One of the most incredible things about being Catholic is the gift of the Eucharist. Archbishop Fulton Sheen said, “The greatest love story of all time is contained in a tiny white host” – and this is amazingly true! Jesus Christ becomes present to us in a miraculous way at every Mass and remains with us in the tabernacles throughout the world. More astoundingly, he asks us to consume him! By “eating his flesh” and “drinking his blood,” he has promised eternal life will be given to those who persevere to the end (John 6:54; Matt 24:13). And when we participate in this intimate communion in a state of grace, he transforms and perfects us.
But sadly, I have met many fallen away Catholics who are not aware of this miraculous gift. I will never forget a conversation I had a few years ago with a man named Peter, whom I encountered as he was evangelizing near the Alamo. He was a member of a Pentecostal, evangelical community who had been raised Catholic but left because he rejected many of the Catholic teachings.
He had many misconceptions about what Catholics believe and we discussed some of these. But then I asked him, “Can I tell you what I think is one of the greatest things about being Catholic?” He gave me a curious stare and I told him, “The Eucharist!” He replied, “Well, Catholics misunderstand the Bible. Jesus never taught the bread and wine were anything more than symbols of our faith in him.”
I then asked if I could show him a portion of John 6. Peter, opening his New International Version of the Bible, said, “Where do we begin?”
[Of note, the NIV is not a Catholic translation of the Bible but, while evangelizing Peter, I let him use his preferred version. So in this article, I will be quoting Peter as he reads from his NIV Bible.]
Our Sidewalk Bible Study
I asked Peter to start reading at John 6:28, which is when Jesus speaks to a large crowd who had followed him after they had witnessed the miraculous feeding of the five thousand men with five loaves of bread and two small fish the previous evening.
Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?” Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.” So they asked him, “What sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’ Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” “Sir,” they said, “always give us this bread.” Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirst…” (V. 28-35)
I then interjected and asked Peter if he would agree that this section is particularly emphasizing the importance of believing in Jesus in order to receive eternal life. In this passage, Jesus is also teaching that the same God who performed the miracle with the manna is his Father and the one whom sent Jesus from heaven as the new bread of life. Peter agreed.
I Am the Bread of Life- Believe in Me
I asked Peter to continue reading at verse 41:
At this the Jews began to grumble about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They said. “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, “I came down from heaven?” “Stop grumbling among yourselves,” Jesus answered. (v. 41-43)
I had Peter pause and asked him to explain why he thought the people were grumbling. He answered that it was because Jesus is claiming to have come from heaven. He added that this was shocking to them since some of the Jews in the audience knew his parents Joseph and Mary. I agreed with him. Peter then looked at me and said, “See, John 6 is all about the importance of believing in Jesus in order to receive eternal life. It has nothing to do with the Eucharist.”
Whoever Eats of This Bread Will Live Forever
I asked him if he could read a little further and so he continued at verse 47:
“Very truly I tell you, the one who believes has eternal life. . . I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh which I will give for the life of the world.” Then the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (v. 47-52)
I stopped him and asked, “Why are the people upset with these words?” Peter replied, “Because the Jews in the audience think that he is talking about cannibalism. They think Jesus is telling them that they must literally eat him.” I agreed. There is no doubt the audience is taking Jesus literally.
And I pointed out that in verses 48-52, by saying that this new bread from heaven would enable people to live forever, Jesus is making the claim that his bread was going to be far more miraculous than the manna given to the Israelites in the wilderness. And surprising his audience further, Jesus tells them this new bread is “my flesh which I will give for the life of the world” which tells us two things. (1) Jesus is going to offer himself as a sacrifice for the world at some point in the future, and (2) this new bread of life will be the same flesh that he will sacrifice.
Peter then said, “The Jewish audience does take Jesus literally, but they misunderstand him. And I disagree with you if you are saying that this bread is literally Jesus’ flesh. There is no way Jesus meant we have to truly eat him.”
Are We to Eat His Flesh Literally?
I asked Peter if he would mind reading a little more and, starting at verse 54, he read aloud:
Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life and I will raise them up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” He said this while teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum. “On hearing it, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, “Does this offend you?…” (v. 54-61)
Once again, we see those in the audience struggling to accept what Jesus is teaching so I asked Peter why this was such a “hard teaching.” Peter answered, “Because the Jews cannot consume blood as that would have been a violation of the Mosaic Law. They think he is saying that one must be a cannibal and eat Jesus – literally. But they are simply misunderstanding him.”
Did the Audience Misunderstand?
