Communion because, by it, we grow into a deep, lasting union with Jesus. Our knowledge and experience of Him in our life becomes deeper and more real. We see and experience His power at work in our life.
Increase – We find that our life grows richer. Sin is put to death and graces come alive. We are more joyful, confident, and serene. We are less vain, angry, lustful, and distracted. Jesus in His Eucharistic indwelling of us produces these effects over time.
Immortality – Eternal life refers to the fullness of life more so than its length. We become more alive as we grow into Holy Communion with the Lord. This happens even now, though its fullest effects wait until Heaven. Don’t miss the “now-ness” of eternal! It begins now and grows deeper with each year. Heaven will see its full unfolding, but even now a growing experience of a fuller and fuller life is to be the normative experience of every Christian.
The Teaching of the Eucharist was costly for Jesus in many ways. Clearly it pointed to and flowed from His horrific passion and death, but even before that, He had much to suffer from the murmuring of many of His disciples. As we continue with this Gospel next week, we will see that many would no longer follow Him because of this teaching. It was, to be sure, a shocking—even graphic—teaching. Yet so critical was it to the Lord that we obtain the Eucharist, that He was willing to risk rejection and ultimately give up His life so that we could have it—a costly meal indeed!