The symphony of the bread of life discourse reaches a crescendo with startling hopes and startling claims. The one who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day (v. 19). Though we tend to identify eternal life as the promised reward following death, in John it begins in this life as a gift from Jesus. Earlier Jesus says: Truly, truly, I say to you, the one who hears my word and believes him who sent me, has eternal life; and does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life (5:24). Eternal life in John is a present possession that reaches its fulfillment in total abiding with God; it is the life of faith, a kind and quality of life that those who follow Jesus lead, but a kind that will not be destroyed by death. People of faith participate in this life while alive. It is the life that is sustained by eating Jesus’ flesh and blood.
The utter realism of eating flesh and drinking blood was shocking to Jesus’ hearers, as it would be today if taken literally. (Imagine the shocked reaction if a chalice of blood was placed on a table next to a chalice of consecrated wine, simply to bring home the transformation.) Talk of flesh and blood is meant to shock and to bring home the realism of the full humanity of Jesus. John clearly understands these terms symbolically or sacramentally. The Johannine Jesus is truly a heavenly figure, come from above, returning to the Father possessing present supernatural knowledge, tripping lightly on earth, as commentators have noted. John became with some justification a favorite of later Gnostics, who denied the full humanity of Jesus. Here the shocking language and startled reaction of the audience serve as a challenge to believers to affirm the seemingly impossible. In receiving the Eucharist, our full humanity is joined with the full but transformed humanity of Jesus, and this constitutes life in its fullness that will never be taken away. Andre Dubus described this eloquently in Meditations From a Movable Chair: When the priest places the Host in the palm of my hand, I put in my mouth and taste and chew and swallow the intimacy of God.