A Commentary on
The Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist
as revealed in St. John's Gospel, Chapter 6
Stan Williams, Ph.D.
Š Declarations and Corrections
Š John 6 Commentary
Š St. Paul's Perspective on the Real Presence
Š Early Church Fathers and the Real Presence
This document has not yet been granted the nihil obstat or imprimatur declarations, attesting that it is free of doctrinal error and may be published as a trustworthy rendering of Catholic doctrine. These declarations will be sought as the document is further refined and as it joins other chapters in a future book.
In the meantime, I welcome the comments from anyone who feels so led. I am especially grateful for reviews by Catholic priests, bishops, academics or theologians. Please send your comments, complete with citations to: Stan@StanWilliams.com.
Many thanks to my wife, Pam Williams, and to Jim Kluge for their valuable feedback and suggestions.
It was May 1997 when, as a searching Evangelical, I visited St. James Catholic Church near my home. After visiting a few times, I approached the priest, Fr. James Cronk, after Mass and asked if I might take communion with the rest of the congregation. "I've been a Christian most of my life, I explained." Fr. Cronk looked me in the eye and said, "Well, let me ask you something. Do you believe that The Eucharist is the real body and blood of our Lord?" Although I was stunned by the ludicrousness of the question I didn't hesitate, "Of course not. That's ridiculous!" He didn't hesitate either. He smiled quietly and said simply, "Then we'd prefer you not."
I was offended…deeply offended…and quickly I walked out of the church.
But, now my curiosity was raised. Why did Catholics believe something so utterly stupid? There were a lot of them, over a billion, and among them there were certainly very smart and educated people. I began to study.
In November of that year, after months of reading Catholic materials and attending sort-of an introduction to Catholicism class taught by Fr. Cronk, I started to study John 6:41-66. One night in our kitchen I was reading the passage out loud to Pam, who thought I was certified nuts for studying Catholicism in the first place. Again I read aloud Christ's words from verse 61: "Does this offend you?" Suddenly, I stopped and started to cry. Months earlier, I had been offended by Fr. Cronk in refusing me communion. But now I recognized that I was being offended by Christ for much the same reason. I caught my breath and then broke out in a cold sweat. I wasn't surprised by truth, I was blown away by it. What truth? That's what this essay will attempt to communicate.
Today is the feast of Corpus Christi, June 2, 2002. From the 13th century, this is the day on which the Catholic Church celebrates the Real Presence of Christ (body, soul, and divinity) in The Eucharist. The miracle involved is known as transubstantiation. In most Protestant, evangelical and fundamentalist Christian churches the communion elements are only symbolic. In the case of most Lutheran sects something between the two extremes is embraced — Consubstantiation. You can look the two terms up in a good dictionary; to technically define them is not my current purpose.
It is unfortunate that the Christian Church is separated and divided over so many different important doctrines like baptism, justification, and in this case a sacrament that has been practiced since the night before Christ died. The Lord's Supper was intended by Christ to unify believers (John 17:21 & 23). Regardless of our different understandings about the Lord's Supper (as well as other beliefs), I hope that all Christians agree that unity, in both mind and spirit, should be a goal and that some effort should be put forth toward it. So, for the sake of Christ's desire for us to be completely, not partially, unified, this essay hopes to contribute to a constructive dialogue. Christ prayed in the Garden that we might be one so that the world will know that He was sent by the Father.
It is important to make one thing clear. There is no disagreement that the communion bread and wine used in Evangelical and many Protestant churches is not real. It is only symbolic.
[I will not go into why this is true or false except to say that to obtain the Real Presence (through the prayers of consecration) an ordained priest in the direct (non-separated) lineage of the Apostles is required. Some churches have this, most Protestant and all Evangelical churches do not.]
So the discussion that follows does not quarrel with what happens in Evangelical churches during the celebration of communion, but rather with what transpires during the Catholic and Orthodox Masses.
As an Evangelical I never thought that Catholics took the Bible seriously. I never saw Catholics carry their Bibles into church (surely a sign of deep spirituality, especially if the Bible looked thick and well worn). Another sign that Catholics were not "Bible Christians" was the apparent absence of Bible studies and adult Sunday School classes. But that was before I started studying the Mass…where I discovered that the Catholic Church in its liturgy, takes the Bible far more seriously than any Protestant-Evangelical church I ever attended…and we attended more than a few different kinds. Some may consider that an overly harsh indictment, but John 6 is a good example. Not only does John quote Christ over and over and over about the most critical aspect of the MASS (The Real Presence), but the chapter contains the over-arching structure of the Celebration of the Eucharist—the second half of the Mass. So, let's get into it.
