The Bread of Life for the Life of the World

by J. Robert Nelson

J. Robert Nelson, since 1985, has been director of the Institute of Religion at the Texas Medical Center in Houston.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, December 1, 1976, pp. 1076-1079. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Christ’s presence is real presence. This must be reiterated, because an unreal presence is no presence at all. “For Christ is our life” (Col. 3:4). Even as Jesus Christ is “really present” in us, and especially in the context of the sacrament, so we are “really present” in him. Because of this belief, Christians of many communions are moving toward consensus on interpretation of the Eucharist.

"Catholics believe that Christ is really present in the Eucharist," said the Philadelphia TV newscaster, "but Protestants say he is only symbolically present. The half-minute notice on the August 5 evening news thus distorted and dismissed the significance of a unique theological symposium at the International Eucharistic Congress. Some 200 theologians of many denominations demonstrated how the divisive stereotypes of the past can no longer have meaning or effect. Catholics and Protestants and Orthodox believe that Christ’s presence is real. They also agree that the basis of Holy Communion is the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus Christ for human salvation; that the act of remembering joins that unique sacrifice of the past to our present self-giving in worship and service; that the Holy Spirit, invoked by prayer, makes effectual the sacramental grace conveyed in bread and wine to the assembled community.


Participants invited to this symposium were responsible, though unofficial, representatives of their churches. They found that issues which once caused deep rifts between churches have been largely resolved. The indicators of coming unity are irrefutable. For the first time in a fully ecumenical setting, the fruits of a decade of study and dialogue were examined in concert. The bilateral conversations of Roman Catholics with Anglicans, Disciples, Lutherans, Reformed and Orthodox; the Lutheran-Reformed agreements; the World Council of Churches’ near-consensus statement on Eucharist; numerous studies and talks of lesser scope -- all these were ingredients which pointed to converging lines of theological interpretation.

A lucid synopsis was presented by John Hotchkin, leading ecumenical officer for American Catholics. Responses, both positive and critical, came from Presbyterian Lewis Mudge, Greek Orthodox Maximos Agniorgoussis and Jesuit theologian Avery Dulles. Edward J. Kilmartin, also a Jesuit and a leading sacramental scholar, gave a historical critique. William Lazareth, a Lutheran, spoke on living out the Eucharist in society, thus echoing the sentiments of Cardinal Jan Willebrands, who had addressed the opening session. The famous Dutch cardinal, prime ecumenist of his church, was most sanguine about present unitive trends -- but no more so than Protestants in attendance.

The event so ineptly epitomized on television should, in fact, be widely noted. It was set in the context of the great congress, attended by more than a million persons, with the theme of Jesus the Bread of Life for a hungering world. While all kinds of hungers were considered in meetings large and larger, only the theological symposium was small enough and sufficiently sustained to concentrate on the meaning of the eucharistic liturgy and its bearing upon the authenticity of life.


More and more, Christians are impressed by one significant aspect of the Holy Communion: as a means of grace it is also a means of life. Jesus Christ is the veritable Bread of Life, by whom lives are nourished and sustained. This is not a figure of speech only. Jesus Christ is not called, for example, "the fountain of youth." He is the Bread of Life. He is the Resurrection and the Life. And this is the most basic reality of human existence. God the Creator is the source of all life together, and he is the Father of every particular human life, whether so recognized or not. Likewise, God is the Redeemer of all life; for in all the dangers and tragedies of temporal existence, God preserves men and women from total death and annihilation.

People talk today about the "celebration of life." What do they mean? Generally they want to celebrate the natural life given by God. Even if they do not acknowledge God in faith, the sense of living and joyfulness inheres in the life they have received from God. When Christians celebrate the Holy Communion as thanksgiving to God the Father, through and with and in Jesus Christ, and by the Holy Spirit, it is a fulfilled life of divine character for which they are glad.

