Monday, August 20, 2012

Proper 15 (John 6:51-69)

“Simon Peter answered Him, ‘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.’” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the sixth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint John. Dear friends in Christ: Jesus has a habit of saying remarkable, even strange things. We’ve heard just a few of these astonishing sayings the past three weeks. Jesus has said things like, “I AM the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” He has even said, “No one can come to me unless the Father draws Him. And I will raise Him up on the Last Day.” But the kicker comes in verse fifty-one, the final verse last week which is also our first verse today: “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.” Jesus has been driving toward this point; this is the culmination of all that He had to say in the Capernaum synagogue that day. And His audience doesn’t respond well at all. When Jesus challenges our thinking, when He says things that sound ridiculous, people grumble, they get angry, they even leave this dusty rabbi behind.

And there is plenty of grumbling in our text. The religious leaders grumble, which doesn’t really surprise us; we didn’t expect them to do anything else. But when Jesus is done speaking that day, another group is grumbling: His disciples. “When many of His disciples heard it, they said, ‘This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?’” The words of Jesus cause offence: to His enemies, but even to those who have followed and learned from Him throughout His ministry. They have heard Jesus say some remarkable things, but this Bread of Life stuff is just too much! What causes such offense, what brings such grumbling? First of all, Jesus here makes a radical claim to exclusivity; He declares that only by partaking of Him can one have eternal life. “I AM the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread he will live forever.”

This claim of Jesus has always offended. No one wants to believe that there is only one path to heaven, and that this Jesus is it. This is the claim of Jesus that the world has always rejected. It is their greatest complaint against Christianity: we are free to practice our religion as we please, as long as we don’t say that in Jesus we have the only way to heaven. There must be may other paths, because there are plenty of other good and virtuous people traveling them. Even Christians, you and I who follow Jesus, find it hard to stomach, especially when we consider friends and family that are walking other paths. And so church bodies or Christians tone down or explain away Christ’s words. And if that claim is offensive today, then it was even more so when He first spoke it. The crowd saw this wandering rabbi, this man standing before them, claiming that only in Him could they have heaven. ‘You mean to tell us that only you, a flesh and blood man, can give life?’

Jesus responds to this first objection by not backing down. Unlike many in the church today, His concern isn’t to avoid giving offence; it is the proclamation of the truth. “This is the bread that came down from heaven, not as the fathers ate and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” Apart from Jesus, there is only death. Only in Him is life given. “Whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me.” How can Jesus make such a claim? How can He say that only in Him can we have life? He can make this bold claim because He alone has come to conquer death and win life.

No one else has won the victory over death; only Jesus. No one else gave His life into death for you, for me, for the entire world. No one else bore the weight of the world’s sin upon His shoulders, and paid the price for them with His sacrifice. No one else endured the wrath of God in your place. No one else emerged from the tomb alive on the third day. No one else was raised up as the first-fruits of all the dead, His victory a preview of your own. Only Jesus did all this, and He did it all for you, for He loves you. If there was anyone else who had conquered death for all people, then we could take his or her path to heaven, but there is no one else. Only Jesus has won life and destroyed death, and so only in Jesus are we given life. Apart from Christ, there is no life, for no one else has life to give. He can raise others up, even you and me, because He was first raised up in Easter victory. As Jesus Himself says, “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.”

Probably no words that Jesus spoke in the synagogue that day caused more offense than that last sentence. “The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us His flesh to eat?” This offends the Jews, because they were restricted by the Law from drinking blood; it offends all people, for decent folks have certain scruples against eating human flesh and drinking human blood. But the offense goes even deeper than this. They are offended at Christ’s flesh and blood; they are offended by a flesh and blood Savior. This is the great scandal of Christianity; that God would become man, taking on our human flesh to walk this earth among us. From the earliest days of Christianity, the church has been ridiculed because she worships a man as her God. The feast of the Incarnation, the Holy Supper of Christ’s Body and Blood, has especially been an object of scorn, and Christians have been called ‘cannibals’ for centuries. Embarrassed Christians have spent much time and energy explaining away the flesh and blood of Jesus, minimizing its importance to the faith. The Lord’s Supper has especially been reinterpreted in this way not just by church bodies that deny the presence of Christ’s Body and Blood in the Supper, but even by you and me, who struggle to believe that the wafer is Christ’s Body and the wine is His Blood.

In the face of this opposition, Jesus doesn’t back down; if anything, He ups the ante. “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. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the Last Day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.” The only way to have life is to partake of this flesh and blood Savior in His flesh and blood. Eternal life comes from receiving Jesus in His humanity. As John would say in His first letter, “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God.” Why is this? Why does Jesus require us to receive His flesh and blood, yes, even to eat and to drink it? What is so significant about a flesh and blood Savior?

The prologue to John’s Gospel gives us the answer. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The flesh and blood of Jesus is important because Jesus assumed it for our salvation. The flesh and blood of Jesus is important because it was the price paid for your sin. That flesh was offered up on the cross; that blood was poured out there as the required sacrifice. Only a flesh and blood Savior can bleed and die for your sin. Only a flesh and blood Savior can save flesh and blood people. A spiritual Jesus is no good; you need a flesh and blood Jesus to save you, to deliver you from sin and death. Christ cannot save what He didn’t assume. The flesh and blood of Jesus is important because it is the price of your redemption, and it is now the guarantee of the resurrection, the pledge of eternal life. Jesus said in response to the grumbling, “Do you take offense at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where He was before?” Our flesh and blood Jesus ascended into heaven and is enthroned at the right hand of God, the guarantee that you too will dwell in eternal glory—with your flesh and blood—forever.

Only by partaking of our flesh and blood Savior in His flesh and blood do we have life. “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him.” How do you do this? First of all, by faith, by hearing and believing in your flesh and blood Savior, that He has come to deliver you from sin and death, that only He has won your salvation. Your eat and drink of your flesh and blood Savior in the faith given to you by His Father, as Jesus says, “No one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.” But you also partake of your flesh and blood Savior in a unique and special way when He comes to you and gives you His flesh and blood to quite literally eat and drink in the Lord’s Supper. In the Supper, you abide in Jesus and He in you, for the One who assumed flesh and blood for your salvation, who has enthroned that flesh and flood in heaven, now gives that flesh and blood to you for the forgiveness of your sins.

Those are remarkable, amazing words. They are words of salvation, words of grace, words of Gospel. And unfortunately, as we have seen throughout our text and in our world today, they are words of offense. “After this many of His disciples turned back and no longer walked with Him.” They followed their sinful flesh, as Jesus Himself said, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is of no avail. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” The fleshly fall away, but you and I, those who have been given the Holy Spirit by the Father, boldly confess with the words of Saint Peter: “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.” Where else can we go but to Jesus, our flesh and blood Savior, who in love, in mercy, in grace, assumed that flesh and blood to offer it as the sacrifice for your sin. He has the words of eternal life, for He is the Bread of Life. In the Name of Jesus, our flesh and blood Savior come down from heaven to give life to the world, Amen.

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