In John 6, the evidence for transubstantiation is strong, explicit, and clear. There are many other passages of Scripture that substantiate this Catholic claim, but none so clearly and thoroughly as John 6. At the end of this essay there is additional key evidence for the Real Presence in additional Scriptures (from St. Paul) and from the commentaries of the Early Church Fathers…many whom were tutored by the Apostles, themselves.
The Bible translation used below is Evangelical—Zondervan's NIV. Even in its bias toward a Protestant-Evangelical doctrine, the evidence for transubstantiation is substantial.
[It is not really an issue for this essay, but it has always confused me when Bible scholars refer to the Bible as "inspired and inerrant." Just which translation are they referring to? Or are they referring to the original manuscripts…of which none exist? A casual comparison of different translations reveals doctrinal bias toward the denomination sponsoring the translation (if not in the text definitely in the footnotes). Related to this problem is that not all "Bibles" are created equal. From 300 A.D. to about 1830 A.D. all Bibles had 73 books in them. But in just the last 170 or so years, Protestant Bibles have been printed with only 66 books. Makes one wonder just when the Bible began to be inspired and inerrant.]
Regardless, even the NIV Bible accurately conveys solid Catholic doctrine, especially in John 6. So, let's begin.
1 Some time after this, Jesus crossed to the far shore of the Sea of Galilee (that is, the Sea of Tiberias), 2 and a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the miraculous signs he had performed on the sick. 3 Then Jesus went up on a mountainside and sat down with his disciples. 4 The Jewish Passover Feast was near.
In these four verses we are immediately presented with issues of miracles, the sacrificial deaths of lambs that occur during Passover (which is also when Christ's death was also sacrificial, and the potent of ritual that would involve both the crowds at the Passover feast and the crowds following Jesus. Let's examine each more closely.
One thing this essay will do is track the miracles mentioned in John 6. In verse 2 we find Miracle No. 1—healing the sick. A miracle of healing can also be described by the change of a physical entity (in this case a person's body) from one state to another. It is a change that cannot be explained by doctors or scientists.
Here at the very beginning of the chapter is the first hint that John 6 is about this sacrifice—Passover was at hand. Recall that it was during Passover that Christ is crucified. His blood is shed in Herod's court, on the way to Golgotha, and on the cross. All the while priests across town in the temple were sacrificing lambs that the people were bringing as offerings. This Passover connection is ladened with significance as will be evident in the rest of the chapter.
John 6 is about death for another reason that is not immediately evident. The Matthew 14 account of this same event says that Jesus went into the hill country to morn John the Baptist's death. Jesus knows and is thinking about what John the Baptist's death means and likewise his own.
Verse 4's mention of the Jewish Passover directly foreshadows the Eucharist (ritual) feast of the Christian Church. Both are sacraments that require priests to perform special rituals Just as the Passover sacrament could only be celebrated on the Jewish altar, with the gift of the people—a lamb, so the Eucharist sacrament requires a Christian altar where the gift of Christ is sacrificed—the lamb of God. In both, a priest is required to perform the ritual.
I have found it useful to explain something about "time" and "eternity" when entering these discussions. One of the criticisms leveled at the Catholic celebration of The Eucharist is that Catholics are sacrificing AGAIN Jesus on the altar, when Christ's ONE sacrifice was all that was and is needed. This is a misunderstanding of how Catholic doctrine understands time and eternity. Put simply, The Eucharist does not sacrifice again Christ on an altar. Catholic doctrine affirms that Christ died only once for all. To understand what happens during any celebration of The Eucharist requires an understanding of eternity—which simply put is that there is no time. What is celebrated on every Catholic altar around the world, everyday, are not separate events but a single event, that is coincident in space and time with the one crucifixion of Christ. How is that possible? One proper way to describe it is to call it a miracle. Another way to embrace it properly is to say it is an act of faith that that is what is happening. And, I suppose another way, although theologically crude is to describe it as time and space time travel. When the priest is offering up the host as a sacrifice to God of Christ's real body and blood on the altar, it is taking place in the spiritual realm at the same time and place as the original crucifixion. (See my article Mass Dimensions for a further explanation of this phenomenon.)