Yet there are countless people today who are neither inclined nor equipped to celebrate God’s gift of life. For them, by contrast, the present day is a time for honoring death. They have a being-toward-death. They sense a fascination with the process of dying and the mysterious state of death. Books and television, lecturers and college seminars give assurance that, after all, death is not so bad. It is inevitable. It is final. But it is also awesome and in some instances even merciful and welcome. There is more public interest today in discussing euthanasia than Eucharistia. Even within the churches, people are saying that the only life worth living is a life of "quality" -- but "quality" is usually defined by the natural standards of health, usefulness, comforts and happiness.


All informed Christians would maintain and believe that the Eucharist is truly the celebration of life. It is the presentation of the gospel which is at once audible, visible, tangible, edible, potable, laudable. This gospel is the good news for dying people that life is given and renewed by Jesus Christ. The risen and living Christ is one with the source of all life, even God of all. "For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself" (John 5:26). Because of this cosmic patrimony, "the Son gives life to whom he will" (John 5:21).

Christians participating in the Lord’s Supper do not try to shut out death by ignoring it or pretending it has no power to threaten. Indeed, we even emphasize a death -- the death of Jesus. We reflect upon the awful event of his crucifixion, even to the point of sometimes becoming unduly preoccupied with the morbid aspects of the liturgy. In their simplest sacramental significance, the bread and the wine are present signs of his dying on the cross.

We remember this death vividly by the effect of verbal and visual images. But remembrance, as is often noted, is more than a corporate memory of Jesus. It is the Greek anámnêsis: the remembrance of his death becoming an authentic experience of the present, by which we are enabled to participate in the past sacrifice of our Lord, which indeed constitutes our future. The once-for-all death of Jesus in the first century now, by faith and the Holy Spirit, becomes truly and intensively present to us in 1976.

In the simple, familiar act of eating and drinking, therefore, we not only remember but we "proclaim the Lord’s death" (I Cor. 11:26). What does St. Paul mean by this? Two things, and both are needed. First, the sacramental action itself, in whatever cultic or liturgical form, is a dramatized proclamation of the life-giving death of Jesus. But also, the words of preaching in this context are the vehicles of the gospel, which is the hopeful message of new meaning and power for life. Because the human need for this vivifying message is never satisfied, the church must in all times and places continue the proclamation by word and sacrament, as long as human history endures -- "until he comes."

The death of Jesus, which we proclaim, is not a warrant for any death-wish or despairing abandonment of life. On the contrary, because of Jesus’ resurrection, "his death means our life." As the ancient Easter hymn of the Orthodox Church testifies: "By death he has trampled down death."

Now some might ask, in a tone of exasperation, "What is all this talk of life and death in the context of the sacrament of Holy Communion?" Do the words mean the same to all people? Obviously, no. Is it not unwise and fatuous for us Christians to think and speak as though those who are not Christians can understand, apart from an informed faith, what we mean by life and death? We deny that we are thinking in occult or mystogogical ways. We have no obscure gnosis to conceal from the uninitiated. For we too are citizens of a modern science-based civilization. We too can live in the universities. But "as we believe, so we speak." Lest we seem to be both unfaithful and dishonest, however, we need to grasp and articulate this one commanding truth: that Jesus Christ, in his life and death and resurrection, is the guarantor and enabler of our living today.

This is real life, the whole of life’s dimensions. Many Christians, by spiritualizing, have diluted and dissipated the gospel’s synoptic concern for the worth and integrity of human life. They need, as all need, some of the blunt realism of the prayer of the Gallican Liturgy before the eighth century. In thanks to God it goes: "Your hands made from clay a more excellent likeness, which a holy fire quickened within, and a lively soul brought to life throughout its idle parts. . . .You snatched us from perpetual death and the last darkness of hell, and gave mortal matter, put together from the liquid mud, to your Son and to eternity."


The overarching theme of the congress made participants take a closer look at the sixth chapter of the Gospel According to John. This is a thoroughly eucharistic presentation of Christ "for the life of the world" (6:33).

