I have a queston concerning the Real Presence: As Catholics, the justification for Eucharist is in John 6, but Protestants point out that John 6:63-64 says that the flesh is useless, and thus it has to be symbolic and Christ was speaking metaphorically to the crowd. How do Catholics justify the Real Presence, Bibically?
Thank you for your question. The Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist is a bedrock belief of the Catholic faith. John 6 is a very important source for this teaching on the Eucharist, there are other Biblical sources in the Last Supper accounts of the Four Gospels, and in St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians (11:26-28). Those other sources can be looked at another time.
One important element of religious discussion is not to get into the act of throwing “Bible bombs“ back and forth; with the Catholic saying, "John 6!” the Protestant retorting, “John 6:63-64!” and the Catholic hitting back with, “But, but 1 Cor. 11:26-28!!” There is no actual interchange taking place, no deeper understanding between the parties, and nothing being achieved other than lobbing verses back and forth like a game of hot potato, with the winner being the one who throws the last verse. We do not want to fall into that black hole. So, if you are in a conversation with someone on this topic, limit yourself to John and have a real discussion, using some of the questions you’ll find later in my response, before moving onto other Biblical texts.
Let us return to the story as found in John 6, the main section we are dealing with begins with verse 22. The people who Jesus had fed the previous day with a multiplication of loaves went looking for him. They find him, and ask for a sign so that they may believe (v30). This is very important to note, as the story will end, not with the people believing, but with the people scandalized and leaving (v66)!
The next step is to see what exactly scandalized the people and made them leave, and more importantly, why Jesus would allow them to leave. After all, if your friend is correct in saying that verses 63-64 were merely symbolic, why wouldn’t the people have understood that? And why would Jesus have allowed people to leave Him over a misunderstanding?
Let us return to the text, in verse 32, Jesus says that the bread of God is that which, “comes down from Heaven and gives life to the world,” and the people respond, “Sir, give us this bread always” (v34). Everything is good at this point. The people sought out Jesus, they found Him, they want to believe in Him, and they ask for the bread which gives life to the world.
Jesus though, immediately orients the entire conversation to Himself by saying, “I am the bread of life…” (v35-40). After Jesus is finished speaking, the people begin to become uneasy and “murmur“ about Jesus and ask how He can say such things (v41-42). Interestingly, Jesus does not seek to alleviate their concerns, but doubles down on what he was saying, even telling them to, “Stop murmuring,” and concluding by saying, “I am the living bread that came down from Heaven[…] and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world” (v48-50).
The people listening to Jesus now move from murmuring to outright quarreling. They challenge Jesus asking Him, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (v52) Does Jesus back down? No! He doubles down on his double down. Jesus adds a new teaching by no longer limiting Himself to being bread from heaven, but telling the people to drink his blood (v53-56). Remember, these are Jews who keep strict kosher laws. The people who he is speaking to will not even eat the blood of an animal, and now he is telling them that they will have to drink his blood!
The people protest to Jesus yet again! ”This saying is hard; who can accept it?” Jesus speaks the verse cited by your friend, but He in no way abrogates his previous teaching. He is speaking to the fact that humanity cannot save itself through the sacrifices of the flesh which were taking place in the Temple. Rather, it is only by having the Spirit of God in which one is saved! And how does one receive this Spirit? By eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Jesus. We know this because in verse 66 we are told that many of the people immediately left, then and there, returning to their former ways of life.
Why would they leave if they simply believed Jesus was speaking symbolically? Why would Jesus allow them to leave if He felt he was being misunderstood? And note what comes next, when he turns to the Twelve, he simply asks, “Do you also want to leave?” (v67) He is referring to the discourse which had just happened. His teaching, the people’s objection, his stronger teaching, the people’s stronger objection, his even stronger teaching, and the people leaving. He lets the people leave, and now he is giving his closest disciples the same opportunity. He is asking the Twelve, “You have heard what I said, the people won’t accept it, but you know me, and you have seen my signs, do you believe what I am saying to be true.” Peter replies, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (v68). Peter has come to believe that the words Jesus was speaking in his discourse with the people are true, true in essence, and not merely symbol. He chooses to stay with Jesus knowing full well the implications of this teaching, even as the crowd has abandoned them.
We can see now why we must look at the whole context of the passage rather than a particular verse. We can always twist verses and use them as Bible bombs to suit our needs. The Scripture deserves better than to be treated in this manner. Sadly, both sides often use Bible bombs to try and prove their arguments. But when we look at the text as it was written, as it was initially proclaimed, and as it was understood by the first scores of generations of Christians; John 6 is most coherently interpreted not through the lens of mere symbol, but by the clear meaning of the words of the Word Himself.