Sunday’s Gospel is the final portion of the “Bread of Life” discourse that runs through the latter part of John 6. The Gospel presumes that we remember what has already been said. Recall that in the previous verses, Jesus made the astounding claim that He is the bread of life which has come down from heaven. He also said that this bread must be eaten and that it really is His flesh and blood. In verse 51 He said, “The bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh,” and in verses 53, 55, Jesus says: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. … For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed.”

Our Gospel on Sunday (John 6:60-69) picks up right after these statements and records the crowd’s response: they are dismayed and disbelieving. The evangelist tells us that “many drew back and no longer walked with him.” Could Jesus really mean what He said? It is clear that He intends to feed His followers with His own flesh and blood and that this is a decisive moment for the disciples. Jesus’ teaching about the Eucharist became a sort of test for His followers. It can only be accepted in faith. It is a hard teaching — hard in the sense that what appears to be bread and wine truly becomes the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ. There is no outward change to the bread and wine. This happens at the words of consecration at every Mass and we are invited to believe in and receive Jesus in the Eucharist every day. We might wonder how this is possible and the answer is that it is only something God could do. It is also a truth that comes to us directly from Jesus and with it comes the grace to believe.

The apostles here are models for growing in faith in Jesus. When Jesus asks if they, too, will abandon Him because of His teaching about the Eucharist, Peter responds that they will stay. This does not mean that Peter understood or perfectly grasped the mystery of the Eucharist. Rather, Peter believes in Jesus, and because Jesus has said this, it must be true. The choice to believe in Jesus, the Son of God, or to walk away from Him is presented to us as well. 

As in the First Reading from Joshua (Joshua 24:1-2a, 15-17, 18b), we, like the Israelites, are asked to choose whom we will worship. There is only one God, and He has revealed to us Who He is and how He should be worshipped in faith, hope and love. Like the Israelites and the disciples, however, we are free to walk away. God wants us to make the right choice and choose Him, but He will not force us.

One final question might be how we can trust that believing in Jesus is really the right choice. In Sunday’s Second Reading (Ephesians 5:21-32), Saint Paul describes how Jesus loved the Church (which means us) and gave Himself up to death in order to make us holy. That is the proof of His love, and that love is present in the Eucharist, because Jesus is present in the Eucharist. Paul teaches that Jesus shares that love with us so that we can share it with one another — here he specifically mentions husbands and wives, because the sacrament of marriage represents the sacrificial love of Jesus. In marriage, that self-sacrifice is mutual and ongoing, and it receives its strength from the love of Jesus, who gives Himself totally to us in the Eucharist.