Real Eating

Text: John 6:35-51
Date: Pentecost XII Proper 14B + 8/12/18

We come to the second third of Jesus’ famous Bread of Life discourse. In the first third we saw God as giver of everything we need for life. As His highest gift He gave His Word, His Torah through His servant Moses. So also was His Word given through Jesus. As He gave quail and manna to His people of old in the exodus through Moses so now He gave bread and fish to the more than 5,000 who were following Jesus through a desolate place. The important difference between Moses and Jesus however is that Jesus is the Word of God and Jesus is the Bread of God, and not in just a metaphorical sense but in reality, in the flesh, with both feet firmly planted on the ground, the Incarnate Word. After years of wondering I am glad to say that I have finally sided with the early church fathers, Luther and those to this day who “in, with and under” these words identify eucharistic meaning to them. When Jesus said, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh,” He spoke not only of faith in Him and His words but also of a real eating with the mouth, as real as the loaves and fish they had just feasted on, as real as the lamb eaten at the annual Passover Seder, as real as the sacrifice in His flesh on the cross for the life of the world.

Like the people following Moses in the wilderness this crowd also murmured because they could not understand the depth of Jesus’ words. In fact, next Sunday we will hear the sad result of their murmuring as finally “many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him” (John 6:60-61, 66). I wonder if this is the same sort of murmuring we hear from some today who think that the sacrament of holy communion, for instance, actually gets in the way of the growth of the church, especially because of the ancient restriction of “closed communion” to which many take offense and complain that we are not being loving.

We begin by hearing the last words we heard last Sunday. Jesus said, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” Jesus is the Bread of God as He is the Lamb of God in that this calls to mind the Passover, the slaughter of the Paschal Lamb and the meal at which the bread Jesus will declare is His body. Jesus is the gift of God. But whereas the gift of the feeding of the 5,000 happened only once, and as St. Paul says, “the death he died he died to sin, once for all” (Rom 6:10), in the sacrament the forgiveness, life and salvation that results from His one-time offering is given to all continually evermore.

Listen to the reality in which the church father Cyril speaks when he says, “The holy body of Christ then gives life to those whom it enters and preserves them to incorruptibility when it is mixed with our bodies.”[1] It is because of the life Jesus restores and gives to you now that, as He says over and over, He will raise us up on the last day. For this reason we ought to believe that we are here receiving not only God’s own pledge and promise but God’s own power for our resurrection from the dead and the life of the world to come.

The increasing grumbling disbelief of the crowd recalls St. John’s prediction in the very first chapter of his gospel, “He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him” (Jn 1:10-11). They said, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” And this is the scandal of faith with which all must struggle. No, He is not properly the son of Joseph. He is the Son of God through the miracle of His incarnation of His mother the blessed Virgin Mary. One needs the miracle of faith in God’s Word to believe that truth.

Jesus does not engage their unbelief however but exposes it as a false and even irrelevant way of thinking about Him. How many false and irrelevant ideas about Jesus are thrown around today? And that includes the false claims of not only many television preachers and also authors of religious books but even of our neighbor next door. Not our logic but only the Word of God, the revelation of the Bible is to form our faith. As this is especially important for a right faith in Jesus (the word is “orthodox” or right teaching), it is equally important for a right faith in the sacrament of His body and blood.

So finally, as Jesus repeats His claim, “I am the bread of life,” he introduces the idea of eating, saying, “this is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die…. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever.” And how is that? “The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” Many here have dismissed a connection with the sacrament because there He speaks not of his flesh but of his body, to which the question ought be asked if there really is a difference.

Controversy over the Sacrament of the Altar has overshadowed or distracted many at least since the Reformation. Does the bread and wine cease to exist? Are they only symbolically the body and blood? Or are they both? Next Sunday we will hear how that controversy began already as soon as our Lord originally spoke those words. The question for faith will be asked of us.

As we prayed at the Institution of our Lord’s body and blood in the sacrament on Maundy Thursday, “Grant that we may so receive the sacred mystery of Your body and blood that the fruits of Your redemption may continually be manifest in us.”

[1] Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary 6:35 quoted in Weinrich, John 1:11—7:1.