Last Sunday in our Gospel reading we heard about the Feeding of the Five Thousand and we came to the conclusion that it is a miracle which is closely linked to the Eucharist. After the people were fed Jesus withdrew from them to the hills because he realised that they would want to make him King even though his time was not yet ready.
The disciples wait around a bit and then not finding Jesus they decide to cross the lake by boat. As they were sailing across and the sea was beginning to get a bit choppy Jesus miraculously comes walking towards them across the water.
The text today picks up the story when the people realise that Jesus must have crossed the lake and so they also get into boats and go to the other side. When they eventually meet up with Jesus they question how he got there but he deflects their questioning by stating that they came not because of the signs he had performed but because they had eaten of the bread he had given them.
Jesus then goes on to teach them a little about the Eucharist. He begins by telling them that the bread that he gives them endures to eternal life. We get the first part of his teaching on the Eucharist as our Gospel for this Sunday and then it continues in the Gospels set for the following two weeks.
In the part of the teaching provided for our consideration this Sunday Jesus makes explicit the link between the Eucharist and the Manna that Moses gave the Chosen People in the desert. Manna was a gift from God to sustain his people on their long pilgrimage through the desert. The editors of the Lectionary in our First Reading today give us an account of how God provided for his people by means of Manna during that great journey. Recounting this episode from the history of Israel helps us to see the long story of how God used bread as one of the means to bring his people salvation.
In his discussion with the people Jesus points out to them that the Eucharist gives life to the world. Of course, the people do not really understand what he is talking about since the Last Supper has not yet taken place and the celebration of the Eucharist as such is unknown to them. Nevertheless, we see that Jesus is preparing the ground. He is, most importantly, also preparing his disciples to understand the significance of the Last Supper so that when it eventually takes place they will understand it’s purpose.
We were told that five thousand men sat down to eat the bread and fish that Jesus had multiplied but it can hardly have been five thousand people who crossed the lake that day. They would have needed far more boats than would have been available. Also, we note the careful questioning of Jesus by those who made the crossing. We can conclude therefore that these were not ordinary people but were more likely to be the leaders of the people.
Jesus invites them to believe in him because he has been sent by God. His interrogators immediately ask for a sign in order that they might believe in him. But it is obvious to any reader that Jesus has only the previous day performed the extraordinary miracle of the Feeding of the Five Thousand. Clearly they are not to be trusted since they ask for another sign as if the one performed the day before was somehow insufficient.
These people are not going to be satisfied by any number of marvels. They witness a great miracle and then the very next day ask for another before they will believe in Jesus. Clearly, they have another agenda; it is obvious that they want to trick Jesus. They ask for more miracles hoping that Jesus will somehow make a mistake and expose himself as a trickster and a fraud.
Jesus doesn’t give them any more miracles. What he does do is point them towards heaven. He tells them that it wasn’t Moses who gave their ancestors bread but ‘my Father in heaven.’ He tells them that he is himself the bread that gives life to the world.
Jesus is speaking here about a very deep mystery and it is obvious that they do not understand him. But, of course, his words are also addressed to his disciples and to us. We understand perfectly well what he meant. We know that in the Eucharist we receive Christ himself hidden under the form of bread and wine.
Of course, not even all Christians believe what we believe about the Eucharist. Many Christian denominations simply do not accept the doctrine of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. They think that Christ is only present in a sort of symbolic way. They suggest that the bread and the wine might represent Christ but they are not really part of him.
We, however, believe that when Jesus says ‘I am the Bread of Life’ he literally means that he is present to us when we receive the Eucharistic elements. In the words of the Catechism we believe that he is present to us ‘body and blood, soul and divinity.’
This deep understanding of the Eucharist is absolutely central to our faith. It is the bedrock of our belief. In the Eucharist we know we are fed spiritually and become part of Christ’s body here on earth. We know that it is the Eucharist that binds us in unity. We appreciate that in the Eucharist we experience the ‘foretaste and promise’ of the banquet of heaven.
When the people ask Jesus what must they do to be in conformity with the Father he gives them a very simple answer: ‘You must believe in the one he has sent.’ We must believe in the person of Jesus, we must believe that he is the Son of God and we must believe in the content of his teaching. We can’t pick and choose this bit of teaching or that. No, we need to believe in the whole content of his teaching.
And clearly a very important element of his teaching is what he tells us about the Eucharist. It is vital for us to get this right, to believe that Jesus comes to us in the closest and most intimate way possible in the Eucharist. As Jesus says in the very last sentence of today’s Gospel text: ‘I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never be hungry; he who believes in me will never thirst.’