Monday, August 17, 2009

Sermon John 6:51-69, for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost, "Eat for Life"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. In the reading from Proverbs today, Wisdom calls out to those who are simple, and says, “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Leave your simple ways, and live, and walk in the way of insight” (Prov. 9:5-6). Gaining wisdom is pictured as eating a meal of bread and wine. In today’s Gospel reading, the basis for the sermon, Jesus also speaks of eating, but as a way of gaining eternal life. This is the end of Jesus’ great sermon on eternal life that we’ve been reading from John 6 in several portions over the last few weeks. Here we come to the most difficult part of His sermon, the part that drove many of His hearers away. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

It’s really quite amazing, when you compare Jesus’ does in today’s reading to the popular wisdom in churches today about how to grow the church. Jesus had a crowd numbering in the several thousands, to whom He was preaching, but by the end of His sermon it seems that He was left with less than 12. Popular wisdom says that we need to “soft-sell” the Gospel to people by rounding off the hard edges, make the Word of God more palatable by leaving out the more challenging portions, hiding the cross from view, not exposing sin for what it is, and the like. Jesus, however, in this sermon on John 6 presents some of the most challenging things that He ever taught. And at each point where His listeners started to waver and hesitate, He actually escalated the challenge. Far from cutting them slack when they didn’t believe, He still expects their full belief. When Jesus first said that He was the living bread from heaven, He then explained that this bread He gives for the life of the world is His flesh.

The Jews immediately ask how He can give His flesh to eat. What’s Jesus trying to promote here, cannibalism? Instead of clarifying their offense, He presents an even more difficult statement: “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you.” Here would’ve been the greatest shock and offense to His Jewish hearers. The OT book of Leviticus states that the Israelites were strictly forbidden to eat any blood because the life of a creature is its blood, and its blood is it’s life (Leviticus 17:10-15). The penalty for disobedience was that God would turn His face against such a person, and they would have to be cut off from the people of Israel; removed from the covenant community. And Jesus told them that they must eat His flesh and drink His blood to have eternal life and to abide in Him?! By instructing them in this way, Jesus was doing what only God could do—to supersede one of His own commands. He was showing that this Old Testament law forbidding the eating of blood was to keep them from eating the lifeblood of any animal, until they were permitted by God Himself to eat the lifeblood of the only One who can give eternal life. He was the bread that you feed on to live forever. Only by living off the life of the one who lives forever, can we also live forever.

Every meal that we eat in this life, whether as a meat-eater or as a vegetarian, is an implied lesson that we live each day from the death of something else. All the food we need to sustain us comes from the death of some plant or animal. We can’t survive off rocks or sand; we need to eat something that once was living. But inevitably even eating this food will end in death. Our life cannot be sustained eternally by this earthly food, no matter how healthy a diet we choose. But there is only one kind of eating, which Jesus speaks of here, that gives eternal life. When we eat Jesus’ flesh and drink His blood, we live because of Him. We live off of the death of another—the death of Jesus on the cross for our sins. There He gave His flesh as bread for the life of the world. But His flesh and blood are His life for us. His resurrection life dwells in those who eat and drink of Him.

So shocking were Jesus’ words in this sermon, that many of His disciples said, “This is a hard saying, who can listen to it?” In effect they were saying that now Jesus had gone too far. He had stretched the limits beyond what they were willing to believe. Do we sometimes try to persuade Jesus to come back inside our comfort zone? That some things are just too hard to listen to? Jesus knew they grumbled about this, and said, “Do you take offense at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where He was before?” If it was too hard for them to believe that He was the bread from Heaven, that God had become incarnate to give His life for the world, and that eternal life was found only in Him—what would they think when they saw Jesus rising into heaven? This would be even more difficult for them to believe. If the works of God are too amazing to believe, we haven’t seen anything yet! Jesus doesn’t give them room to soften on His astonishing teaching. He said these words are Spirit and they are life—the flesh is of no avail.

Those last words, the flesh is of no avail, or the flesh counts for nothing, require a short explanation. Some Christians have incorrectly taught that Jesus is referring to His own flesh here. But clearly that would contradict all that Jesus said before about His flesh giving eternal life and that His flesh is true food and the bread of life. So Jesus is not saying that His own human flesh avails for nothing. Rather, He is referring to our sinful human flesh and the mind of flesh that won’t receive His teaching. He’s saying that our sinful flesh is opposed to God and counts for nothing because it rejects God’s Word and Spirit. Jesus then refers to those like Judas that He knows don’t believe, and explains that one can only come to Jesus and have faith if the Father draws them to Him. So this is why the sinful flesh counts for nothing—because it cannot grasp or come to the things of God. We have no power in our sinful flesh to seek after God. Only His Spirit and Word can awaken faith in us.

These words were so scandalous to Jesus’ listeners that many of His disciples turned away and didn’t walk with Him any longer. The same may be true today. The Christian church cannot change the Gospel to keep reluctant hearers. Some may be offended by the message and go their own way. Jesus won’t water down His Word for it to be more palatable to us. When we attempt to do so ourselves we risk losing the Gospel altogether. Jesus had such a love for God’s Truth that He even asked the 12 if they too would leave Him. Peter answered Him with the words that are now part of the Alleluia verse in our liturgy, “Lord, to who shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed and have come to know that you are the Holy One of God.” Thanks be to God that they didn’t all turn away from Him. Thanks be to God that He does grant faith and draw us near to Him to believe, even in such a startling teaching that we must eat His flesh and drink His blood for eternal life.

