Fourth Sunday in Lent
March 26, 2017
Trinity Lutheran Church—New Haven, MO
In the name of + Jesus.
The day following the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus delivers a very provocative speech on true bread, saying things like, “I AM the Bread of Life, he who comes to Me will not be hungry, and he who believes in Me will never be thirsty” and, “I am the bread that came down from heaven,” and, “This is the bread that is coming down from heaven so that anyone who eats of it would not die. I AM the Bread of Life, which 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,” and, “Amen, amen, I am saying to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourself. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise Him up on the last day. For My flesh is true eating, and my blood is true drinking. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood remains in Me, and I in Him” (Jn 6:35, 41, 50-51, 53-36).
Jesus weaves together the recent history of the feeding of the five thousand with the ancient history of the manna from heaven and presents the arch narrative that gives rise to each of these histories. It is as beautiful and offensive today as it was when He first spoke it. Just as the crowds ate the bread on the grassy hill, just as the Israelites ate the bread in the wilderness, so it is necessary to eat the flesh of the Son of Man. If you do not, you have no life in you. It’s as simple as that.
In the Lutheran Church there is a very distinct history of interpretation of this chapter of the Bible. It was the go-to speech for Ulrich Zwingli in his attempt to prove that the Lord’s Supper was only a symbolic or metaphorical presence of Christ’s body and blood, that it’s simply a figure of speech. Luther’s counter-argument was that John 6 has nothing to do with the Lord’s Supper at all. But such a polemical argument—one side vs. the other—rarely presents the entire counsel of the Lord. The solution is in the rather obvious, yet ingenious observation by the Formula of Concord that there is not just one way to eat bread from heaven. In fact,
There Are Two Kinds of Eating in the Sacrament: the Spiritual Eating of the Word of Christ and the Bodily, Sacramental Eating of the Body with the Bread and the Blood with the Wine
Spiritual eating and drinking is where Jesus begins His bread of life speech. He who comes to Me will not be hungry and he who believes in Me will never be thirsty. There are echoes, here, of His living water speech with the woman at the well. Both of them use bodily, visceral images to present faith. That’s the spiritual eating. It doesn’t happen with your mouth; it happens with your ears. The Word of God is a spiritual bread that we inwardly digest from our ears to our hearts.
But to refuse this food means certain death. The Word of God is the animating, life-giving gift for all of creation. Although man is different than all other creatures. For everything else in creation, God spoke, and it was created. For man, though, it was reversed. God created the man, then He spoke to Him. And He became a living creature. This is nothing less than the gift of the Spirit, the Lord and giver of life. All creatures have an earthly life—even man—but man alone is also created for a spiritual life. So He needs spiritual bread.
This is Jesus’ answer to Satan in the wilderness back on Lent 1. Man will not live by bread alone, but by ever Word that proceeds from the mouth of God (Mt 4:4). Bread feeds the body, but God’s Word enlivens the soul. So if you cut yourself off from God’s Word, you starve yourself. If you believe false words about God, you poison yourself with bad food. Either way, if you do not consume the Word of God, you will die, even though your body continues to live on bread alone. That kind of life does not have an eternal quality.
So the spiritual eating, which Jesus says is eating the bread that comes down from heaven, is to believe the Word of God. But how do you find this bread? Jesus points to Himself. It is the flesh of the Son of Man, which John tells us at the beginning of His Gospel is the Word made flesh. The flesh of Jesus is the living embodiment of the Word of God. To listen to Him in the flesh is to listen to God. To hear His words is to eat His flesh, because He is the enfleshed Word. His flesh is true eating, and His blood is true drinking.
This is why we pray, “Blessed Lord, who hast caused all Holy Scriptures to be written for our learning, grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them…” God’s Word is not digested in the stomach, but in the heart.
Yet the fact that Jesus speaks of eating His flesh and drinking His blood should make an impression on us. True, this speech was given historically before the Supper was instituted, but John is writing most likely at the end of the first century, perhaps even as the last book of the New Testament canon. The institution of the Supper has been established not only by Paul’s letter to the Corinthians and the three synoptic Gospels, but also by a generation of weekly communion in the churches. The hearers of John’s Gospel were also those who regularly ate and drank bread and wine, which Jesus says is His body and blood. There is also a regular bodily eating in the Church, and we need to account for this as well. The body and blood of Jesus, given with the bread and wine, is received with the mouth.
And this is true whether you believe it or not. It is true because of the words of Christ. This is My body…this is the New Testament in My blood. The words of Jesus make it what it is, and what you take and eat is the body of Christ, even though it looks like bread, tastes like bread, feels like bread, and digests like bread.
But how can this be? Reason will search until kingdom come to find a rational explanation to it, because a rational explanation doesn’t exist. The best we can say is that there is a sacramental union of Jesus’ body and the bread, of the blood and the wine. So when we eat the bread, it’s eating the body.
The folks at Capernaum got the two kinds of eating mixed up, which is what caused all kinds of offense, and many disciples who followed Jesus left Him after that. When Jesus said that it was necessary to eat His flesh, they envisioned something like a cannibal taking a chunk of out Jesus’ forearm. But that’s not only disgusting, it misunderstands Jesus’ words. The bodily eating isn’t in a Capernaitic sense—like the people at Capernaum thought—but it’s a mystical, sacramental eating. Our teeth and digestive acids don’t digest Jesus’ body and blood like other food. The body and blood of Jesus is a different kind of food entirely. Every other food you eat becomes a part of you, but the body and blood of Jesus, when you eat and drink those you become a part of Him. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood remains in Me, and I in Him.
So there is a bodily eating in the Sacrament as well. Bread and body, wine and blood. In the mouth. But that does not exclude John 6 eating and drinking. In fact, it is essential to have both kinds of eating for the sacrament to be any good. Jesus says take and eat, take and drink. That means that simply watching other people do it is of no benefit for you. The benefit is in the eating and drinking, not gazing upon a piece of bread and cup of wine. But likewise, there must also be the spiritual eating of faith. This was the main point of Luther’s reform of the medieval mass. The Sacrament isn’t a work performed for God, but it is the proclamation of the Gospel. To highlight the Gospel proclamation, Luther even set the words of institution to the Gospel chant so that they would ring out (I’ll demonstrate this today).
This twofold eating—spiritual and bodily—is on account of the incarnate Word of God. He is the Word with a body, so He feeds us with His Word and His body. Too often, we try to excarnate the faith and reduce it to a matter of the will, or the emotions, or the mind. But the bodily component of the faith is just as important, and maybe even more so. It’s a different kind of knowing. Mark Twain once quipped, “A man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn no other way.” I can tell you everything there is to know about carrying a cat by its tail, but until you actually do it yourself, you don’t know what it’s like.
As the Psalm says, Oh taste and see that the Lord is good!” (Ps 34:8a). By this bodily eating, we come to know the Word in a way that we never could by a spiritual eating alone. And if you reject the bodily eating, it will not be long until you also reject the spiritual eating.
Two kinds of eating—spiritual and bodily. By faith, we inwardly digest the Word of God for eternal life. By the mouth, we eat the bread which is His body and the wine which is His blood. Together, these two kinds of eating deliver what the words of Christ promise—forgiveness of sins. And where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation.
In the name of + Jesus.
Jacob W Ehrhard