John 6:51-58

Commentary Excerpt by Tom Boomershine

This section of the bread discourse begins with an incredibly provocative question and answer. It is a puzzle that introduces one of the most provocative set of statements in the whole of the biblical tradition. Jesus' words explaining his answer to the question "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" are highly concrete. He does not make these words symbolic: "eat my flesh and drink my blood." The question that underlies the puzzle of this discourse and of this particular section, which is what does "the bread" actually mean?

Generally these statements are taken as doctrinal descriptions of what has become the doctrine of transubstantiation. In other words, as a way of trying to interpret what Jesus means here, the church in the medieval period concluded that in the Eucharist the bread and wine became Jesus' body and blood in their actual substance. The literalism of these statements became the basis for a philosophical description that was itself even more realistic and literal in its interpretation of these words. But the thing that becomes clear in the telling of the story is that this is not so much about substance as it is about relationship.

The bread discourse has what is in effect a kind of long decrescendo. It's a long speech that gets softer and softer and more and more intimate. This is the climax of the movement of relationship between the listeners and Jesus. Jesus is describing the intimacy of relationship that exists between him and those who believe in him and eat the bread that he provides. The understanding of the bread that was given at the feeding of the 5000 is then made very explicit in terms of relationship. The relationship is a relationship of intimacy and in that intimacy people will find spiritual life. They will find eternal life by being part of this intimate relationship with Jesus and with God. The words are not pronouncements so much as they are descriptions of intimacy.

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