5 When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, "Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?" 6 He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do. 7 Philip answered him, "Eight months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!" 8 Another of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, spoke up, 9 "Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?" 10 Jesus said, "Have the people sit down." There was plenty of grass in that place, and the men sat down, about five thousand of them. 11 Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks,...
When you attend Mass, watch what happens at the beginning of the Liturgy of the Eucharist. It occurs often without fanfare or announcement right after the offering is collected. From the back of the church (or midway) representatives of THE PEOPLE, oftentimes in our parish it is a family with children, will walk down the center isle toward the front of the church and the priest. The family will carry the communion elements of bread and wine...AND with these elements will be brought the people's monetary offering. These are given to the priest who then will bless the bread, wine as part of the people's offerings and give God thanks for them.
That is exactly what happens in verses 5-10. The people are told to sit down, and a small boy brings forward bread and fish (that were given to him by his father and mother, do doubt) and these in turn are given to the Apostles (soon to be the first priests of the church) who then offer them to Christ (the high priest) who then blesses them and gives God thanks for these gifts that were brought forward.
Medical research suggests that fish oil has a similar medicinal value to wine. Both contribute to a healthy heart by keeping the arteries clog-free so blood can flow freely. So the fish are related to wine in that respect. But the fish have another meaning. Remember when Jesus tells Peter and the others that soon they will be fishers of men? That is after they have fished all night and caught nothing, and then at Christ's command cast their nets on the other side of the boat. Under Christ's direction they catch so many fish that their nets almost break. Thus, the fish the Apostles give to Christ also represent the souls they will later catch and bring to Christ.
(11 cont.) ...and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish. 12 When they had all had enough to eat, he said to his disciples, "Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted." 13 So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten.
On a physical level, the people are satisfied with what they have eaten. The bread has nourished them completely. It was REAL physical nourishment.
But notice that when Christ, the priest in this situation, blesses the bread and breaks it into pieces for distribution to the people Miracle No. 2 occurs. The miracle is the physical transformation of bread and fish to something beyond their original substance. To everyone on the hillside, what they put in their mouths still looks, tastes, and smells like regular bread and regular fish. But these elements had been supernaturally transformed in to something that transcended everything they and we today know about food chemistry and physics. When Jesus ritually blessed the food it became something more. The bread became supernatural bread. Then, after the people have been filled, the leftover food is not left to rot on the hillside but is collected and saved.
These same things happen in the Catholic celebration of the Eucharist. The priest blesses and prays over the bread (The Eucharistic Prayer) and the bread and wine are transformed into something supernatural beyond their original substance. To everyone in the church, what they put in their mouths still looks, tastes, and smells like a regular communion wafer or wine. But the elements have been supernaturally transformed into something that transcends what we know today about food chemistry. When the priest (Christ's representative) ritually blesses the food it becomes something more. Then, after the people have received communion the blessed (or consecrated) bread is saved in containers and stored in the Tabernacle for use another time.
In both cases, on the hillside and in the Mass, regular bread is brought forward, it is blessed, it changes into something supernatural, it is distributed to the people for their spiritual and physical health, and then the left over consecrated bread is saved for another time.
14 After the people saw the miraculous sign that Jesus did, they began to say, "Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world." 15 Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself. 16 When evening came, his disciples went down to the lake, 17 where they got into a boat and set off across the lake for Capernaum. By now it was dark, and Jesus had not yet joined them.
After the people see the miraculous sign, they begin to see Jesus for who he really is. But, they misunderstand the physical form that the Messiah takes. They know something different is going on, but they really don't understand it correctly—as even the Apostles often misunderstood. It won't be until the next day (later in John 6) that Jesus explains to them, at length, what is going on and who he is.
But let's go on, we're getting to another good part. Remember Jesus was not with the Apostles when they left shore in a boat.
18 A strong wind was blowing and the waters grew rough. 19 When they had rowed three or three and a half miles, they saw Jesus approaching the boat, walking on the water; and they were terrified. 20 But he said to them, "It is I; don’t be afraid." 21 Then they were willing to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the shore where they were heading.