Here is the fourth account in the New Testament of Jesus’ feeding a multitude miraculously. Are statistics so important? Was not Christ feeding the multitudes in Philadelphia by the million? In all the churches of the world by the hundreds of millions? Is he not capable of feeding in this way the world’s 3 billion human beings, who live by bread but "not by bread alone"? Where is the miracle to be located here? St. John sets this story at the time of the Passover, suggesting that the ancient Jewish feast was to be both continued and changed. Jesus as the Messiah himself becomes our Pascha, our Passover. "Behold, the Lamb of God!"

So many hungering people! And with what could they be fed? With barley loaves: the simplest of all coarse breads -- like chappatis in India, cassava in Africa, common beans, black bread, hardtack, millet. The minimum low-calorie diet! For this Jesus "gave thanks." He gave eucharistia. As all Jews recited the berukáh for God’s blessing, here on the hillside he did exactly what the Synoptic evangelists and St. Paul record at the Last Supper. Taking the most common elements of food and drink in his hands -- hands soon to be pierced by nails -- he gave God thanks and distributed them. And this was the momentary action which changed the world. It was, wrote John, a "sign" of who Jesus was and what his mission was to accomplish. An earlier "sign" of his identity and work was at Cana, where he changed water into wine (2:11).

Similarly, in conversation with the Samaritan woman (4:14) Jesus promised to give the "living water" to everyone who thirsts after life. By such water and the Spirit one is baptized into the new community of eternal life -- now! It is the announced Kingdom of God already breaking into history: the future life of God already coming toward us and opening to us.

Water. Bread. Wine. Jesus’ words. Jesus’ sacrificed life. The new life in the Spirit. All these are offered as God’s preeminent gifts for salvation. But not in the past era of Caesar and Herod, nor in the distant eons of the ages of ages to come, but right now in faith -- now in the preaching, baptism, eucharist and faithful life in the community of the Spirit.

In presence of such offer, what did the people want of Jesus? Bread, but not the Bread of Life. Just plain bread to chew and swallow (6:26). Though Jesus had given them the decisive "sign," they still asked for another one. They wanted a miracle comparable to Yahweh’s raining down manna upon the desert-wandering Israelites (6:31).

As manna came down from heaven, the Son as the Bread of God came to give life to this world God loves (3:16; 6:33). The Israelites who lived on manna finally died the physical death (6:50), but those who eat the Bread of heaven will not die to eternal death. This means eating the flesh and drinking the blood of the Son of Man. Except for this, "you have no life in you," said Jesus (6:53). The Jews of Capernaum were understandably horrified. To consume blood was totally forbidden. To eat human flesh was cannibalism! And as usual even today, to be an absolute literalist is to miss the main point.

Christ’s presence is real presence. This must be reiterated, because an unreal presence is no presence at all. "For Christ is our life" (Col. 3:4). Even as Jesus Christ is "really present" in us, and especially in the context of the sacrament, so we are "really present" in him. How is this known? By Jesus’ words of eternal life, and by the Holy Spirit who is "the Lord, the giver of life" (John 6:63, 68).

To Jesus’ disciples, this was a "hard saying" (6:6i). It is still hard, unintelligible and unacceptable to many men and women: to many sophisticated intellectuals, to culturally conditioned skeptics, to those secure in their own religious dogmas and cults, and to literalists who demand a sign and then do not believe what they see. Some disciples then deserted Jesus and went away. The Twelve remained with him -- at least until the time of his betrayal and arrest, when not only Judas but "they all forsook him and fled" (Mark 14:50).


Is not this the way it has been for centuries and even today? Have we been able to stand by Jesus Christ with his "hard sayings" and to be with him in his vicarious service to all persons in his suffering and death? Have we stayed with him in fidelity, living in constant communion with him? How do the churches and how do persons lay hold of the obvious opportunities which God is giving in this time of ecumenical awakening and openness?

Some speaking for churches, and many for themselves, have expressed regret and contrition for the neglect or misunderstanding of the Lord’s eucharistic gift of life. Believing that the church is right, they thus think that their theologies, if congruent to the doctrine, are right. Still they realize that members of other Christian churches challenge the sufficiency, or even the rectitude, of their teaching and practice. Frequent exposure to the experiences of ecumenical conferences is an antidote to dogmatism.

