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.” (NRSV)
Jesus’ words attempt to resolve a dispute. They offer needed clarification and explanation. I say needed because Jesus caused controversy.
Not that this was Jesus’ primary intention. It was not. Jesus remains with the crowd and their questions, responding to their complaints, disputes, and requests. His words are offered in good faith seeking to communicate – an offer of light and sight, not darkness and blindness. His words seek connection and, ultimately deep communion.
So what has gone so very wrong? Maybe nothing. Even in dispute we can truly ask, seek, and knock. After all, parables (or riddles) deliberately send us on a search. A story can deliberately seem so implausible that we are forced to look for an alternate understanding. We move toward an answer and are enlightened when we see more than we initially imagined.
Jesus’ questioners look deeper precisely because they know enough of bread to question whether Jesus is a loaf!
Yes, Jesus speaks from that which is familiar: bread, food, drink. So once again Jesus re-visits, builds, and develops his story. Now he is saying things like: ‘Eat my flesh’; ‘drink my blood’; ‘my flesh is true food’; ‘my blood is true drink’; ‘whoever eats me will live’. Is all this really so far from ‘bread of life’?
I don’t think so. But it does go deeper. It invites response: I am the bread…therefore take the risk – chew, swallow, digest, be satisfied, enlivened, and live once more. Eating was the natural and immediate response to the spread of loaves and fish. Now it is the hoped for response to the offer of Jesus himself.
The imagery of Jesus as bread (food) and wine (drink) is also found in the other three gospels. There, while celebrating Passover, Jesus breaks bread, pours a cup and invites: ‘Take, eat; this is my body…Drink…for this is my blood’. This invitation and its image initiate his table around which people continue to gather.
Communion is a place of thought-provoking parable, of action, and of nourishment. On the surface it offers a wafer of bread and a sip of wine. At its core it communicates God’s activity in our world while simultaneously inviting, accepting and enacting our participation in this mission. We are invited to this table – to eat, consume and live.
And we do it together. Jesus as bread initially caused open dispute and confusion – and it still raises questions. Yet this truth is most deeply expressed and fully incarnated as we gather together in the community created around the bread of life.