But we’ve still left an important question unanswered. What exactly does He mean by eating and drinking His flesh and blood, and how does this happen? Does He mean, as the people of Capernaum seemed to understand Him, some kind of gross cannibalism? Clearly not. Does He mean the eating of His flesh and blood in the sacrament? Or is there yet another kind of eating that He speaks of? The verse from Proverbs I referred to before described gaining insight for the mind as eating the bread and wine that wisdom had prepared. It was talking about a different kind of eating than that which we do with our mouths and stomachs. Jesus here’s talking about a spiritual eating and drinking—that of faith. Just as our bodies need nourishment from food, so our souls also need this eternal nourishment of Jesus’ flesh and blood, the life of the world. To understand that Jesus speaks here about a spiritual eating, we simply need to read the surrounding context. He says that to eat and drink His flesh and blood is to have eternal life. In this same sermon, earlier in the chapter, Jesus says that everyone who looks on Him and believes in Him has eternal life (6:40). Again He says whoever hears and learns from the Father comes to Him and whoever believes has eternal life (6:45, 47).

So Jesus promises the same things for hearing and believing as He later in the chapter promises to those who eat and drink of Him. So to eat and drink Jesus flesh and blood is to hear and believe in Him, and to receive Him as the One that God has given for the life of the world, and to hold fast to this truth in all difficulty and temptation. We’re fed by Jesus in this spiritual way when we hear the Word of God, read, preached, or spoken to us—when we receive the Sacraments by faith. Only to those who eat and drink of Christ in this spiritual way, by faith, is eternal life given. Jesus says that ALL who eat of Him in this way have eternal life. He says, “Truly, truly I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you.”

In addition to this spiritual manner of eating and drinking Christ by faith, there’s also a second way that we eat of Christ, and that’s through the Lord’s Supper. In that meal we’re given Jesus’ body and blood into our physical mouth also, so that what we take in the bread and wine is really Jesus’ body and blood. Not as a symbol, but truly there in hand and mouth in a mysterious way. We take His body and blood for our forgiveness and life. But even this second way of eating Jesus’ flesh and blood is of no benefit to us unless we spiritually eat of Him by faith. Without faith in Jesus as the Son of God in human flesh, and without believing in His saving benefits for us in His death on the cross and resurrection, it’s actually harmful for us to receive the Lord’s Supper. We’re actually taking the Lord’s Supper to our judgment and harm if we receive it without faith, or repenting of our sins. Scripture warns that if we eat it without recognizing the body, that we eat and drink judgment to ourselves, and that wrongful participation actually causes us to sin against Jesus’ body and blood (1 Cor. 11:27-32).

Therefore Jesus isn’t saying that anyone who goes through the outward action of eating the Lord’s Supper is granted eternal life, as if this action of eating was what saved, and not faith. But, when one has spiritually eaten Christ by faith, then the benefits of the Lord’s Supper are also poured out to us. First by faith in the heart, and second by oral eating of the body and blood of Christ, we truly partake of God’s saving gifts for us. Jesus’ blood poured out for the forgiveness of our sins. But those children or believers who’re still going through instruction in the faith, and haven’t yet eaten the Lord’s Supper, still have the full saving benefits of Christ as they eat and drink spiritually by faith. They don’t have to wait until they’ve received the Lord’s Supper to have the full gift of salvation.

Jesus’ teaching is hard and difficult to understand. It calls on us to believe that the gift of eternal life comes through the death of one remarkable human man, who in physical appearance seemed no different from us. A man who made astonishing claims that only God can make, and offered His own flesh and blood as the sacrifice to bring us life. Apart from eating and drinking His flesh and blood, there simply is no life for us or in us. Many of Jesus’ disciples turned away from Him at these teachings. But these are the words of eternal life. There is spirit and life in Jesus’ words, while the world can offer nothing but enjoyment and death. God grant that we’ll never turn away, but that we’ll always and continually feast on Jesus flesh and blood as the food that gives us eternal life. A daily, weekly, monthly, yearly, continual spiritual eating of Him by faith, so that we’re sustained on the path to eternal life. We’ve believed and come to know that Jesus is the Holy One of God. Amen. Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points:
1. Read Proverbs 9:1-6. What is meant by eating and drinking in verse 5? What is gained by this eating and drinking?

2. What was Jesus’ concern for in John 6? For keeping the truth of God’s Word, or keeping the multitude of followers who didn’t fully accept His teachings? What benefit is there to ourselves or to our hearers, if we sacrifice the truth in order to attract listeners?

3. Read Leviticus 17:10-15. Why were the Israelites not permitted to eat/drink blood? What was in the blood, and what was the significance of the blood in sacrifice?

4. What teachings of Jesus stretch us (or you personally) beyond your comfort zone? What is the reason? Why must we bring our sinful flesh into submission to faith?

5. Read John 6:68. Where in the liturgy do we sing these words, and why?

6. There are two ways in which we eat of Christ, spiritually by faith, and the oral eating of Christ in the sacrament. Which one is in primary focus in John 6? Who benefits from this eating?

7. Why is the first kind of eating (spiritual) necessary for us to benefit from the second kind of eating (sacramental) when we eat the Lord’s Supper?

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