Jesus came, took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish.
In John 21, Jesus reprises the feeding of the five thousand in John 6. The sixth chapter of John begins with Jesus feeding a multitude by the Sea of Galilee with only five loaves of bread and two fish. Jesus uses the feeding of the multitude as the springboard for his discourse on the bread of heaven. He compares his miraculous feeding of the multitude with God’s feeding of the Israelites in Exodus 16. There, God miraculously fed the people with manna and quail. In both the wilderness of Sinai and on the mountainside in Galilee, then, God provided both bread and flesh.
According to Jesus, the feeding of the multitude with bread and flesh not only looks backward to God’s saving work in Sinai, it also looks forward to God’s greater saving work in Jesus. Jesus, himself, is the true bread of life (John 6:32-36).
In Moses’ day, God provided “bread from heaven.” Now, the father is providing even greater heavenly bread in the flesh of Jesus.
I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” (John 6:51)
Jesus fuses the the images of bread and flesh in his own body. With this, Jesus’ discourse takes a Eucharistic turn.
Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” John 6:53-58
As I have said previously, it is impossible for me to see how any late first century Christian could read these words and not think of the Christian Eucharist. Regardless, however, of how one sees (or doesn’t see) the Eucharist in John 6, Jesus’ discourse makes an explicit connection between bread and flesh. Jesus fed the people with bread and flesh by the Sea of Galilee just as God had fed the people with bread and flesh during the Exodus. The miracle is a sign of an even greater reality: Jesus feeds his people with bread that IS his flesh.
In John 21, the evangelist reprises John 6 as Jesus once again feeds his disciples with bread and fish. The Sea of Galilee is once again the backdrop for the event. The crowd is smaller and the number of available fish amazingly larger, but the sign is the same. Bread and flesh fill the stomach, but they are “food that spoils” (John 6:26-27). Jesus offers in his own flesh bread that leads to eternal life. If that were ever in doubt, Jesus’ resurrection makes it clear. It is only as the risen Lord that Jesus can effectually offer the bread of life to the world.