I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” ESV
This is an alliteration of the I am of verse 35. Instead of, I am the bread of live, we now see I am the living bread. There is no difference in the meaning.
In this section Jesus becomes more pointed; the life of the world is my flesh. Ignatius, writing in the early second century, had this to say about the verse. Come together in common one and all without exception in charity, in one faith and in one Jesus Christ…and break one bread, which is the medicine of immortality and the antidote against death, enabling us to live forever in Jesus Christ. ACCS
Jesus never said we are to eat his physical flesh and drink his physical blood. Jesus us using a metaphor/analogy/symbol/allegory; take your pick.
What Jesus wants us to understand is that we must become one with him. We cannot just hang around; we must commit body and soul to Jesus to have any chance of coming into the presence of God. Look again at the people who were fed on the mountain and who followed Jesus across the lake. They saw the miracles and believed Jesus could do miracles, so they followed him. But how did Jesus respond to them? You are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. NIV
Churches are filled with people who expect to get something from attending. They follow Jesus for the bread, not the Bread of Life. Only the most dynamic preacher, the best choir, the best Gospel music, the best youth group, the preacher who does not upset my way of thinking. Some sign on because the congregation is filled with business contacts. Think about why you attend where you do; is it for the bread or to follow Jesus?
Cyril of Alexandria in the fourth century has an interesting statement for us, It was therefore right that faith should first be rooted in them before understanding. ACCS It is only when we pledge ourselves to Jesus that we can begin to understand the meaning of his ‘flesh’ ideas.
Philoxenus of Mabbug—early fifth century Syrian Orthodox—adds this: Now, in as much as a sinner receives our Lord’s body and blood in faith, he is in our Lord, and our Lord is in him as our Lord himself says. ACCS
In the late second century, Irenaeus gave us a hint of transubstantiation. For as the bread that is produced from the earth, when it receives the invocation of God, is no longer common bread but the Eucharist, consisting of two realities, earthly and heavenly, so also our bodies when they receive the Eucharist are no longer corruptible, having the hope of the resurrection to eternity. ACCS
Irenaeus did not describe transubstantiation. The acceptance of the doctrine did not happen all at once in the Roman Church but was formalized throughout the 11th and 12th centuries. In the thousand years between Irenaeus and the formalization, many thousands of Christians struggled with the words of Jesus.
Beginning with verse 53, here is what Jesus tells us in the Gospel of John. This was written at least 60 years after Jesus spoke these words.
So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” ESV
John is the newest of the NT writings. The oldest statement of the Eucharist/Communion is found in Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth, chapter 11, written about 55 AD. Even this early writing was a quarter century after the event we are considering.
For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. ESV
Mark is the next source, written likely in the 60s. The account begins in 14:22.
And as they were eating, he took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, and they all drank of it. And he said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly, I say to you, I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” ESV
Matthew is the next Gospel to be written, perhaps 70. The account begins at 26:26.
Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” ESV
Luke could have written his Gospel about the time of Matthew’s, or some years later. His account is found in 22:14ff.
And when the hour came, he reclined at table, and the apostles with him. And he said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said, “Take this, and divide it among yourselves. For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood. But behold, the hand of him who betrays me is with me on the table. For the Son of Man goes as it has been determined, but woe to that man by whom he is betrayed!” ESV
And John, as I said, was written last of these five sources.
These are the passages on which the doctrine of transubstantiation is built. As a Protestant, I approach the doctrine with skepticism. Yet, I can understand why the Roman church holds so tightly to the doctrine.
It is the account in John that gives us the strongest sense of cannibalism. Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood. In the Greek, the word translated here as ‘eat’ can also be rendered as ‘chew’; unless you chew the flesh.
No Roman, no Eastern, no Coptic, and no Protestant believes that the actual bread and wine is anything other than bread and wine. Where the Romans leave us is at the consecration of the bread and wine. They base the transubstantiation on the words of Peter in 67ff. So Jesus said to the twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” ESV
This statement is often glossed over. We like to give Peter and the boys credit for having more faith than most of us, but what Peter was really saying was, ‘we have no idea what you mean about eating your flesh, but we believe in you anyway.’ Their faith was small and their understanding was even smaller, but they were in for the duration. The Roman argument is that by sticking to Jesus over the centuries we now have the understanding that the bread becomes flesh and the wine blood.
The Roman doctrine is that anyone who has the faith Peter expressed will eat the bread as it becomes the flesh of Jesus, and he will wash the flesh with a sip of wine which becomes the blood [not all churches include the wine].
I can go with the faith message even without consecration by a priest. It is clear to me that Jesus wants us to consider the bread and wine of Eucharist/Communion to be his body in that experience. Our bodies know that we are eating bread and wine but our mind and spirits know that Jesus has entered our being.
We should expect to take Jesus with us as we leave the congregation to reenter the world. To have Jesus with us as we go through the week should help us to put God’s work first. When life in this world gets too hard, we have the assurance that Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.
When Jesus said, the life of the world is my flesh, he meant something else that Peter and the boys did not yet understand; namely, that Jesus would die and that he would defeat death and rise up out of the grave. By accepting that as reality, we can take on the body and blood of Jesus and live brief lives in this world as pale imitations of him.
Be righteous and do good.