When Jesus mentions his flesh, the tension in the crowd increases. The people are not just grumbling (v. 41); they are arguing sharply with one another (v. 52). Once again we see people who come to Jesus as a rabbi, who even wanted to make him king, but who are far from treating him as either a king or a rabbi. They are not receiving his teaching, as cryptic and offensive as it is. Like Nicodemus, they can only ask how such a thing can be (v. 52; cf. 3:9). "When questioning concerning the `how' comes in, there comes in with it unbelief" (Chrysostom In John 46.2). And Jesus does not make it easy for them. He now makes sure they get the point that real eating and drinking are involved. As he deepens the offense in these verses, he also explains in a very profound way the eternal life he is offering.
Jesus begins by revealing more sharply our need of the life he offers: I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you (v. 53). He claims that the life he is talking about is not merely some optional gift that we can afford to ignore. Apart from the life he offers, we are dead. Here is a claim as demanding as are his earlier claims about his own identity and what he offers to those who believe in him (vv. 30-51). Our utter neediness is seen clearly when set against the greatness of his offer: Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day (v. 54). Jesus is promising a new quality of life now and resurrection in the future.
He says, my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink (v. 55). What does real mean here? C. K. Barrett captures part of what Jesus is saying when he explains, "My flesh and blood really are what food and drink should be, they fulfill the ideal, archetypal function of food and drink" (1978:299). This insight is confirmed by what follows: Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him (v. 56). The eating and the drinking has to do with shared life, mutual indwelling. In the physical realm one of the most powerful examples of shared life is eating and drinking—the laying down of life by a plant or animal and the interpenetration of life as molecules are transferred, thereby nourishing life. So once again Jesus' mystifying words are referring to something that could not be understood until after his death, resurrection and ascension and the coming of the Spirit. His death will be the ultimate laying down of life; his resurrection, ascension and sending the Spirit bring onto the human scene the new possibility of actually sharing in the life of God (cf. 17:21-23) as he, the incarnate one, has shared in our life.
The ultimate source of our life is the Father, as Jesus next explains: Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me (v. 57). Our union with the Son enables us to share his life, just as he in turn lives because of the Father. Once again we find the full explanation of who Jesus is and of what he offers when we understand his relationship with the Father. There is an ordering in this relationship, a clear hierarchy, for the Father is the source of all. Our life is entirely dependent on Jesus, as is his on the Father (cf. chaps. 13—17).
In this section, therefore, Jesus is speaking of his death and the shared life that his death will make possible. The language of eating and drinking "appear to be a very graphic way of saying that men must take Christ into their innermost being" (Morris 1971:378). There may also be an allusion to martyrdom, to sharing in the way of the cross (Michaels 1989:116), for "there can be no participation in the life of God except by an equally concrete factual participation in the self-surrender of Jesus" (Newbigin 1982:86). More controversial is whether there is reference here also to the Eucharist.
There are several hints in the text that Jesus is referring to the sacrament here. First, the image of drinking Christ's blood (6:53) does not correspond to the starting point, namely, to the feeding of the five thousand and the manna in the wilderness. Jesus started with the simple image of bread, and now he brings in the idea of blood and drink. Drinking blood is not a natural image for receiving his revelation, though it might be suggestive of receiving his life, since "the life of every creature is its blood" (Lev 17:14; Deut 12:23). But it is a very scandalous image for a Jew since drinking any blood, let alone human blood, was forbidden by the law (Lev 3:17; 17:14; Deut 12:23). Second, although the reference to "real" food and drink (6:55) means this eating and drinking "fulfill the ideal, archetypal function of food and drink" (Barrett 1978:299), it does not mean that this eating and drinking are something other than actual eating and drinking. This is archetypal, "real" (alethes) food and drink, just as Nathaniel was "really" (alethos), archetypically, an Israelite (1:47). Being archetypal did not mean Nathaniel was not also an actual Israelite, nor would the flesh and blood's being archetypal food and drink necessarily mean they are not also actual food and drink. If there is a reference here to actual food and drink, then it must refer somehow to the Eucharist since there is nothing else to which it would correspond. We know from the Synoptics and Paul that Jesus commanded us to observe this rite and that Christians did indeed do so. Christians then, as now, naturally find reference here to the Eucharist unless controversies lead them to find some other explanation.
A third hint is found in the occurrence of the verb form of Eucharist (eucharisteo) earlier in this story (6:11, 23). This may be significant since it is rather superfluous in verse 23. Fourth, the wording of verse 53 follows the pattern given in the Synoptic account of the institution of the Eucharist; for example, Matthew 26:26-28 reads, "Take and eat; this is my body. . . . Drink. . . . This is my blood" (cf. Brown 1966:284-85). A fifth hint is the word used for eats in 6:54. Instead of esthio, which is used elsewhere in this chapter (6:5, 23, 26, 31, 49-53, 58), John uses trogo (also in 6:56-58). While esthio is often used metaphorically, trogo is not; it is a word tied almost entirely to the physical process of eating food.
