The feedings of the multitude in the wilderness give us a vision of the new life that baptism initiates us into and which the Eucharist sustains. (See Divinely Created Abundance) The multiplication of food through both divine and human generosity is quite the opposite of the accusatory, slave-driving society of Egypt or the chaotic violence before the Flood. All six Gospel accounts remind the reader of God’s gift of manna in the desert after the escape from Egypt. It is John’s Gospel that makes this connection most explicit. Just as the manna needed to be renewed each day, we need to be renewed by the Eucharist on a daily, or at least weekly, basis.
It is also John’s Gospel which warns us of how easily we fall away from living by mutually gifting back into contention and rivalry. First, John says that after declaring Jesus the prophet who was to come, the crowd tried to seize Jesus and make him king. Jesus had not modeled a way to rule over other people. Quite the opposite. Jesus had modeled a way of self-giving without rivalry. This is the way of life that should rule us. Making Jesus a political ruler could only drag him and his followers (us) back into the violently competitive life that baptism delivers us from. Then, the people (i.e. us) murmur against Jesus when he tells us that he himself is the bread come down from heaven. We murmur a lot more when Jesus says that we must eat his body and drink his blood. Murmuring is the very same word used of the Jews who contended with Moses and God in the desert.
We could take the murmuring as referring to the bitter arguments over the Christian centuries as to whether or how Christ can be present in the bread and wine. It seems to me that we should take Jesus at his word here and accept that he feeds us with his death and resurrected life. That’s the hard point; not the metaphysics of the “real presence.” We balk at the idea that Jesus’ death and his ongoing resurrected life can feed us. It’s like Jesus body and blood are poison to the kind of life we’re accustomed to living, which they are.
It is typical of John’s slantwise means of conveying the Gospel that he puts Jesus’ discourses about eating his body and drinking his blood in a context outside of the meal in the upper room. This has the advantage of stressing the ongoing nutrition Jesus offers in the Eucharist. Curiously, this separation also seems to spiritualize the Eucharist in terms of Jesus dwelling in us to give us life, but this comes with a shocker that English translations cannot convey. The Greek word for “eat” is trogein, a very strong verb that doesn’t mean dining nicely with good manners. It means to chew, gnash, grind. Jesus comes right in our faces with our eating as a sacrificial act. We are to be painfully mindful of the sacrificial way of life we left back in Egypt but, unfortunately find ourselves carrying with us through the desert.
The sixth chapter of John ends with most of Jesus’ followers leaving because of these hard words. By being food that nourishes us by reminding ourselves of how sacrificial we tend to be, Jesus is indeed refusing to be the king who fixes everybody else’s wagons that we want him to be. We have wandered far from the community of sharing and giving that began this chapter, the place where Jesus wants us to be.