Sermon “You Have the Words of Life”
Our Lord Jesus, grant that we may hear your word and receive it as did Peter. You are the one who has the words of life, for you are the way, the truth, and the life. Give us your life as well. Amen.
We recently left this scene in John chapter 6, with the apostles listening to Jesus as Jesus taught large crowds of his disciples. He talked about how he himself was the fulfillment of the manna in the wilderness. Just as God sustained a whole nation of people for a whole generation using supernatural bread, so God will sustain a whole world full of people forever using Jesus, the bread of heaven. Yet we saw that Jesus’ teaching was enough to make us uncomfortable. We who have been raised a long distance from the Hebrew dietary laws still have a strong reaction to the idea of eating a person and drinking his blood. It’s out of bounds in our society, for good reason, since we at least claim to respect human life.
As Jesus continues to explain himself to these disciples he does not do what we would expect. When I’ve said something, maybe by mistake, or on purpose but suddenly realized it was controversial and that I wanted to reconsider my position, you all know what I do. I do very much what the rest of you do. I try to defend my reputation but back off of what I said. I try to make the controversy smaller, not larger. This is my normal process, as it is probably yours. When you said something and discovered it was the wrong thing to say, you try to take it back or redirect attention away from yourself.
What does Jesus do here? The people start grumbling against him, so he restates exactly what he had said before. He makes it crystal clear in John 6:51. He is talking about giving his body. He’s doing that “for the life of the world” and he is very clear that he is giving his body to be eaten like bread.
There are really two different issues at hand here. First, there’s the issue of whether or not Jesus is giving us his real, physical body and blood under the substance of the bread and wine. That’s what Jesus is saying, and it’s one of the matters that sets different groups of Christians at odds with one another. One of the factors that led my family into the Lutheran faith was the fact that in our former situation, where we received communion on a weekly basis and where I was frequently the one who administered the Sacrament, there was a division among those who considered that the elements were purely symbolic, those who affirmed a spiritual but not bodily presence of Christ in communion, and those of us who confessed a real bodily presence. When the congregational and denominational leadership said it was a matter of little importance and that each person should simply be persuaded himself, I saw that as inconsistent with the idea of Christian unity. If I said, “this is my body” and most of the congregation interpreted it as “this represents my body” we did not have the unity of doctrine that Jesus calls us to. We should not be receiving communion together. I requested to be relieved of administering communion, but we later had to seek out fellowship with Christians who believed as we did, this historic position that Jesus’ body and blood are present, truly and physically.
But that’s the issue we went into in the last sermon. What’s the other issue here? What did Jesus say would happen to the person who eats his body? Look at verse 51 again. Partaking of the body of Christ gives us eternal life. This is a way Jesus says that he delivers forgiveness and life to us. That’s a very powerful claim. What about the person who does not take it believing? Does it make it no longer the body and blood of Jesus? Not at all. In 1 Corinthians 11:27-30 we see that our eating and drinking unworthily calls condemnation down upon us. These are serious words. We can eat and drink worthily or not. We can receive forgiveness or condemnation. Jesus’ body and blood are powerful. We must use them rightly. This is one of the reasons that in confirmation class I hammer away at the ideas. If I have anything to say about it you won’t be a communicant at the altar where I am administering the Sacrament without believing the real bodily presence of Christ. It’s that powerful, to forgive or to condemn, and I don’t want anybody to be condemned. So we seek that unity of belief, that doctrinal fellowship, a true union in our understanding.
What if we are nervous? What if we are a little doubtful? What if we are wondering if we ought to avoid the Sacrament because we’re afraid we don’t believe well enough? Here’s the good news. It isn’t about how well you believe. It isn’t about how well you’ve conformed your life to Jesus’ life. It’s all about how well Jesus has given himself for you. It’s all about how completely Jesus has died for you. It’s all about how well he is able to give his flesh “for the life of the world” (v. 51). Once again, we have to realize, have to come face to face with the idea that Jesus is God. As God he is supernatural. He doesn’t limit himself to the patterns we understand. He is able to give his life and apply it to us. And he is able to do it by his body broken for us and his blood shed for us. He is the one who is able to use whatever means he wishes to deliver eternal life. Jesus is absolutely that powerful. He is ready, able, and willing to give himself on our behalf, so we can have fellowship with him, and our fellowship is in his body and blood.
This creates a controversy among Jesus’ followers. Once again, they are arguing but Jesus simply clarifies some more. The statements they found troublesome are exactly the statements he wants to repeat. He is the one who gives his body and his blood, his life, for us to eat and drink so that we will have life ourselves. That’s the way he made it work. And that is the only way he intends to make it work. Salvation is a supernatural matter. It doesn’t depend on us or what we can do. It depends on what Jesus has done. We don’t come to him by ourselves, we are brought to him by Word and Sacrament, by the means God has given, the means which God promises to use to draw us to him.
At this point many of Jesus’ followers consider the conversation over. They aren’t willing to walk with him any longer. He has claimed to be the fulfillment of God’s great signs in the Old Testament. He has claimed to be the only way to have fellowship with God. He has said that the relationship with him is applied through his body and blood, which are to be consumed by them. This is a hard teaching. It’s offensive. It violates our sensibilities. But it is the way God has appointed for salvation. Only through Jesus’ death in our place can we receive his life.
Do you consider the conversation over? It probably isn’t the answer any of us would like. We’d like to hear that we are able, by our goodness and our effort, to give ourselves as a pleasing offering to God. I hear person after person in the hospital express worries but say they have tried to be good people and live for Jesus. But when we go down that path, when we show our goodness and hope that we are able to be worthy of God’s love, we realize we are offensive in his sight. It is only through trust in Jesus that we receive his words. It is only through trust in Jesus that we receive his true body and true blood. So Jesus places a decision in front of each of us today. Do we walk away, saying that the only way we will receive salvation is by our own works? Or do we, like Peter and the rest of the Twelve, confess that Jesus is the one who has the words of life? Will we accept these hard teachings and continue to realize that Jesus is indeed God the Son who has given himself for us? May we have the grace Peter did, seeing that Jesus has the words of life. His word is life. He himself is the life. Trust in Jesus! He is the one who is able to give his life for you, for me, and for the whole world. Thanks be to God.
Now may our Lord give you grace, guarding your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. Amen.