As one of the chief Biblical sources for believing that the actual body and blood of Christ are literally, physically, present in the Eucharist, Roman Catholics (and others) often cite John 6: 22 ff., commonly known as the Bread of Life discourse. To do so, however, seems to me to ignore the context of Jesus' words and to misunderstand his meaning, as the following explanation will demonstrate. The text is not Eucharistic.
I invite, indeed strongly encourage, you to read each portion of the text identified before reading the explanation offered below.
Context and setting (22-25)
Geographically, this conversation between Jesus and those around Him occurred primarily, though not exclusively, in the synagogue of Capernaum (v. 59). Those to whom He spoke were a mixed audience that included his disciples and other followers, his Jewish opponents, and countless unbelieving hangers on, eager to fill their bellies. Nearly all had seen Him multiply fish and bread in order to feed 5,000 hungry persons at once (John 6: 1-15). Many of them followed Him to Capernaum to get more free food, if they could, apparently missing the profound theological significance of the miracle they had witnessed and from which they had benefited.
They did not understand that just as their forebears had been fed by the God-sent manna (also not Eucharistic) from Heaven centuries earlier in order to sustain their lives while they sojourned in the wilderness, even so had God now sent his Son from Heaven in order to feed their souls while on their sojourn through the wilderness of life in a fallen world. By feeding the crowd with miraculously multiplied fish and bread, Jesus was demonstrating that He was to his audience (and to the world) something like what the manna was to the ancient Israelites. But his audience did not understand the point, so many of them followed Him to Capernaum not for spiritual sustenance from God, which He came to supply, but simply for more food. Some among them apparently had an inkling that his miracle showed he was the Messiah, but they wanted more proof.
The context for this discourse, then, is not the Passover meal, during which Jesus instituted for his small band of disciples the ritual breaking of bread and the drinking of wine, by which they were to remember Him until He returned (Matt. 26: 26 ff.). While near in time (v. 4), the Passover meal is still seven chapters away -- seven chapters. The discussion here between Jesus and this mixed multitude is something quite different from the Last Supper and his exclusive instructions to his few followers. To read this discussion as if Jesus were speaking of a distinctly Christian sacrament to a largely unbelieving Jewish crowd, and obliquely introducing to them without any explanation the concept of transubstantiation, is blatantly to disregard both the textual context and the audience, who first address Jesus, not about the Passover meal, but about how He managed to get to Capernaum without taking the last boat available, the one in which his disciples had departed (v. 25).
Jesus' first statement (26, 27)
As is sometimes the case with Jesus, He does not answer the question posed to Him, but instead goes directly to the issue at hand, in this case the crowd's shallow motivation for following Him to Capernaum: the food. In order to meet them where their minds and hearts actually were at that moment, Jesus employs metaphorical language about food and advises them to work for the food that does not perish, food unlike the ancient manna or the recent fish and bread, both of which eventually rot. Rather than physical food that perishes, He directs them toward a very different kind of food, a food that lasts, and that yields eternal life. Physical food is not the sort of food He has in mind in this regard, and physical eating is not what He recommends, though that is the sort of food and consumption they now seek. The soul nourishment He has in mind was something that He, the Son of Man, had been appointed and approved ("sealed") to give them by God Himself. That nourishment of soul is not subject to decay the way physical food is. Jesus is clearly distinguishing between physical food and food for the soul, and focusing their attention on the latter.
The metaphor of eating and drinking that Jesus employs here was common enough among ancient Jewish teachers and writers, and normally stood for appropriation -- in this case appropriating Jesus.
The people speak (28)
The people respond to Jesus' admonition to work for the imperishable food that yields eternal life by asking Him what works they ought to perform in order to get this imperishable food. Though we might well understand that their question was sincere, in light of what follows it was ill-conceived and misguided.
