The Gospel plunges us directly into the middle of the bread of life discourse, which, despite its seeming complexity, develops two major themes: People will attain eternal life by coming to Jesus and being in union with him; this coming and living in union flow from God’s gracious initiative manifest in Jesus. The discourse also has deep roots in biblical tradition.
The discourse takes place in the wilderness, where God first gave miraculous food to people, the manna, which the people ate and then died, in contrast to the living bread of Jesus, which gives eternal life. While the eucharistic reference echoes throughout the discourse and is explicit in next Sunday’s Gospel, in the Old Testament images of feeding are associated with God’s gift of wisdom, so much so that even in Patristic times the teaching of Jesus was interpreted as the bread of life, and in the later Jewish tradition manna was interpreted as teaching.
In Jn. 6:35, for example, Jesus says, I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst. This recalls the invitation of wisdom (Sir. 24:19-21) to come to her so that those who eat me will hunger for more, and those who drink me will thirst for more (v. 21, see Sir. 15:3). In Prov. 9:4-6 wisdom prepares a feast for her devotees and invites them, Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed (first reading for next Sunday).
These Old Testament motifs have implications for a rich understanding of the Eucharist today. As bread given in the wilderness, it is food for a pilgrim people, even a rebellious one: Stop murmuring among yourselves. Most importantly, the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist cannot be separated from the wisdom his life communicates. Every reception of the Eucharist must be an act of faith in the teaching of Jesus and a commitment to that life enfleshed in Jesus, to which he invites all who would be followers. The bread that Jesus gives as his flesh for the life of the world is what Jesus teaches and embodies, principally the love command (13:34-35; 15:9-15). It is sad that in the contemporary church many of the most bitter disputes from tabernacle placement to details of celebration style center on the Eucharist. This is not the bread of life.