In our progress through the Gospel of John this Epiphany season, we have come to one of the most beloved sections of the fourth Gospel, perhaps even all four Gospels. Jesus’s words in John 6, known by some as the “Bread of Life” discourse, serve as the basis for much of our eucharistic theology, but they also provide some of the hardest words Jesus says to his disciples. Jesus tells his audience that they must eat his flesh and drink his blood, prompting many to respond: “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” and “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”
Yet two matters often escape our attention in this section: First, this disbelief and difficulty is spoken not by Jesus’s opponents, not by Pharisees, nor people sent from Herod, nor from Romans, but rather from Jesus’s disciples. Secondly, Jesus continually ramps up the difficulty: “I am the Bread of Life” becomes by the end of our reading, “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” (John 6:53).
In the path of Christian discipleship, what begins with ease, joy, and hope can falter at the difficulty that often comes amidst the changes and chances of this life. Maturing through these dry periods requires wrestling with the possibility that if we are to believe that God loves us, it may be that God could have brought us to such times of trial for the sake of this same love. This same love that has filled our bellies and our hearts with this living bread, as in John 6, also draws us deeper into the mystery of this love, to know this love in the flesh and blood of Jesus, both given to us and also given for us.
The mystery of the Eucharist is not only a way God provides for our felt needs; it is also a way in which Jesus gives us the flesh that was pierced on the cross and the blood that bled out of him on our behalf. If this understanding will ever mature from mere intellectual acknowledgement into the kind of knowledge that abides in the depths of our souls, it can only come of personal experience of the dying and rising of Jesus Christ in our daily lives. Paul puts it this way, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Phil 3:10–11).
By walking in this way, accepting the cross in our own lives, we participate in the substance of what it means to eat his flesh and drink his blood: taking the death of Jesus into ourselves, incorporating it into how we understand the path of our life in Christ. Jesus put it this way, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” The Prayer of Humble access echoes, “Grant us, therefore, so to eat his flesh and drink his blood that he may evermore dwell in us, and we in him.” Grant us… This is a gift of God’s grace.
Our readings this week, when taken as a unit, actually suggest a two-fold consideration. First, they invite us to consider the sacrament and the challenging, but grace-filled, road of discipleship. In John 5 an encounter around a healing bath becomes an occasion for reflection on God’s grace. “The invalid by the pool could not bring himself to the healing waters, but had to wait for someone else to put him ‘into the pool when the water is stirred up,’ or to say to him ‘Stand up, take up your mat and walk.’”
They further invite us to reflect upon the gracious opportunities God provides for new disciples, still haltingly finding the words to describe what God has done, to bear witness to Jesus’s saving work—“The man who made me well said to me, ‘Take up your mat and walk”… “Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had disappeared in the crowd that was there” (John 5:13).
From the passage on the healing bath, analogous to our baptism (John 5:1–17), we move to a passage about the authority of the Son of God, given by the Father (John 5:18–30). These passages use language reminiscent of the accounts of the baptism of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels, where Jesus is baptized, identified as God’s Son by the heavenly voice, and embarks from there to his ministry, the first step of which is his temptation in the wilderness.
The Synoptic accounts of Jesus’s baptism announce Jesus as God’s Son in language borrowed heavily from the Hebrew Bible: “You are my Son” (Ps 2:7) “the beloved” (Gen 22:2) “with whom I am well-pleased” (Is 42:1). When John articulates this relationship of Jesus with God as Son to Father, he frames it in terms of the Hebrew Scriptures: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf” (John 5:39).
Just as baptism leads to identification with Jesus’s divine Sonship, making us by adoption what belongs to Jesus by nature, so too in John this baptism-like scene provokes an understanding of our ongoing identification with and consideration of our life in Christ. This life is nourished by his Body and Blood, and bound up in its destiny of eternal resurrection life: “But the one who eats this bread will live forever” (John 6:58).
As you read this week, ask yourself, where are you hungry? Where in your life are the places where you need God the Son to come to you as you wait for the waters of healing to be stirred? Consider also paying attention to the story of your life. Have there been places where the words Jesus says have seemed too difficult, and you walked away? Not every disciple turning away became Judas (John 6:70–71). Some of us keep showing up at our place in the pew, but we get along by hardening our hearts or closing our ears. “Today, if you would hear his voice, harden not your hearts” (Ps 95:8). After all, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).
Fr. Paul Wheatley is a priest of the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas and a Ph.D. student at the University of Notre Dame.