“Thou hast the words of eternal life”
The sixth chapter of St. John’s Gospel is known as “the Bread of Life Discourse.” It is an extraordinary chapter with important consequences for our life in faith. It concerns our Lord’s teaching about himself and about the means of our abiding in him. “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him” (vs.56). The deeper meaning of our refreshment is to be found in the chapter as a whole. “The words which I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (vs.63). The last sections of this chapter (vs.41ff) indicate how hard and yet how necessary are the teachings of our Lord.
God teaches us about himself and about our life in him. But these are hard teachings. The Jews murmur against Jesus because of the identity they perceive he makes between himself and God, “calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God” (John 5.18). They murmur against him here “because he said, I am the bread of life which came down from heaven” (John 6.41). This conflicts with what they think they know about him. “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?” (vs.42). Their sense of his earthly identity gets in the way of what he would teach them. And what he would teach them is an heavenly knowledge conveyed through earthly signs.
He recalls the point of the prophets, “they shall all be taught by God” (Is. 54.13, Jer. 31.33,34), and centres it upon himself, “everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me”(vs.45). They murmured because in saying “I am the bread which came down from heaven” (vs.41), he identifies himself with the Father as the one who is “from God” (vs.46). That is the meaning of his being the Son, the Son of God become the Son of man.
This divine teaching has a specific focus: “I am the bread of life” (vs.48), “I am the living bread which came down from heaven” (vs.51). It has an even more definite force: “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life”(vs.53). The teaching focuses on our feeding.
To put it even more forcibly, the teaching is the feeding. It is the means of our abiding, indeed, our living in the teaching of God. “As the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me” (vs.57). God’s teaching centres on this heavenly feeding. “This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live for ever” (vs.58). Consequently, we can have no other refreshment in the wilderness journey of our lives.
This teaching that is feeding, this feeding that is teaching, is the meaning of our sacramental life. It is the means of our abiding in Christ. The bread of the fathers was the manna in the wilderness. It was a sign which pointed to what is here realised in Jesus Christ. He identifies himself with the bread of heaven. He is what he signifies. It becomes the hard saying for “many of his disciples”(vs.60), then and now.
The identity of the Son with the Father centres on his identity with the bread, “the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh”, and the necessity of our feeding on him, “if anyone eats of this bread, he will live for ever” (vs.51). Even as he had responded to the murmuring of the Jews about his identity with the Father, in saying that he was “the bread which came down from heaven”, so he responds to the murmuring of his disciples about our feeding upon his flesh and blood.
His response underlies the unity between the teaching and the feeding. Being taught by God and being fed by him are the same; the teaching is feeding, the feeding is teaching. How? Because of why. “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life”(vs.63). The Word is God’s Son who identifies himself in his essential life with the Father. The Word who teaches us about himself and the Father identifies himself with the bread/flesh given as the means of our abiding in his essential life. It is the effective sign of his teaching and the means of our abiding in him.
Yet heavenly teachings are hard sayings. Will we abide in his teaching or not? The context of the teaching is the rejection of the one who teaches. There is the murmuring of the Jews. There is the murmuring of the disciples, but even more, there is the refusal to follow him about and there is the foretelling of his betrayal from within (vs.70). “After this many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him” (vs.66). Will that be said about us? Jesus said to the twelve, and through them to us, even in the hardness of our hearts, “do you also wish to go away?” (vs.67).
Simon Peter’s answer must be our response to his teaching and to our living what he teaches. “Lord, to whom then shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life” (vs.68). He has grasped the teaching and the meaning of the teaching in the feeding. They are the words of eternal life “and we have believed and have come to know that you are the Holy One of God” (vs.69). He has been taught by God. He has come to Christ. “Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me” (vs.45).
The identity of the Son with the Father is conveyed to us through his identity with the bread, his flesh and his blood, which he gives for the life of the world and which he gives for our abiding in him. The heavenly teaching is our spiritual feeding, even in the face of the rejection of his words and the betrayals of his love. Peter, after all, will deny our Lord, only to be returned in love by him from whom he had turned away. Such, too, are the words of eternal life. Even the hardness of these sayings only highlights the necessity of this teaching for our abiding in him whose “words are eternal life.” This teaching that is feeding is our life in Christ.
“Thou hast the words of eternal life”
Father Ed Bakker,
Anglican Catholic Church / Original Province,
Mission of Saint Aidan of Lindisfarne,
Launceston on Tasmania,