Jesus' second statement (29)
As directly as possible, Jesus tells them that, in order to have eternal life, they must believe -- not eat and drink -- believe. No mention, metaphorical or otherwise, is made here of food or of eating. Believing in the One Whom God sent is the key that unlocks the door to eternal life, not the mastication of body or swallowing of blood. Jesus is plainly and simply instructing them to move their attention away from food to something far more important and enduring, namely the well being of their souls through faith in Him. Physical food and physical eating are simply not in view here. Faith, not food; believing, not eating; is the issue
The people speak (30, 31)
Perhaps some of his listeners understood that His point pertained to faith and not to eating because, in response to his instruction that they believe in Him, they asked him for additional signs as a basis for their belief -- as if the healings (v. 2) and the feeding of the 5,000 (v. 11-14) they had recently witnessed somehow were not enough. Others, just as apparently, still thought He was talking about normal food and drink. To them, He responds.
Jesus' third statement (32, 33)
As He did in verse 26, Jesus responds to the people on his own basis, not theirs. Though they are thinking still about the physical food from Heaven that sustained their ancestors in the wilderness, He responds by directing them to the metaphorical bread that comes from God and that gives eternal life to the world -- and not merely to the Israelites in the desert. Surely his reference to bread here is a figure of speech, for no combination of flour, salt, herbs and yeast yields eternal life for the world. Bakers create many wonderful things in their ovens, but salvation is not one of them. By speaking this way, Jesus is trying to move his listeners away from their crassly self-indulgent and materialistic view of the Messiah and his reign. He tells them about a higher, a more ideal (so to speak) kind of bread. He wants them to know that the manna from Heaven was prophetic, or indicative, or predictive, of the Incarnation, of Him and his entry into the world so that by faith the world might be saved.
The people speak (34)
His reference to the bread that gives eternal life evokes from them a strong and direct response, even demand: "Give us this bread always!"
It is difficult to know for certain if they understand to what Jesus is referring, but it seems that they do not. They do not ask for help to aid their belief in Him. They ask for a bread that is to be given, not a day at a time, or only for a while (as was the manna), or for a one-time feast of fish and bread such as they just experienced from the power and largesse of Christ. They ask instead for bread to be given them always, apparently thinking that if they were given it -- and were given it always -- it would yield eternal life for them simply because the giving of that physical bread continued.
Jesus fourth statement (35-40)
Again, Jesus makes plain for them that the bread He has in mind is figurative bread, not literal bread, and that He Himself is the bread of which He speaks. He tells them that they must come to Him and believe in Him because He is the bread of life. If they believe in Him, they will not hunger and they will not thirst. Again, in keeping with the figurative language He has been using, the eating and drinking to which He refers are not physical. They are used in reference to believing. Neither are the hunger and thirst they assuage physical. He is not saying that if they believe in Him they will never again need to eat or drink, which would be the case if He were speaking of literal bread. Of course they will grow physically hungry and thirsty again. One does not cease to be physically hungry or physically thirsty simply because one is now a believer. That is not the sort of eating and drinking, or the sort of hunger and thirst, He has in mind. But, if they believe in Him, they will find enduring spiritual satisfaction because faith in Him is nourishment for the soul. Once they turn to Him in faith, once they believe, their souls will have found the food on which their souls were meant to feed, food that yields not mere physical satisfaction, but eternal life. They already had eaten physical food on the other side of the lake. But that sort of eating did not keep them physically satisfied. Nor did it redeem them. The sort of satisfaction Jesus has in mind does not emerge from literal eating and drinking, but from believing. Believing in Him, He boldly states, is the very will of God. Because it is, if they believe in Him, God will deliver them on the day of resurrection.
The people speak (41, 42)
Jesus' insistence that He came down from Heaven stirs up dissent and debate among them because they know that He comes from Nazareth. They know his parents. Knowing his parents and his hometown, they figure they know and understand his origins. They do not.