Two Places At Once, Two Times At Once
Miracle No. 3 - another physical transformation of Christ's REAL presence in their lives. And coincident with that miracle is Miracle No. 4, one of the few times when TIME and SPACE is transformed, or so it seems. Read carefully. This is VERY important to understanding The Eucharist. There is a time-warp of sorts, at least to the Apostles' perception. Suddenly the boat, and the Apostles are someWHERE else and someTIME else. It is as if they are able to simultaneously experience TWO places and TWO times at once. Also note it involves the transposition in time and space of BOTH the Apostles and Christ. Something similar happens days later in the Upper Room after the resurrection when Jesus apparently walks through doors and walls and appears to them. Both times Christ says to them, "It is I; don't be afraid."
One way to physically explain what happened on the water that night, and in the Upper Room during the day, is to understand that for a moment at least, the Apostles experienced more that the normal three dimensions of space and the one point dimension of time—something I refer to as the 3D-0T (3.D. Zero T). For Christ to walk on water then suddenly for the Apostles, the boat, and Christ to be somewhere else, and then for Christ to walk through walls, requires the existence of what scientists call extra dimensions. These are dimensions that cosmological mathematics claim exists theoretically but that we normally cannot perceive.
Now, this time-warping of 3D-0T is what also makes the celebration of The Eucharist an experience in multiple dimensions. The Church has long taught that during the Eucharistic celebration we are with Christ on Calvary AS IT IS HAPPENING. I don't think the Apostles understood scientifically what could happen, as we may today, but the church has always taught what the Apostles, through these moments of being two places and two times at once, came to understand.
When you're dealing with God, what seems to be bread may not be JUST bread, and when you seem to be in the middle of the Sea of Galilee, perhaps you're ALSO at the same time, on the beach. And when the doors are locked, it's just possible that there's another dimension or two of space and time that allows Christ's REAL PRESENCE to be with you with God, and on Calvary all at ONCE. You don't have to understand it anymore than we understand how Christ could be FULLY God and FULLY man all at once. After all he's God. He can do these things, and it is Christian faith that allows us to embrace them .
Stated another way, what was going on is this. Jesus by God's blessing was supernaturally God, but he looked, felt, and even smelled fully human. Christ did NOT appear supernatural but rather very natural.
This is what happens, through God's blessing in the Eucharist. The Eucharist looks, feels, smells, and tastes very natural. It is only through an explanation to us, not its physical representation, that we take on faith its supernatural character.
But this is all foreshadowing, and shadow boxing in a way, compared to what Christ is about to teach his Apostles explicitly.
22 The next day the crowd that had stayed on the opposite shore of the lake realized that only one boat had been there, and that Jesus had not entered it with his disciples, but that they had gone away alone. 23 Then some boats from Tiberias landed near the place where the people had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks. 24 Once the crowd realized that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they got into the boats and went to Capernaum in search of Jesus.
The line "the people had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks" says so much. It points to the physical transformation miracle on the hillside and what happens miraculously in the Eucharist. Except, as we're about to find out in the next verses, what happens in the Eucharist is far beyond what happened as a "type" on the hillside. For the miracle on the hillside was just a warm-up for the miracle at the altar. As true of all "types" in the Bible, the former always foreshadows but never surpasses the latter. The physical transformation of the hillside bread, was breaking the Apostles in for the physical transformation of the bread on the altar of The Eucharist.
And notice what the miracle does...it attracts a crowd. They were fed, they were satisfied and they want more, ...even if they don't fully understand what they want. Jesus is preparing to straighten them out. The Eucharist attracts a crowd. It is the principal reason people come to Mass, in mass. They are attracted to what fully satisfies them and heals them. More to come on this.
25 When they found him on the other side of the lake, they asked him, "Rabbi, when did you get here?" 26 Jesus answered, "I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. 27 Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. On him God the Father has placed his seal of approval."
They've seen and heard the warm-up act, and now Jesus gets to the real stuff. Now, the Apostles and disciples will get the explanation of what the hillside feeding was all about. Are they ready? Not really. At least, not all of them. Because what Jesus has to teach is really tough stuff. They think it's physical kingdoms and physical food, but that is not what he requires of them. He's going to explain his real presence, not just physically but spiritually, not just naturally but supernaturally. He begins by reminding them of another wilderness feeding that was just as bizarre as what they experienced yesterday on the hillside.
