Summary: The passage we read from the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel has from earliest times been used to explain the orthodox teaching on the Eucharist.
We all know what a eunuch is, and such men were common in the various courts of Biblical times. What was valuable about them to the kings of the Middle East is that they could be trusted–if they were trustworthy at all–even with the kings’ wives and children. There would be no question of bad blood being introduced into the kings’ descendants if their ministers were sterile. But this convenience for the kings was a terrible injustice for the men involved. They had no progeny, and would be forgotten in a culture where having no children was a great curse.
Isaiah, however, in chapter 56, sees one of the fruits of the Messianic kingdom to be a heritage for eunuchs. This is an important back-story for today’s first reading. This nameless official was a sympathizer with the Jews. He was educated, and realized that the Jewish God is the one true deity, but the passages we call the Song of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah were a mystery. So when deacon Philip encountered him, there was an openness to hearing the Gospel. He was baptized and filled with the Spirit. And so this eunuch had a heritage, had spiritual descendants, because he returned to Ethiopia and his testimony was the seed that grew the Church in that part of the world.
The passage we read from the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel has from earliest times been used to explain the orthodox teaching on the Eucharist. This reading comes right after the miraculous feeding of over 5,000 men and who knows how many women and children with five barley loaves and two fish, with twelve baskets of leftovers. The early verses of Jesus’s discourse are challenges to the Jewish listeners to accept Jesus in faith. But from the last verse we read today: “This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh”, the Church has taught He is speaking of his real presence in the Eucharistic species.
Now this is a problem for the Protestant revolutionary. The priest or bishop presiding at Mass pronounces the blessing and the words of Christ, “this is my Body” and “this is the Blood of the New Covenant.” We believe that from that moment, what looks like bread and wine is really the Body and Blood of the Lord, His risen presence which we may eat and drink as He commanded. From the beginning of the Protestant revolt, though, the reformers denied this in one way or another. They generally taught, and still teach, that John chapter 6 is entirely about faith in Christ. For instance, Luther wrote: “such eating is nothing else than the true, right faith of the
heart, which exists when you receive Christ with faith and know (acknowledge) that He has shed His blood for you and this is your comfort and strength in cross and affliction, because you believe it without any doubt of the heart: in such a way you eat Christ and digest Him in you.”
Of course, Luther taught that humans are so corrupt that we don’t even really have free wills, and that if we are justified by Christ, it’s like God covers our corrupt being with Christ and sees Christ wrapping us up. Christ, then, does not actually transform us in this life. It’s a kind of pantomime. The result is a plethora of interpretations of the Eucharist: “St. Robert Bellarmine counted the number of meanings given [by Protestant writers] to Christ's words at the Last Supper: "This is My Body, this is My Blood." He found among the Protestant scholars [of the 16th century] more than two hundred interpretations except the one which says Christ is ‘really’ present in the Eucharist.” In other words, they all disagree on everything except the most important thing. They all agree that the Eucharistic elements are not really the Body and Blood of Christ.
What we believe is very clear. It’s what the Church has believed from the start: "the whole Christ" is "truly," "really," and "substantially" contained in the Eucharist. And the Eucharist is transformative, and that is why we are praying together today, and in faith receive communion.