Jesus' fifth statement (43-51)
In order to put right the false objections they entertained about his Heavenly origins, Jesus reminds those who have been drawn to Him that they were drawn to Him by the very will and power of God, and He quotes from the Scriptures to that effect. Once again He urges them to believe in Him because belief (not eating) is the path to eternal life (v. 47). In explanation of his admonition to believe in Him, he reiterates the analogy He employed earlier by telling them again that, just as their ancestors ate manna in the wilderness, they themselves should eat his flesh and drink his blood -- startling and graphic language that compares the Israelites eating manna in the wilderness with his audience believing in Him. That is, just as the ancient Israelites ate manna in the wilderness and thereby found sustenance for their bodies, they themselves should believe in Him and find sustenance for their souls -- eternal life -- a process that He graphically and memorably figures forth as eating his body and drinking his blood, a figure of speech He explicitly employed earlier (v. 35) when He clearly and overtly identified believing in Him with eternal life itself. His point here is to urge them onward to belief, not urge them literally to gnaw on his body and to drink his blood. In other words, because their minds seem so firmly fixed on the pursuit of physical food, He makes a shockingly graphic reference to physical food, and to eating and drinking it, as a verbal means by which to catch their attention, and thereby to re-direct their thoughts from food for their bodies to food for their souls, namely the eternal life that is the blessed consequence of believing in Him. So that they, in their craving for food and drink, might turn to Him in faith, He refers to Himself as food and to believing in Him as eating and drinking.
Notice carefully that in verses 35, 40, and 47 Jesus clearly indicates that believing in Him yields eternal life. When, therefore, He indicates in other verses that eating his flesh and drinking his blood also yield eternal life, He clearly is drawing a connection between believing, on the one hand, and what He calls eating and drinking, on the other. In this figure of speech, the latter symbolizes the former, not the other way round. The believing is literal; the eating and drinking of his actual body and blood are not. To take his words literally, as if He were linking their eternal salvation to some kind of grotesque cannibalistic ritual, is abhorrent. To imagine that He is directing them literally to feast on his body and to drink his blood is a notion any ancient Jew would have found both wicked and disgusting -- and clearly against the quite specific injunction of God Himself against any such practice (Gen. 9:4). That is not what Jesus intends.
By calling Himself "the living bread" in v. 51, He puts beyond all doubt that his language here is metaphorical. Babies and goats, for example, are alive. Loaves of bread in an oven or stored in plastic bags on a grocery store shelf are not. Wafers, crackers and loaves are not alive. Jesus is referring to Himself as the living bread, and his use of the word “bread” here is unquestionably metaphorical. Bread is not alive. Jesus is. He cannot be speaking literally about Himself as "living bread." He is a man, not a loaf. Bread is not alive; He is. It must be a metaphor. It cannot be literal. Nor, in keeping with his non-literal language, does He mean for us literally to eat His body and drink his blood. Chewing Him up and swallowing Him down are not what He has in mind.
The people speak (52)
Still not properly understanding Jesus' metaphorical language, the crowd was shocked and grew deeply puzzled: How could they possibly eat his body or drink his blood? It was unthinkable. Had they understood his words in the non-literal way in which He meant them, their befuddlement and disgust would have quickly disappeared. Their befuddlement is rooted in their misunderstanding Jesus as speaking literally.
Jesus' sixth statement (53-59)
Jesus continues to press home the startling metaphor He is employing, apparently intending by its cannibalistic absurdity to shock His hearers out of their preoccupation with physical food and with physical eating and drinking. So He repeats and amplifies His point, which is expressed in the aorist tense (v. 53), which denotes a once-for-all action, a grammatical choice thoroughly unsuited to the repeated participation required in the RC Eucharist, were the Roman reading here to be followed.
The disciples speak (60)
Some of Jesus' disciples were among those who mistakenly thought He was speaking literally. Because they did, they too found His words deeply offensive, and (as one translation aptly puts it) "hard to stomach." Because of their misunderstanding, and the shock and offense to which it led, He provides His own explanation of the teaching He has just articulated.
Jesus' seventh statement (61-67)
As He sometimes does after He speaks figuratively and non-literally (cp. for example, Luke 8: 11ff), Jesus explains carefully to His disciples exactly what He meant. He tells them that He is not speaking about actual flesh. He tells them that the flesh yields no benefit, none. As in the King James translation, "the flesh profits nothing." The word "nothing" could hardly be more absolute. Any benefit He has been talking about up until now is not related to flesh or to eating it. Flesh profits nothing. By contrast, what He has been talking about up until now yields unimaginable profit -- namely eternal life. If flesh profits nothing, and if what He has been talking about yields the unimaginable profit and benefit of eternal life, then He cannot have been talking about flesh. By explaining Himself in this way, Jesus was correcting the error of some of his disciples, an error they shared with the crowds that also had mistook his meaning by interpreting Him literally. His words are spiritual, He tells them, and it is His words, His message, that brings eternal life, and which He puts forward for their acceptance and beleif, not his flesh and blood for their physical consumption. Those fleshly things profit nothing, He insists.
