The Good News of Jesus was revolutionary for its time. To love one’s enemies in spite of persecution was a challenge previously unheard of in ancient wisdom. In addition, forsaking material goods in pursuit of the love of God and neighbor was also something the people needed the gift of faith to accept. However, Jesus’ most difficult teaching that we see in the Gospels is found in John 6: The Bread of Life Discourse. This teaching was so difficult, that it is the only teaching that causes Jesus to lose disciples when He proclaims it.
At the beginning of John 6, around the time of the Passover a large crowd numbering five thousand men (the women and children were not numbered) came to Jesus to be taught by Him. Jesus desired to give them food, and asked His disciples if they had any to give. A boy produces five loaves of bread and two fish. Jesus takes the food, blesses it, and gives it to the disciples to give to all the people. Miraculously, all of the people eat their fill and there are still twelve baskets left over. The people are so excited that they decided they want to make Jesus king, but He slips away to go pray. In the evening, the disciples also leave by getting in the boat and sailing across the sea of Galilee. Jesus caught up to them in the middle of the night by walking on the water and then helped them to arrive on the other side.
The next morning, the people began to look for Jesus again. They found him on the other side of the sea but did not know how He got there. Jesus calls them out for only searching for Him because they wanted Him to show them another miracle of bread. He chides them to not work for bread that perishes, but that the food that the Son of Man will give them will give eternal life. The crowds agree that they desire this bread and ask for Jesus to give it to them.
It is at this moment that Jesus declares I am the Bread of Life that has come down from heaven to do the will of His Father. The people began to murmur at this statement, unsure how to react. They knew Jesus’ parents and could not understand how He could claim to be from heaven. Jesus takes this moment to emphasize His previous statement. He solemnly states, I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, but they died; this is the bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat it and not die. 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.
There can be no mistake in understanding what Jesus has stated. Using words and phrases like Amen, Amen… I am…. The bread that I will give is my flesh, Jesus is making sure that we understand He is not using symbolic language. The reaction of the Jews indicates this as well. They started getting angry and quarreling about how Jesus could possibly say this. It is at this moment that if a good teacher sees that they are misunderstood, they would stop the lesson and clarify the failure in communication. But Jesus has not been misunderstood, because yet again He doubles down on His words by saying, 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. Jesus meant what He said, and He leaves no room for doubt.
As a result, the crowds left Him, which is to be expected, for they had only come seeking signs. Jesus was not giving them a physical sign, but was revealing to them a spiritual truth. In fact, it was the spiritual truth, but they were too distracted by their material desires to accept Jesus’ words. But next we see that many disciples who had followed Jesus for years were troubled by these words. As a result they left Him and went back to their former way of life. Men and women who had left everything for years left Jesus over this teaching. A symbolic or metaphorical teaching is not a reason to leave your Rabbi. The fact that they did leave signals that Jesus was not speaking symbolically but literally and they were taking Him at His word.
This left Jesus with just His twelve apostles who remained. If there was ever a time to reveal a secret symbolism to His words, now was the time: with His inner circle. However, instead of clarifying a supposed hidden meaning, He challenges them by saying, Do you also want to leave? Simon Peter responds, Master, to whom shall 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.
Led by Peter, the twelve stay, and because they do, they are the ones to receive the Eucharist first at the Last Supper and are charged with the task of giving it to the new nation of God, the Church as was foreshadowed when they handed out the loaves and fishes to the five thousand. But notice the words of Peter. He does not state that they are excited about this new teaching or even that they understand it. But he does say that they trust the words of Jesus because they believe that He is the Son of God. Thus, they are right where they need to be. For the Apostles, they did not understand Jesus, but they believed Him to be the Messiah, the Son of God. And that was enough for them to follow His words, even if they seemed crazy. It is only later in receiving the Eucharist, learning of Jesus’ passion, and experiencing sharing in the Eucharist of the early Church community that they come to fully understand the words of Jesus from the Bread of Life Discourse. Faith led them to experiential understanding, which is the cornerstone of the Christian life.
To this day, disciples still walk away from the Church because of this teaching. It is one that can be difficult to accept, and we must be afforded the opportunity to wrestle with the words of Jesus and His Church. However, true humility enlightened by faith will always lead us back to the undoubtable true statement that Jesus is who He says He is. He is the Bread of Life. The bread and the wine that He gives us is His Body and Blood because He says so. If we would like eternal life, we must partake in the Eucharist. It is a free gift. It is up to us whether to remain with Jesus as the apostles did and receive this incredible gift, or leave Him as so many others have done since the days He walked the Earth.