28 Then they asked him, "What must we do to do the works God requires?" 29 Jesus answered, "The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent." 30 So they asked him, "What miraculous sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? 31 Our forefathers ate the manna in the desert; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’ " 32 Jesus said to them, "I tell you the truth, 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. 33 For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world."
These last verses are like a gold-plated threshold. The juxtaposition of phrases in these verses is significant: What must we do...to believe...what miraculous sign will you give so we may believe...manna... bread from heaven...my Father gives you true bread...he who comes down from heaven. These phrases are the prologue for the more explicit explanation that follows. The disciples are asking for a miraculous sign, and Jesus says the sign is before them—his body …as if the miracle yesterday on the hill side wasn't enough. Actually, it wasn't enough. It was just a minor type or setup. It got them asking questions. Are they ready for the real answer? He is the true bread from heaven. Moses supernaturally gave your ancestors natural food, but soon my Father will supernaturally give you supernatural food...the true food you'll need to live forever—me. John is beginning to establish the point that what Jesus is beginning to talk about is miraculous, a sign, and something similar to but better than manna or even what happened yesterday.
Starting above the essay enumerates the instances that Jesus makes reference to himself as true (not symbolic) bread. Each occurrence is underlined in the text. The first two times are above in verses 32 and 33 where Christ references himself as "true" as opposed to "symbolic" bread. This is made more clear as we move through the chapter.
34 "Sir," they said, "from now on give us this bread." 35 Then Jesus declared, "I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty. 36 But as I told you, you have seen me and still you do not believe. 37 All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. 38 For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. 39 And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. 40 For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day."
At the beginning of this passage the disciples ask for supernatural bread. Jesus answers that he is the bread of life. Jesus hopes that the illustration they just witnessed—that normal bread, once blessed, can take on eternal, supernatural characteristics—will help build their faith. Through the miracle on the side of the hill, Jesus helps transition his disciples' understanding of what will happen on a hill in the not too distant future. His sacrifice will be celebrated with bread for centuries to come. And just as the bread he used to feed the multitude was blessed and became supernatural, so will the crucified body of Christ on the hill of Golgotha; it too will feed a multitude in a supernatural sense. And so, Christ hopes they will understand what he is going to say in the moments that follow as also having supernatural significance.
But then Jesus says: "you have seen me and still you do not believe." There are ways in which the multitudes on the first hill, the second hill, and on the hill of the church for centuries to come see him but not believe in him. They see the bread that fed the multitude but do not see it's supernatural state. They see his body on the cross but not his supernatural sacrifice. And they see the bread in the priest's hand and do not understand it is really Christ. He is saying that they see him in his natural state but do not believe he also has a supernatural state. When non believers look at the Eucharist wafer, they see it in its natural state, but they do not believe it also has a supernatural state. And in a final but much simpler understanding, many looked then, and look now, upon the remembrance of Christ, and on the Eucharist, and do not believe that he was also the son of God, and that he is present in the Eucharist. All they see is a human prophet and a piece of bread. They see him but they do not believe.
Also, Jesus wants to make sure that the disciples understand the difference between what appears to be simply superstitious actions and true faith. He carefully, therefore, distinguishes from "looks" and "sees" as he begins talking about "eating his flesh." It's not enough to simply SEE Jesus, but one must believe to the point of trust and obedience. It's not enough that we see the bread of the Eucharist, but we must also believe in what it is supernaturally. For fear that some will take the outward action as some sort of magic, void of faith, the Church teaches that the sacraments are void of effect without a worshipful disposition (saving faith) of heart that precedes the act. Jesus here is saying the same thing by reinforcing the concept that seeing also requires believing, and that coming to Jesus and looking to the Son requires also obedience out of faith. It's not enough, therefore, that there is JUST the outward sign, but there also has to be inward belief and faith.
Let's go on.
41 At this the Jews began to grumble about him because he said, "I am the bread that came down from heaven." 42 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’?"
Notice, the people refuse to believe that Jesus can be both human and divine. They ask, "how can this be the Messiah, he's the carpenter's son?" But in saying that, they also reject Christ's definition that he is the bread that comes down from heaven. Now, you can interpret Christ's meaning that he is only spiritual sustenance and that he is not speaking of anything physical here. But notice that just a few verses earlier he was talking about bread that sustains physically, and the feeding on the hillside was also a physical feeding. But the manna in the Old Testament and the feeding on the side of the hill was also a feeding of a spiritual nature as well. The manna was supernatural in character. Its origin and sustaining nature was both natural and supernatural. Likewise the feeding of the multitude was both natural and supernatural. And now Jesus is saying that HE is both natural and supernatural. And he is setting up the understanding by the Church that the Eucharist is both natural and supernatural.