Clearly made public now are options which are demanding as well as promising. They are the provisional harvest of unprecedented ecumenical dialogues, based upon expanded, open-minded scholarship in Scripture, tradition, history and theology. Not only the data, but also the new mood of willingness to hear and accept others, account for the advances.

The symposium revealed a number of these matters on which Christians can speak with varying degrees of unanimity. But questions persist:

1. The liturgical use of Jesus’ words of institution is based on the accounts of Paul and Luke: "Do this in remembrance of me." As to the meaning of anámnêsis, much was said. But what about the "Do this"? How do we do it? How often do we do it? How carefully and faithfully do members of congregations and parishes respond to Jesus’ invitation? Can the congregation honestly be called "the eucharistic community"?

2. If sacrifice of Jesus Christ once-for-all on Calvary for the sins of the whole world is a dominant motif of Holy Communion, do we really proclaim the Lord’s death by word and action in ways which communicate this redemptive event to all who see and hear? And how, in truth, do we present our "bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God"? (Rom. 12:1).

3. The New Covenant with God in Christ is the covenant "written upon the hearts" (Jer. 31:33), binding the people to God and, by implication, to one another. God is always faithful and just to keep his covenant. Do we keep it with sufficient fidelity?

4. As there is one loaf of bread, there is one body made up of many members (I Cor. 10:17). Is that biblical rhetoric, or reality? How do we divide the loaf and the body? Or, in our situation of fragmentation and division, do we fail culpably to "discern" the body? (I Cor.11:29).

5. The broken bread and the blessed cup are "participation" or koinonia in the Body and Blood of Christ (I Cor. 10:16). This is the language of sacramental realism. Is it used and apprehended with commensurate sincerity and sobriety?

6. The Lord’s Supper is a fellowship meal, wherein the life, death and resurrection of the Lord are remembered, prayers are offered to God, and the members strengthened in love by common participation in the gifts and presence of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:42). Does the invocation (epiklêsis) of the Spirit apply to the full dimension of the eucharistic celebration as befits this community?

7. In most church traditions the sacraments are designated "means of grace" and the words are taken seriously. How does such grace serve to dissolve, or prevail over, the church-dividing vestiges of old prejudices, misunderstandings and hostilities? If that question seems easy to answer today, how do we perceive sacramental grace penetrating the walls of sincerely held doctrine and belief? And, humanly speaking, is there a limit to what the means of grace can do to further Christian unity?

8. Jesus Christ is our great High Priest, who has once and for all fulfilled the function of sacrificial priesthood and mediated the New Covenant for God’s people, who are themselves the "royal priesthood" (Heb. 9:11-17; I Pet. 2:9). If all share in the general ministry for which Christ commissions them, there are yet special, ordained ministries authorized for altar and pulpit. What remains for ecumenical convergence on theology of the ministry to satisfy requirements of canon and conscience for mutually recognized celebration of the Eucharist?

9. In Christ "there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female" (Gal. 3:27). Such an apostolic statement commands the assent of virtually all Christians. Is it just lip service? Wherever there is apparent discrimination against one category of person who is "in Christ," is the church as a whole not responsible to show that it is not really such discrimination, or failing that, to rectify the condition? Otherwise, as it has been charged, do we make a "mockery" of the sacrament? Can the exchange of the "kiss of peace" as the sign of reconciliation (Matt. 5:23) be sincerely enacted in each church?

10. "Until he comes!" (I Cor. 11:26). In a culture and time in which people are taught to live for the moment, to put history behind them and not presume to hope for the future, the eschatological idea and faith seem out of place. But contrariwise, this very vacuum is filled by many apocalyptic and millennial schemes and prophecies. Christians need to understand the sense of history’s purpose and the hope which is lodged in the promise of Jesus Christ. Is the Eucharist, then, regarded as the repository of the eschatological hope and the foretaste of its fulfillment?

Beyond this summary of agreements and challenges other questions remain. But for a two-day conference, these suffice to show how far Christian thinkers have come in just a few years. Could this not be called a eucharistic renewal in our time?