When we study a section of the gospels, three questions present themselves: What does this passage mean? How did those who originally hear the words interpret them? How did those who later heard the passage read to them interpret the meaning? Certainly by the time John’s Gospel became generally available, the early Church had established its manner of worship and some core teachings used to instruct enquirers. It’s no surprise that from early times John 6 was interpreted in the light of eucharistic worship. Early Christians did not define precisely how Jesus is present in bread and wine, but they believed it to be true. The whole ritual of preparing converts for baptism presumed that the final privilege of being a Christian culminated in being able to receive Holy Communion. During the years of preparation many would find the teachings too hard to comprehend. Some would fall away but others, like the Simon Peter, would say: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
Jesus taught the words recorded in John 6, before the Eucharist was instituted. Those who originally heard him must have understood him in quite a different manner. Jesus fed them by the lakeshore. He had satisfied their human needs. Yet, Jesus taught, that was not enough. Human needs and activities need to be transformed by the spiritual. That never means that the physical is in some manner antithetical to the spiritual. In Creation God made the material. It was good. Humans fell. Sin corrupted that which was good in the material. In Jesus, the material, the human is restored to the spiritual: to union with God. Jesus did not tell the crowd that he would not satisfy their hunger, or heal the sick. That remained an integral part of his ministry. He did say that there was something more important and that was for them to realize that through Jesus those who were the chosen people must also choose to live in God.
It is interesting that John’s Gospel depicts this as a pivotal moment in our Lord’s ministry. From this point many fell away to join those hostile to Jesus or fell back into apathy. Among those were people identified by the term disciple. They could like what he did, even accept him as a prophet, but to kneel before him as Savior was just too much.
Yet in linking the miracle of feeding to participating through Jesus in unity with God, Jesus anticipated what he would do at the Last Supper and what the Church has continued to do until this day. Yes, Christians feed and heal, seek to meet the material needs of those seeking help, but always in the context of offering Jesus, present in bread and wine.
Grant, O merciful God, that your Church, being gathered together in unity by your Holy Spirit, may show forth your power among all peoples, to the glory of your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Look It Up
Read 1 Cor. 11.
Think About It
How does your participation in offering and receiving the Eucharist enliven the totality of your being?