John 6:51 “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh."
Being raised Roman Catholic my first exposure to these words was in preparation for my first Holy Communion. I was seven years old and Sister Ann Marie – a 20 something Dominican had the impossible task of helping 30 children who, according to James Fowler (Stages of Faith), lived in a world divided neatly into good and evil but who could not distinguish well between fact and fantasy. (I can vouch for that having once “flown” off my bunk bed, my bath-towel Superman cape covering up the knot swelling on my bruised head as fantasy met reality on the bedroom floor.)
For the next 10 years I believed that the micro thin white wafer Monsignor Kane would place on my tongue every Sunday was, in fact, the Savior of the World – coming to nourish me and, miraculously, to transform all my sinfulness into angelic virtue. It was a nice belief while it lasted. It cost me little inconvenience to make my heart and stomach a throne room for Jesus. He did not pester me with indigestion nor did he offer an embarrassing vocal reproach when, five minutes after Mass let out, I ran off to be my old hedonistic kid self.
The image of Jesus in the form of bread stopped working for me in adolescence. By that time I was able to think more critically. It was clear by then that partaking in communion was meaningful but not magical. I had to bring something to the experience to appreciate even its symbolic value. Something more was required than mere theological or devotional assent and yet I was not sure that aspiring to some form of formulaic sainthood was exactly "what the Lord requires."
It was not until my mid twenties when I had begun to study theology and scripture in earnest that I realized a truth that would change forever what I thought about and what I would do in response to Jesus as Bread of Life. It was Jesus’ lifestyle, his focused, sacrificial way of living, serving, and leading that fed my soul. To receive communion was to agree to join him in all of that. I would not earn my salvation by doing that; I would realize it! And in taking that fact seriously I might become one of many who would help – by witness and example - to inspire at least one more person to meet and follow in the Way of Christ.
Now at age fifty-six with five children and four grandchildren and struggling to live up to the calling of God which was affirmed by those who allow me to serve them (and to serve with them), I think more these days about eternal and global implications of “the living bread.” I also approach the verse knowing more now about the community that first heard those words, the challenges they faced, and the anxieties that were calmed when they heard them. I am grateful to theologians, archeologists, linguists, and scripture scholars who challenge me to take even more seriously the importance of the text and its power to breathe hope into desperate times.
It now occurs to me that Jesus was less interested in being worshipped than in being imitated on a global scale. In my own relationships with children and grandchildren that their mother and I have loved deeply and supported sacrificially, I have no desire for their admiration. I do not want to spend most of the time at family gatherings remembering for the umpteenth time special stories of their growing up with us. More than anything else I want hear their stories about how they have learned to appreciate their incredible worth and dignity as children of God – chips off a very old and sacred block. I want to hear more about how they have used the incredible talents and opportunities each has been given to add value to life and not so much about what they have managed to take from it. I want them to believe in themselves as holy – that in some way they, too, are “heaven sent” with divine purpose, that they are more than the mere product of their forbears, wholly and always loved. I want them to find and to practice daily a spiritual discipline that keeps them connected, focused, and loving with God and their neighbors. I want them to consider that evangelism for Jesus was not about packing churches but about inspiring imitation of the God who loves and making possible a future worth living for the next seven, seventy, or even the seventy million generations yet to be born. I want them to arrive at the doorstep of death exhausted, exhilarated, and expectant because they learned to live their own life with full integrity . . . as Jesus did, even as Jesus does!
How has the meaning and application of John 6:51 changed for you lately?