43 "Stop grumbling among yourselves," Jesus answered. 44 "No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day. 45 It is written in the Prophets: ‘They will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who listens to the Father and learns from him comes to me. 46 No one has seen the Father except the one who is from God; only he has seen the Father. 47 I tell you the truth, he who believes has everlasting life.
Now, Jesus begins to breakdown his claims and state them in more detail. Verses 43 through 47 elucidate his dual nature as both human and divine. The phrase "They will all be taught by God" might as well have said, "They will be taught by Jesus."
48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your forefathers ate the manna in the desert [there's the O.T. type that is less than the NT type], yet they died. 50 But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which a man may eat and not die. 51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world."
Here Jesus says no less than five times, in explicit, active voice: "I am the bread of life…here is the bread...I am the living bread…If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever…This bread is my flesh." There is no hint of symbolism here. In fact, he makes it clear that the bread he's talking about now is far superior and even more supernatural than the miracle of the manna. THEY DIED even after eating that supernaturally provided bread. BUT, you will live forever on this new bread. What is it? It is ME, MY FLESH.
52 Then the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?"
John now gets bold in what he says. Just in case his readers in centuries to come might think that Jesus was talking about some sort of symbolic spiritual food, John confronts the issue head on. He tells us that the Jews could accept talk about symbolic spiritual food, but not "His flesh to eat?" There were Mosaic Laws against eating flesh and blood. And what does Jesus say? Does Jesus say, "Now, don't get upset, I'm only speaking in metaphors and symbol?
53 Jesus said to them, "I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. 55 For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. 56 Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. 57 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. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your forefathers ate manna and died, but he who feeds on this bread will live forever."
Count the references here to eating Christ's flesh and blood: 11, in the space of 5 verses. And to make sure we don't misinterpret, he uses the qualifier "real" a couple of times. He is saying his flesh is real food, and his blood is real drink. The juxtaposition and connection of the words "flesh" and "food" along with "blood" and "drink" with the word "real" is linguistically blatant. He's making a point, and there is nothing here to hint of symbolism but rather the real thing.
59 He said this while teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum. 60 On hearing it, many of his disciples said, "This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?" 61 Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, "Does this offend you? 62 What if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before! 63 The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life.
The Jews are persisting here in not agreeing with what Jesus is trying to get across. They sound like many non-Catholics today, "Who can accept this real presence teaching?" Christ tries again and challenges them with a problem the Apostles have had all along, and that John implies earlier in the chapter: they don't see Jesus for who he is (both human and God). Does this offend them? Yes is does is there non-verbal reply. "Well," implies Jesus. "You haven't seen anything yet. Wait until I ascend to where I was before, to the right side of my Father in heaven. Then how will you feel?"
Then in verse 63 Jesus says that this teaching about his real presence in their lives only has significance because it is of the Holy Spirit. The teaching he has given them, his life on earth (as the Son of God and Man), and the coming demand that they partake of this flesh and blood…all three of these elements of his presence…ONLY has life in it because it comes from the Holy Spirit. If he were speaking in his flesh, the words, his life, and the Eucharist would count for nothing. Later on, in chapter 16 and 20 John will make a point of Christ breathing on the Apostles the Holy Spirit and proclaiming to them that it is the Holy Spirit (not their flesh) that will lead them into all truth, giving them the authority to forgive sins. Many anti-Catholics believe that the Catholic Church creates doctrine arbitrarily. But John has made it clear with the words of Christ that it is rather the Holy Spirit that gives life and that the flesh counts for nothing.
64 Yet there are some of you who do not believe." For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him. 65 He went on to say, "This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled him." 66 From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.
Here it says that Christ's disciples (not unbelievers, not pagan) protested and rejected his teachings that in the Eucharist he will be truly present. It doesn't say literally that they could accept symbolized elements, but it is clear that they are rejecting the use of the words "flesh" and "blood."
