Two Types of Eating One Type of Savior
This sermon is pedantic, but I can't help it. Even if you read this text "Iowa style" and just plow through it questions come up. Christ speaks of eating His flesh and drinking His blood, yet we are a year away from Him instituting the Lord's Supper. Christ says, "Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you." If this refers only to the oral eating of the Body and Blood of Christ in Communion, then many people have no life in them. What are we to make of this text?
It begins with Jesus saying that He is the life-giving Bread that came down from heaven, and that this Bread is His Flesh. Jesus goes on to say that He will give His flesh in place of the life of the world. Jesus is describing the universal atonement. Jesus goes to the cross in place of the whole world of sinners. His flesh is whipped, beaten, spit upon, made fun of, and nailed savagely to a cross so that the world might live. Jesus doesn't say that He will give His flesh for some of the world, or for believers, or for those not that bad. He says, "I will give My flesh in place of the world."
Jesus is calling the crowd to faith in His flesh as their salvation. He is calling them to believe on Him. This is the whole burden of John 6 which takes place on one day. From the beginning in verse 29 Jesus tells them, "The work of God is that you believe in Him whom He Has sent" Then in verse 35 Jesus speaks of believing in connection with Him being the Bread of life. "I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me shall not hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst." In verse 40, Jesus says, "This is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him may have eternal life." Again in verse 47 Jesus says, "He who believes has eternal life." Then finally Jesus says in verse 64, "There are some of you who do not believe."
Jesus is calling this crowd to believe His flesh is the universal atonement for sins. The answer to their and our sinfulness is the Flesh of Christ. That is why we keep crucifixes before our eyes. That's why we have paintings of Christ. His flesh was given in our place. All of our bad feelings, all of our guilt, all of our sins and sinfulness, belong on His flesh not on ours. But the crowd stumbles over this. They do exactly what Nicodemus in John 3 and the woman at the well in John 4 did. They misunderstand Jesus' figure of speech. Nicodemus only thought of physical birth when Jesus was talking of spiritual; the woman at the well only thought of physical water when Jesus was speaking of spiritual. The crowd here can only think of physically eating Jesus when Jesus is talking about spiritually doing so.
Jesus handles the crowd exactly as He did Nick and the well-woman. He intensives their struggle. He didn't directly address Nick's misunderstanding spiritual birth for physical birth but highlighted the glories of Baptism saying, "Unless one is born again of water and the Spirit, He cannot enter into the kingdom of God." What an answer to someone who can't get beyond thinking of another physical birth! Jesus did the same with the woman at the well. He didn't explain her misunderstanding physical water for spiritual, but slams her with the Law confronting her with 5 husbands and one live in lover.
Here in our text Jesus also intensives the crowds struggle making their misunderstanding all the more glaring. He talks about literally "munching" not "eating" as the crowd had said, His flesh and drinking His blood. To those who were scandalized at the thought of politely eating Jesus, He speaks of audibly munching (- if you've been around teenage boys you've heard this.) To those who had been forbidden from tasting any blood even that in a rare steak, Jesus speaks of drinking His blood.
As in the case of Nick and the well-woman, Jesus doesn't help them to get beyond their difficulty. Instead, as He did with Nick and the well-woman, He helps them get to the Gospel. With Nick, Jesus spoke of how God so loved the world He gave His only begotten Son for it. With the woman at the well, Jesus spoke of Him being the Messiah. With the crowd Jesus piles up promises in connection with His flesh and blood. In the next 4 verses rather than speaking of only His body as bread as He had been, Jesus speaks of His flesh and His blood, thereby attracting them even more to Himself.
Look at the wonderful things Jesus says concerning His flesh and blood. He says, "Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life and I will raise Him up on the Last Day." There is life in His flesh and blood says Jesus that lasts even through death. Jesus admits all people die, but in eating His flesh and drinking His blood there is everlasting life right here, right now. And this life extends beyond the grave. Those who have fed on the flesh and blood of Christ will be raised by that same Christ in their own flesh and blood on the Last Day.
Lest they be too turned off by the thought of munching His flesh and drinking His blood, Jesus assures them that His flesh is real food and His blood is real drink. It's hard not to see an illusion to the Lord's Supper here. Where else does flesh taste like bread and blood taste like wine? Eating Christ's body and drinking His blood is not gruesome, but joyful and nutritious. Remember when an angel came to Elijah in the wilderness and fed him bread and water? It says that Elijah ate and drank and in the strength of that food went 40 days and 40 nights to Horeb the mountain of God. If God can use ordinary bread and water to give a man enough strength to journey 40 days and 40 nights, what strength can He give a person through the real food of Christ's body and blood?