Peter made it clear to me several times that he had no doubt the audience was taking Jesus literally but, at the same time, he was emphatic that they were misunderstanding him. So I asked him, “You have indicated you believe Jesus is teaching us to eat his flesh and drink his blood in a purely symbolic way. But the audience had the benefit of hearing Jesus’ words first-hand, they saw his body language and heard his tone of voice. And they take him literally. Why do you disagree with them and think Jesus is speaking figuratively?”
Peter said, “It is impossible for him to be speaking literally. Besides, in other places in the Gospel of John, Jesus teaches he is a door (John 10) and he is a vine (John 15). He was speaking figuratively then just as he is speaking figuratively here in John 6.” But I pointed out that in these other passages, Jesus’ audience did not complain or misunderstand him. Jesus was speaking of being a door and a vine in a symbolic way and the audience understood him to be speaking in a symbolic way. These examples do not compare with what happens in John 6.
A better comparison would be Matthew 16:6-12. Here, Jesus is speaking symbolically but the audience misunderstands him. Jesus told the disciples to “beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees,” but they take Jesus literally. In response, Jesus says, “I did not speak about bread.” Jesus was warning them to be cautious of the teachings of these Jewish leaders using figurative language. Jesus did not want their errors influencing the disciples as leaven affects flour. This passage shows us an example of the audience misunderstanding Jesus – taking him literally when he was speaking symbolically. And what does Jesus do? He corrected them!
So if we look at John 6, the audience thinks Jesus is speaking literally – understanding him to say he is the new bread from heaven and that we must eat his flesh and drink his blood. They murmur several times and cannot accept this. But Jesus does not correct them. Instead, he responds to their grumbling by saying, “Do you take offense at this?”
And then we are told in verse 66, the next thing that happens is that many of Jesus’ disciples walk away and do not continue following him! Even more shocking is that Jesus lets them walk away and, turning to Peter and the other Apostles, asks, “Do you want to go away too?” Jesus knows the audience was taking him literally and did not stop them. Jesus did not shout, “Wait, you misunderstand. I am merely speaking figuratively.” Jesus allows these people to walk away, never to follow him again. So either Jesus is being very unjust when he could have clarified his teaching or, the people understood him rightly: Jesus was speaking literally.
Is He Asking For Cannibalism?
Peter then forcefully closed his Bible and adamantly exclaimed, “No, this cannot be true. There is no way Jesus is speaking literally. I agree the audience thinks he is but that is impossible. There is no way Jesus is asking us to be cannibals; that is morbid and ridiculous. If this is what you are saying, then I am done here.”
I told him that, as a Catholic, I do believe Jesus is speaking literally, but Jesus has revealed there is another way to understand him other than in a purely cannibalistic way. I pleaded with Peter to give me a few more minutes to share the Catholic understanding of this passage and propose another way of looking at this. He refused to open his Bible but he agreed to listen.
The Fulfillment of the Command
In the context of John 6, Jesus does not tell us how we are to do what he asks but he is very clear that he meant what he said: a person needs to eat his flesh and drink his blood to have eternal life. Jesus knew there would be confusion but, ultimately, he wanted his disciples to trust him. Even if they did not fully understand, they should not walk away simply because they were disturbed or bewildered. God’s ways are not our ways. He would reveal more in time.
We are told this event in John 6 occurred during the time of the Jewish Passover. This is significant because exactly one year later – at the very next Jewish Passover – Jesus celebrated the night of the Last Supper with his Apostles. And we are told Jesus took bread and said, ‘This is my body’ and took the wine and said, ‘This is my blood.’ Here, Jesus demonstrated how we are all to fulfill his commands in John 6, in the miracle of the Eucharist.
What we discover is that in John 6, Jesus is not calling for cannibalism but, at the same time, he is literally commanding us to eat his flesh and drink his blood. And this is made possible at every Mass when the bread and wine are consecrated and transformed into the Real Presence of Jesus. And by participating in the sacrament of the Eucharist, we obediently consume Jesus, the new bread of life.
The Eucharist- A Miraculous Gift
After I finished talking, Peter was speechless. He had never heard this explained to him in this way. He simply stood for a few minutes muttering, “This cannot be true. Lord, this just cannot be true.” Peter said he was going to go home to meditate on these readings but “there is no way you are right about this.” I encouraged him to approach the Scriptures with an open heart and an open mind. And I told him that for 2000 years, Christians have understood Jesus to be speaking literally in John 6 and they have obeyed him by participating in the Eucharist, the Real Presence of Jesus. This is a truly miraculous and life-changing gift from God. And it is the most intimate encounter we get to have with Christ this side of death. This is why the Eucharist is one of the greatest blessings about being Catholic!
I do not know what has happened to Peter since he walked away after our conversation that day, but please pray for him!