The RCC, it seems to me, falls into the exact error Jesus worked so carefully to correct throughout this discussion. The RCC insists that Jesus is speaking literally about eating human flesh and drinking human blood, and that He is doing so in agreement with their transubstantiationist view of the Eucharist. But you could hardly insist that Jesus is telling you to eat His flesh and drink His blood in order to obtain salvation if He tells you that the flesh you eat profits precisely nothing. Salvation is very far from nothing. If the RCC is intent upon understanding Jesus literally, then the word "nothing" ought to be literally understood as well. In short, by misreading Him as they do, Catholics are ripping the Bread of Life discourse out of its historical setting and planting it foursquare into the upper room and the Passover, and by doing so they thereby insist that Jesus was, without any overt explanation at all, incorporating for a disparate Jewish audience in Capernaum the Greek philosophical notions we call "substance" and "accidents," as well as the distinctions between them. No one in Capernaum at that moment -- not Jesus, not his disciples, not his Jewish opponents, and not the food-seeking multitude -- says anything explicitly about the Passover meal or about the Eucharist, much less about the later RC doctrine of transubstantiation or any of its theological corollaries and Greek philosophical underpinnings. By insisting what it does, the RCC is reading enormous amounts of its own theology back into the text. As the next few verses indicate, Peter, whom they follow, does not.
Peter speaks (68-70)
While some of Jesus' followers left Him at that time, Peter did not. Once Peter heard and understood Jesus' explanation of the connection between eternal life and believing in Him, he stood firm. Indeed, rather than following the deserters, Peter rose to the theological and spiritual profundity of which he is sometimes so capable. Though others might go away, Peter knows that the words -- not the flesh -- of eternal life come from Jesus because Jesus is the Son of the living God. In John 6, Jesus Himself makes plain repeatedly and precisely how He expects people to obtain the gift of eternal life -- by believing. Peter gets it: "we believe," Peter says, not "we eat, drink, or swallow" (v. 69). Salvation is appropriated by faith, by belief, not by the gastro-intestinal system. The eating and drinking are figurative of belief. Belief is not figurative of chewing, drinking, or swallowing.
What we have in the bread is symbolic of his flesh. The flesh He gave for the world was real. It was crucified and has ascended into Heaven, which is where it remains until now, and will remain until the Second Coming. That flesh is not on earth. We know where that flesh is. We know where his body now resides. His disciples themselves told us so. They watched it ascend to Heaven. They told us about the event. They told us exactly where his body now is. It is not where some traditions insist it is.
Perhaps long exposure has inured us to how shocking the Roman way of interpreting Jesus really is. In order to feel it again, we ought to interpret a parallel passage from the same text. In John 15: 5, Jesus says, "I am the vine and you are the branches."
I quote the words of a Catholic fellow discussant words regarding John 6 here: "No matter how much you deny it, those words are unambiguous. They are clear, direct statements and *by definition* are not the [sic] figures of speech." If I applied his bold words and bolder hermeneutic to the passage in John 15, then Jesus' words are both literal and true, and the only reason that He and all Christians don't appear to have bark for skin and leaves for hair is because while the substance of both His body and ours has changed from body to bush and from hair to leaf, we still look like we did before because the accidents remain the same. Despite all appearances to the contrary, Jesus really is a vine and we really are branches. He really is a door (John 10: 7, 9); He really is a shepherd, and, by extension, we really are sheep (John 10: 7-16). The only reason He doesn't look like a door and we don't look like sheep is because, while the substances have changed, the accidents have not. It's a miracle. How we can have the substance of branch and of sheep simultaneously must be a miracle too.