Eating and Drinking in the Kingdom

Text: John 6:50-69
Date: Pentecost XI + 8/16/09
Lutheran Church of the Incarnate Word, Rochester Hills, MI

In our once-every-three-years summer vacation visit with St. John in the sixth chapter of his Gospel, we have been faithful in asking the question, “Is John chapter 6 about the Sacrament of the Altar or not?” and answering by saying, “No.” For one thing, in the sacrament Jesus says “this is my body” not as here speaking of his “flesh.” For another thing, for Jesus to speak about the sacrament (1) before its institution on the night when He was betrayed and (2) to people who would clearly have no idea what He’s talking about doesn’t make any sense. For another thing, John 6 does not talk about worthy or unworthy reception of the sacrament but about the eating or the refusal to eat the living bread. No, John 6 is not primarily about the sacrament of the altar.

HAVING…SAID…THAT…, then we began to “fudge” our position a little by saying, “well, of course a Christian today cannot hear the words of John 6 without thinking of the sacrament.” And that’s more true than one may think at first. For the life-giving doctrine of the Gospel, while it can be categorized, confessed, explained and understood in a systematic way, cannot be heard, believed and lived in a piece-meal fashion. You cannot speak adequately and truthfully about the Lord’s Supper without reference to our Lord’s crucifixion and death. And you cannot speak adequately and truthfully about our Lord’s crucifixion and death without reference to from where He received His body and human life in the first place. These things John 6 does speak about as none of His words here make any sense apart from understanding and believing His identity as the incarnate God, the God-Man, the Savior come down from heaven, taking on our human flesh-and-blood in order to fulfill God’s Law perfectly on our behalf, and then, nevertheless, to take the sin of the world into His sacred body to kill it, to disarm death and the devil, and then by rising again from the dead to restore eternal life to the world. All of this Jesus calls “the living bread that came down from heaven.” John chapter 6 is about Christ. It is about the grace of God and it is about faith. Of this living bread Jesus says He is, He says, “if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever,” and “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” The issue of faith, then, is between eternal life and no life whatsoever, that is, death.

First, he says, “If anyone eats,” whoever, it matters not who. That’s because salvation is for all and for all by faith alone and not by works of the law, not by any prerequisites, not by becoming something other than you are. And what are you? What is anyone and everyone? “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” All are, for all the rest of our similarities or differences, all are fallen sinners. That’s the issue. Therefore, wherever faith in Christ is found, there is the forgiveness of sins, life and salvation; there is eternal life given by Christ.

Now what is the opposite of the life of faith? It is not just life without faith. Rather, he who does not “eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood,” that is, he or she who does not believe in Christ, has “no life in you.” Though the heart may be beating and brain waves waving and blood flowing and nerves nerving, these all will cease and desist and surrender, ultimately, to the reign of death and come to nothing. Apart from God who gave life “you have no life in you,” unless, that is, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood,” that is, unless you repent, believe and abide in Jesus Christ by faith, and He abides in you.

Here Jesus makes an interesting and important switch in words. For faith is not just a one-time event just as a meal for the body is not a one-time thing, but is at least a three-times-a-day thing, and a daily thing. We are hungry beings and must continue to eat if we are to stay alive. Likewise faith needs to constantly “eat” (phageo) or, as Jesus uses the word here, “feed” (trogo). “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life.” In other words, what temporary food does temporarily for the body, the flesh and blood of Jesus does for the true, eternal life. For this “feeding” means the ongoing, intimate relationship of faith and, we might say, a new way of life, the way of simple faith in Christ. How did the Apostle Paul say it? “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).

If Jesus is speaking here primarily of the sacrament of the altar (which He is not) then we could expect what has indeed happened among Christians in the world since then, namely, division on the question of whether Jesus meant His body and blood is really and truly present with the bread and wine or whether Jesus meant only a spiritual presence, a real absence of His body and blood. But that’s not what we see here, division among believers. Rather, “When many of his disciples heard” what He was saying, “they said, ‘This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?’” Who can believe, much less understand it? And then the sad words, “after this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him,” that is, they stopped believing if they ever did believe in the first place.

Notice these were “many of his disciples,” not the Twelve. To them He asked, “You don’t want to go away too, do you?” And then we have the confession of faith that has been enshrined in our Lutheran liturgies since the last third of the 20th century, “Lord, to whom 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.” No, they didn’t want to go away too! There was something that made them “keep on keeping on,” that made them keep believing, that made them hang in there even when they didn’t fully understand things, and that was their faith in the person of Jesus, the Lord, the Holy One of God. And that is to be the same way with you and me—continuing to believe, hanging in there by faith even when we don’t understand what’s going on, or, as our confirmation rite says it, continuing “steadfast in this confession and Church and to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from it” (LSB p. 273).

At that point, you see, Peter and the rest were not insisting on dissecting, systematizing, philosophizing and requiring that everything be completely understood by them. They were believing. In fact, since they had no concept of the sacrament of the altar yet, maybe they were understanding Jesus’ words easier or clearer than we as talking about faith in Him as the Son of God. Yet eventually now with us, after His institution of the sacrament, they could remember these words even as we can with an even deeper faith—faith in the saving God who has come to us and lives in us and continues to be with us even as we wait for His final return when He comes again to take us into the new heavens and earth of eternal life. As one great Lutheran theologian said it, “The Lord’s Supper is the form of the incarnate presence of Christ between His Exaltation and His Return.”[1]

Again, Peter and the rest of the twelve were not actively thinking about their faith and trust in Jesus. They were just believing; believing beyond understanding, like the Apostle Paul says about “the peace of God,” which is very real even though it “surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7). In this sense the good news is that faith is not equal to nor dependent upon our thinking or understanding. You are just as much a faith-filled, believing Christian whether you are asleep, in a coma or fully awake. “Faith is not a synonym for commitment or religious conviction, no matter how firm. Faith is the new life, the creation of a new self that is feeding on the gracious God by feeding on God’s gracious food. Faith is the soul alive, born again by Water and Spirit, raised from the death caused by God’s judgment on our sin, and fed by the bread who is Christ our Savior.”[2]

To you who believe, Jesus declares, you have eternal life now already. For how is “eternal life” possible. Jesus solemnly promises, “and I will raise him up on the last day.”

[1] Hans Preuss, quoted in Kenneth F. Korby, “The Use of John 6 in Lutheran Sacarmental Piety,” Shepherd the Church, Ft. Wayne, IN., Concordia Theological Seminary Press 2002, p. 129.

[2] Ibid., p. 137.