And notice that Jesus makes no effort to say, "Hey, wait a minute, come back here. You misunderstood me. I know that eating blood and flesh of animals, and humans is contrary to Jewish law. You misunderstood me. I was just using an analogy, or a metaphor. Don't leave." But Jesus doesn't do that. They leave in protest...just like many non-Catholics even today have left the real presence of Christ behind in protest.
(If you're into Biblical numerology notice the influence of Satan with this verse. It is chapter 6, verse 66...666! It could be coincidence, but then it could also be Providence.)
67 "You do not want to leave too, do you?" Jesus asked the Twelve. 68 Simon Peter answered him, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69 We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God." 70 Then Jesus replied, "Have I not chosen you, the Twelve? Yet one of you is a devil!" 71 (He meant Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, who, though one of the Twelve, was later to betray him.)
What will we do? Will we reject Christ and his teaching as Judas did? Or will we be like Peter and say, "Lord where else can we go to find The Eucharist" which in the Catholic understanding is Jesus Christ. As I write this I sit before the Blessed Sacrament at my church. Because of this teaching of Christ in John 6, I don't sit before wafers, (although that is what they look, taste and smell like—theologically these physical attributes are called the accidents of the substance). I sit before the body, soul, and divinity of Christ as proclaimed by the faith of the church. No, I choose to have the faith of Peter, and believe that there is nowhere else to go. I sit before Jesus Christ, incarnate. He promised never to leave us, and here I am with Him.
Back in verse 37 Jesus says, "whoever comes to me I will never drive away." This phrase, in he context of the Eucharist distribution, reminds me of "altar calls" that are often held during Evangelical church services and, when I was a teen and youth pastor in such a church, were held every Sunday morning and evening. These are times when sinners, or Christians carrying the guilt of sin, walk down the isle to the front of the church (often kneeling at the railing in front of the altar) and talk or pray with the pastor or a counselor. There are several things that are assumed to be happening in this activity. First, there is a public witness that the person wants to be a new or better disciple of Christ. Second, there is the prayer of confession, often accompanied by confessing sin(s) to a minister or counselor. Third, there is the acceptance in a physical sense of the grace that God offers through the interface with the pastor and those witnessing the person's confession and profession of faith. Fourth, there is acceptance in a spiritual sense of Christ and the Holy Spirit into the person's heart, either for the first time or in a renewed way.
Those same essential things happen in the Mass. Every person who takes communion and walks down the isle toward the priest is, first, making a public profession of faith in Jesus Christ for his saving act on the cross. Second, earlier in the service and as part of the prayers preceding the distribution, there are several times when the individual confesses his sins (in general) and asks for forgiveness. Third, the church teaches that the participant receives God's grace through the sacrament of The Eucharist, not just because of the benign taking of the elements but because of the spiritual disposition of the person. Fourth, there is not only the acceptance of Christ into the person in a spiritual sense, but also physically. When the priest or Eucharistic minister offer the bread or wine to the participant they use the words, "The Body of Christ" or "The Blood of Christ." Before receiving the elements, the recipient responds "Amen" or makes some affirmation that indeed it is the body or blood of Christ.
As I sit or kneel during the Eucharistic distribution, I often meditate on the repeated words of the priest. As he gives the Host to each person he says, "The body of Christ." Here is what he means: First, the wafer is the true body of Christ, for reasons elucidated in this essay and in other church teachings. Second, the person IS the body of Christ here on Earth. Third, by eating the true body of our Lord, the two truths become one unified truth. Christ's body becomes our body, and our body becomes Christ's body, literally, not spiritually. We become one with Christ, and because we all are eating the same body of Christ, we become physically one with one another. The church becomes one physically. We are, He is, we become...the body of Christ.
Why is that important? Why isn't a spiritual unity with all Christians enough? Because my wife and children are literally part of my body, I care and am willing to sacrifice for them more so than for a stranger not related to me by flesh and blood. That is a good reason for the church to be unified in The Eucharist. We will care and love for each other more sacrificially. There is a physical bond, that exists uniquely through Christ. But there is another reason why the physical aspects of Catholic sacraments are important, and while spiritual linking of Christians just isn't enough. It is this. God the Father doesn't think very highly of just spiritual relationships. God likes relationships that involve the physical world he created. That is why Christianity is the only incarnation religion on the planet. God sent his son to become man. God became physical. Then and now. God could have had a relationship with us on purely a spiritual level. But he decided to get physical. For God and Jesus it wasn't just a spiritual act of faith. It required a physical act of work.
