The Gospel section chosen for this Sunday is John 6,41-51, and is a continuation of the revelation Jesus had already given when he identified himself as the 'bread of life' and the 'bread come down from heaven'. The passage of his speech which we read now is made up of two distinct parts. If one only hears this passage, as one would in church at the Eucharist, it would seem to simply repeat Jesus' claim that he is the bread of life. It is good, then, to look more closely at the passage to see more precisely what John would like us to take away from this part of Jesus' speech.
1. To Jesus' claim to be the bread of life and the bread come down from heaven is a apparently strange response. People do not debate (at least for the moment) about his being the bread of life; what they cannot accept is his claim to 'have come down from heaven'; this is what they mean when they note that they know Jesus' parents. He is human, in our experience, not 'come down from heaven'. We are hearing, then, an argument, not about who gives life, but where does Jesus come from. To the crowd's assertion that Jesus is only human, Jesus offers an expected answer. He does not counter-claim that 'I am from heaven'. Rather, he looks to explain this completely wrong assessment of the crowd about his origins. He explains that they are in error because they have not been drawn to him by the Father, that they have not been taught by the Father who Jesus is. (Elsewhere Jesus will also claim that even if and when the Father draws and teaches, people can refuse his efforts and so end up denying that Jesus is the one sent from the Father, the one who will raise them up on the last day.) One knows Jesus only if one has been graced by the Father. Since this drawing and teaching depends on the free will of the Father, the resultant knowledge about Jesus is a gift, and the human response to the gift is belief (or refusal to believe what the Father teaches). We seem to be far from the assertion of Jesus that he is the bread of life; we are concerned about who can know his divinity, and about the acceptance (which is faith) of the Father's teaching about him and his origin in the Father.
2. Jesus then returns to his claim, 'I am the bread of life'. He claims two things now. First, the bread (manna), so famous for its saving the ancestors from death in the desert, really could not provide life forever, wonderful and miraculous as it was. Jesus can provide life forever, and now he pictures this gift along the lines of bread, which strengthens a person so he will not die forever. Jesus gives that life-giving strength, and in various ways (eg through his Spirit dwelling in us). Second, he asserts again that if one eat this bread from heaven, he will live forever, even if he must first die a human death. And the reason for this life forever is that the bread given to human beings is really the flesh and blood by which salvation and eternal life was won for them. For the first time in this lengthy speech about the Eucharistic bread we hear words which connect this bread with Jesus' death, a death which assures us of our eternal life.
John Kilgallen, S.J.