If there is indeed reference here to the Eucharist, a number of questions are raised, and we must be careful not to read into this text all of the later controversies and refinements. The most obvious point of the text would be that there is some connection between partaking of Christ's flesh and blood in the Eucharist and having eternal life. This would be puzzling, since it appears to put this activity on the level of faith. Both faith and this eating and drinking would be necessary for eternal life (6:47, 51). Apparently, it is not for nothing that our Lord commands us to hold Eucharist (1 Cor 11:25)!
This parallel between faith and Eucharist does not, however, deny the primacy of faith. If both are necessary for life, faith is still the more primary in that it is necessary for obtaining the benefits of the Eucharist. God's life is available in the Eucharist because he promises to be present. We do not attract him there or make him present by our faith. He is present where people gather for Eucharist at his command. But if we do not appropriate it rightly by faith, it may do us no good or even cause harm (cf. 1 Cor 10:1-22; 11:27-30). The actual life-giving efficacy in feeding is only appropriated by faith—the Eucharist is not magically efficacious. The Eucharist is a point of contact with divine reality; it is a means of grace, a means of God's power and life in our lives. But it is not a way to manipulate God, nor does it make this spiritual contact by magic, apart from God's own gracious activity and a person's response of faith.
To say the Eucharist is necessary for eternal life is not necessarily as scandalous as it might seem at first. In the strictest sense of the word, very little is absolutely essential, as the thief on the cross demonstrates: all he had was faith in Jesus as the King of the Jews and a desire to be with him. Jesus here is talking about that which is generally necessary. "The sacrament is normally necessary; but it is the communion alone that is vital" (Temple 1945:95); abiding in him on the basis of his sacrificial death is what is essential. In a sense, the necessity of the Eucharist would be similar to saying one must be a member of the church. Here also we could get embroiled in controversies. But suffice it to say, the church in the New Testament is the locus of divine life, the very body of Christ. Eucharist is one of the central features of church life, and it actually effects our oneness, according to Paul (1 Cor 10:16-17). It is an occasion on the social level that feeds the spiritual life by getting in touch with the divine love of God manifest in the divine self-giving on the cross. The New Testament knows nothing of a Christianity apart from the church. The New Testament is very concrete. It points to this man Jesus and says he is the Son of God. And it points to this community and says, Here is the body of Christ, the center of divine life on earth in its fullest expression. The necessity of the Eucharist is a part of the necessity of the church. It is a part of God's dealing with us as material and relational beings.
Here, then, is some of the deepest New Testament teaching about the Eucharist. The focus of this teaching is on sacrifice and shared life. These are inseparable since there is no sharing of life without the laying down of life. The once-for-all sacrifice of Christ is the pouring out of his life for the life of the world, bringing forgiveness and a new power of life. That sacrifice also shows us the deepest reality about God—his love—and about life: all true life is sacrificial. Life is a matter of exchange: my life for yours, yours for mine. In this sacrificial web of exchange we find the communion, the community, of the Godhead. At Eucharist we receive into ourselves, into our bodies and souls, the life-giving power of God, and precisely by eating and drinking we proclaim the Lord's once-for-all death until he comes (1 Cor 11:26).
The insistence on the Eucharist, this physical activity for eternal life, is theologically and spiritually very important. It protects us from an overly cerebral or falsely spiritual form of Christianity. Salvation itself is something that encompasses all of life. It is a transformation of life and a renewal of life, including physical life. Salvation is not simply a matter of having right opinions or even right actions. Indeed, it is something larger than the human dimension, since all of creation is involved (Rom 8). John teaches us not to simply embrace spirit and oppose matter like the Gnostics did. The incarnate one in his very incarnation has shown physical matter to be "spiritual," that is, to share in divine life. Our bodies themselves are to be transformed. So the imagery involved in eating and drinking, in notions of laying down life and interpenetration, is present in this passage and in the Eucharist itself. But more than mere imagery is present—eternal life is present. The divine and human realms meet in the flesh of Jesus, and that is what a sacrament is: a material point of contact between physical and spiritual reality. Jesus' own body is the convergence of these realms, and he provides points of contact for the nourishment of his body, the church. This passage is referring to Christ's death and our life in him, as is the Eucharist. So it is fitting that the Eucharist is alluded to here, though the primary reference is to Jesus' death and the life he offers.
Obviously, this teaching is especially unclear to these people. They do not understand Jesus' identity, nor do they catch the allusion to his death, let alone the way the Lord will provide for his followers to eat his flesh and drink his blood. This cryptic, scandalous teaching took place openly in Capernaum in the synagogue (6:59), which is the place where the Torah is expounded. In the Capernaum synagogue on this particular day the eternal Word himself is giving the manna of a greater revelation.