Here are other NIV Scriptures useful for meditation about the Real Presence of Christ in The Eucharist. Taken from a Catholic perspective, these verses hold more significance than if communion is only symbolic. (See also footnote No. 1).
Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ?
Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.
For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, "This IS my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me." 25 In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, "This cup IS the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me." 26 For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. 28 A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. 29 For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself. 30 That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep.
All of the written records from the Early Church that I have seen indicate that the Church has believed, taught, and practiced the Real Presence of Christ in The Eucharist. If the Eucharist were only symbolic there would be explicit teachings to that end. That is, somewhere in Church history and the millions of pages of doctrinal explanations, teachings and letters, there would be some explanation that the Eucharist was symbolic. I have never seen one such document, nor have I ever heard of any references that might exist. What I'm referring to now is much different than simply a person's opinion about The Eucharist, but rather I refer to the descriptions about what was practiced and believed. Some examples are below. Symbolic references to communion do not show up until after the Protestant Reformation, and then only from Protestants.
From The Epistle of Ignatius of Antioch who was a disciple the Apostle Peter, to the Smyraeans, Chapter VII:
Let us stand aloof from such heretics. They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ.
From The Epistle of Ignatius of Antioch to the Romans (7,3).
I have no taste for corruptible food or for the delights of this life. Bread of God is what I desire; that is, the Flesh of Jesus Christ, who was of the seed of David; and for my drink I desire His Blood, that is, incorruptible love.
From The Epistle of Barnabas, Chapter LXVI, Of the Eucharist:
And this food is called among us Eukaristia (Greek for the Eucharist), of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Savior, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh. For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, "This do ye in remembrance of Me, this is My body;" and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, "This is My blood;" and gave it to them alone. Which the wicked devils have imitated in the mysteries of Mithras, commanding the same thing to be done. For, that bread and a cup of water are placed with certain incantations in the mystic rites of one who is being initiated, you either know or can learn.
From Irenaeus Against Heresies
5. Then, again, how can they say that the flesh, which is nourished with the body of the Lord and with His blood, goes to corruption, and does not partake of life? Let them, therefore, either alter their opinion, or cease from offering the things just mentioned. But our opinion is in accordance with the Eucharist, and the Eucharist in turn establishes our opinion. For we offer to Him His own, announcing consistently the fellowship and union of the flesh and Spirit. For as the bread, which is produced from the earth, when it receives the invocation of God, is no longer common bread, but the Eucharist, consisting of two realities, earthly and heavenly; so also our bodies, when they receive the Eucharist, are no longer corruptible, having the hope of the resurrection to eternity.
From St. Cyril of Jerusalem (350 AD) in writing about 1 Corinthians 11:27-30
Since Christ himself has declared the bread to be his body, who can have any further doubt? Since he himself has said quite categorically, 'This is my blood,' who would dare to question and say that it is not his blood? Therefore, it is with complete assurance that we receive the bread and wine as the body and blood of Christ.
(1 Cor. 11:27-30) Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord. A person would examine himself, and so eat the bread and drink the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself. that is why many among you are ill and infirm, and a considerable number are dying.)
 Scriptures other than John 6 that support the Real Presence
Mt 26:26ff, Mk 14:22ff, Lk 22:17ff - The Eucharist
instituted with the verb "is" not "like" etc.
1 Cor 10:16 - Eucharist = participation in Christ's body and blood
1 Cor 11:23-29 - Receiving Eucharist unworthily=guilty of his body & blood
Ex 12:8, 46 - Pascal Lamb had to be eaten
Jn 1:29 - Jesus called the Lamb of God
1 Cor 5:7 - Jesus called "paschal lamb who has been scarified"
Jn 4:31-34, Mt 16:5-12 - Jesus demonstrates that if he wants to he can talk symbolically about food and correct his hearers if they don't understand correctly
Ps 27:2; Is 9:18-20; Is 49:26; Mic 3:3; 2 Sm 23;15-17; Rv 17:6, 16 - to symbolically eat & drink one's body & blood = assault.
 See the author's essay, Mass Dimensions for further explanation of the Mass and the multiple dimensions in which God exists and we can experience, http://www.stanwilliams.com/catholic/MassDimensions.html