Jesus goes on connecting blessings to eating His flesh and drinking His blood. He says, "Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood remains in Me, and I in Him." Remaining in Jesus is a theme in I John. There we read this startling statement, "No one who remains in Jesus sins." Here Jesus says that whoever eats His flesh and drinks His blood remains in Him. Putting these 2 together, we come to the conclusion that those eating and drinking of Him through faith in His universal atonement are without sin. They are constantly in Jesus, all the way in so that no sin is visible. God just can't find them. Christ's flesh and blood covers them all.
You think that's startling? Get a load of the next promise. He says, "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." God the Son from all eternity is begotten of the Father. There never was a time when the Father existed apart from the Son. This is a theologically significant point, but not as comforting as the next statement where Jesus says, "so the one who feeds on Me will live because of Me." In Jesus we touch and taste the eternal God. By eating the flesh and blood of Jesus by faith or in the Sacrament we temporal beings are in touch with the divine eternal.
Once more consider how startling this was to Jesus' hearers. To them God dwelled in the holy of holies where if you went in you died. Only the high priest could go in there, and then only once a year carrying sacrificial blood. Here Jesus says the Father's life is in Him, and so the one who feeds on Him will live through Him. Jesus declares Himself to be a direct access to the Divine, and says He is that for all who feed on Him. Where are the guards keeping people away from the holy of holies? Where are the thick curtains preventing people from seeing in? Access is as simple as partaking of Christ whether by the heart in faith or by the mouth in Sacrament.
Jesus saves the greatest promise for last saying, "I am better than the manna that your forefathers ate in the wilderness." The whole discussion about the Bread of Life started when the crowd demanded that if Jesus wished to be regarded as a teacher He best do some sign along the lines of what Moses did in feeding their forefathers with manna. Jesus says, "I'll do better than that. My flesh and blood which you can feed on is better than manna. Your forefathers who ate manna died, but He who feeds on this bread will live forever."
Surely Jesus has gone too far now. Everyone knows everyone dies, Jesus Himself implied this earlier. But Jesus says there is only life to those who feed on His flesh and blood. This can't be said of Communion. Paul says that some who misused Communion were weak, sick and a number of them had died. You can eat and drink Communion, Christ's Body and Blood and not only die but die from it.
Communion is not what Jesus is holding before His hearers in John 6. Jesus says the eating and drinking He talks about is absolutely necessary for salvation: You have no life apart from it. The Old Testament people did not have the Lord's Supper. Was there no life in Abraham, David, or Elijah? Furthermore, the eating and drinking Jesus talks about here is always beneficial. It always brings blessing. The eating and drinking of Communion isn't always beneficial. It can bring condemnation to a person.
What Jesus puts before this crowd who know nothing of Communion is His body that He will give over to death on the cross and His blood that He will shed there. He is calling them to find their sins in His flesh, their forgiveness in His blood, their life in His flesh and blood. This is always beneficial. As their forefathers went out and made what God had sent from heaven their own by eating it, so they are to make the Jesus God has sent from heaven their own by believing in Him.
But still, you struggle; how can this not be about the Lord's Supper? Jesus can't be talking about the Lord's Supper because they didn't know about it. For us, however, who know of His Body and Blood at this Table for us, it's another matter. Many things in Scripture only became clear after the fact. Paul tells us that Israel passing through the Red Sea was about Baptism. He tells us that the Passover Lamb was about Christ, and that the command to not muzzle an ox while it was threshing was really about paying pastors. Likewise, after the fact we hear more in this text than the first hearers did or even could.
We, like them, hear of a Jesus who gives Himself completely for us. It is His flesh for our flesh. His blood in place of our blood. His flesh bears our griefs and carries our sorrows. His blood washes our sins and makes us whiter than snow. Jesus heaps up promises everyone attached to eating and drinking His flesh and blood. How can the flesh and blood of Jesus be ours? Jesus tells the crowd in John 6, He is all theirs through faith.
Right then there was no way for them to eat and drink Him orally. Later, however, after Jesus had finished instructing His disciples He gave them bread and wine telling them: "Take eat; take drink. This is My Body; this is My Blood given and shed for your sins." Here in Communion is Jesus for the eating and drinking. There in John 6, He is only for the believing, but that's where it all starts. The believing leads to the eating. Jesus always meant for it to even in John 6. Those, however, who stumbled at believing in Him never got to the eating. But what joy it was for those who did believe in John 6 and finally did eat in the upper room. The Lord's Supper is the fullness of all that Jesus said in John 6, and you and I have it. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Pentecost XIII (9-10-00) John 6: 51-58