Today’s reading is the final excerpt from the “Bread of Life” discourse in John chapter 6. Jesus has already fed the multitude, crossed the lake, and told the crowd that he is the “bread of life.” Jesus then stunned the crowd with the statement that unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood,you do not have life within you.
In this article, we link the Eucharistic symbolism in John 6 with John chapter 21. Additionally, we see the Sacred Author John treat the Apostle Peter very favorably, which he does not do in other passages. For further exegesis of John chapter 6, you may want to read my commentaries on the miracle of the loaves and the fish, John 6:1-15; and the commentaries on the Bread of Life Discourse in John 6, verses 24-35; 41-51; and 51-58.
A Hard Saying
When Jesus says, you must eat of the flesh of the Son of Man, the disciples respond, this is a hard saying. The crowd is confused, the disciples are confused, and Jesus does not go to great lengths to explain the symbolism.
We might expect John to include the Last Supper discourse on the Eucharist to clear up any confusion. but John does not do that, as Jesus speaks of other matters at the Last Supper in the fourth Gospel. It’s fair to ask – will John (or Jesus) ever explain the “Bread of Life” discourse? Does John expect us to read the Synoptic accounts of the Last Supper for a clarification of the symbolism in John 6 ?
A Johannine Secret
Well, no. John waits until the very end of his Gospel, chapter 21, to help clarify what is going on in John chapter 6. And John is pretty sneaky about it. An astute student of John’s Gospel will note that the author is a bit secretive about a few things in his Gospel. For instance, John never mentions his own name; he is “the Beloved Disciple,” or “a disciple” (13:23; 18:15; 19:26; 21:20; 21:24). John never mentions Mary the mother of Jesus by name; she is called “woman” (2:4; 19:26). And he never mentions the Eucharist at the Last Supper. Why is John so ambiguous? Some scholars believe that John wrote during a period of Christian persecution, and therefore his writing can be symbolic. John even hints at the martyrdom of Peter (Jn 21:18-19).
Rather than describe the Eucharist directly, and in its proper historical context (and thus betray what the Eucharist actually is to the church’s opponents), John gives us highly symbolic accounts in chapter 6, and then later in John chapter 21. John chapter 21 is the final chapter of the Gospel, and, due to its unique content, some scholars argue that it was added by a second author. One rebuttal to this thesis is that chapter 21 is contained in all early versions of John: in other words, we do not have an early manuscript of John without chapter 21.
In the closing scene of John’s Gospel, John tells us that Jesus turns to Peter. It was Peter that confessed that Jesus was the Holy one of God in the “Bread of Life” discourse in chapter 6. Now, in one of the final passages in his entire Gospel (John 21: 13-17), John introduces the conversation with a rather obvious signal – a Eucharistic parallel to the beginning of John 6. In fact, John 6, verse 11 is nearly identical to John 21, verse 13.
Here is John 21: 13-17; keep in mind chapter 6 while reading it:
Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and so with the fish (see John 6:11). This was now the third time that Jesus was revealed to the disciples after he was raised from the dead. When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.”
Note that John the Evangelist prefaces the Eucharistic discourse in chapter 6, and the charge to Peter here in chapter 21, with the symbolic feeding with bread and fish. Jesus ties together John chapter 6 (the Bread of Life Discourse) and John chapter 10 (The Good Shepherd Discourse) in this passage, with references to the feeding and tending of sheep.
Of course, we can reasonably infer, based on the references to the Resurrection, and to the ‘bread and fish’ in both chapter 6 and here, that Jesus is referring to “feeding the multitude,” with the “bread of heaven.” In other words, Peter and the apostles have been charged to maintain the tradition of the Eucharist. Voila, Jesus had managed to do this without referring to the Eucharist at the Last Supper.
Peter Comes to the Fore
John the Evangelist, at times, likes to highlight Peter’s humanity. For instance, Peter has to ask John as to which Apostle will betray Jesus at the Last Supper. After the Resurrection, John outruns Peter to reach the tomb first, though Peter goes in before him (Jn 20:8). And in the closing chapter of John, Peter inquires about John, only to be rebuffed by Jesus. John also likes to note his own proximity to Peter at key events: Peter’s calling (1:35-43), the Last Supper, the arrest of Jesus, the Resurrection. When I studied Johannine Scripture at university, I often wondered at what seemed to a be a sort-of rivalry between the young John and the far more senior Peter. It was almost as if John simultaneously looked up to Peter, and envied the unique role that Peter played as the Apostle’s spokesman.
However, in two pivotal discourses in chapters 6 and 21, John the Evangelist allows Jesus to show us that he regards Peter as the point-person for Christ’s ministry. In chapter 21, Christ asks Peter to “feed my sheep.” Returning to our passage in chapter 6, Peter confesses that Jesus has the words of eternal life (verse 68). Peter is referring to the entire Bread of Life discourse, and Christ’s mandate to eat the bread that comes down from heaven, which a man may eat and not die (see verses 47-58).
Jesus does concede, after the crowd has dispersed, that his discourse was symbolic, stating that it is the spirit that gives life. But Jesus uses the symbolism of John 6 to explain something. The symbolism in John 6 points to the Eucharist, and the discourse is not a stand-alone discourse. Rather, the Bread of Life discourse is the Johannine masterpiece of Eucharistic theology, which allows John the Evangelist to remove the account of the Institution of the Eucharist from the Last Supper. We cannot be certain why John wants to remove the Eucharist from the Last Supper account, but we can infer that chapters 6 and 21, in some sense, serve as intentional substitutes for the missing Eucharistic story at the Last Supper.
Many of Jesus’ disciples who were listening said,
“This saying is hard; who can accept it?”
Since Jesus knew that his disciples were murmuring about this,
he said to them, “Does this shock you?
What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending
to where he was before?
It is the spirit that gives life,
while the flesh is of no avail.
The words I have spoken to you are Spirit and life.
But there are some of you who do not believe.”
Jesus knew from the beginning the ones who would not believe
and the one who would betray him.
And he said,
“For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me
unless it is granted him by my Father.”
As a result of this,
many of his disciples returned to their former way of life
and no longer accompanied him.
Jesus then said to the Twelve, “Do you also want to leave?”
Simon Peter answered him, “Master, to whom shall we go?
You have the words of eternal life.
We have come to believe
and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.”