Sermon - Ordinary Sunday 20 Year B - | DB Home | RCL Resources Index |

Food for eternal life

I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh. (John 6:51)

What a promise! The elixir of life: Whoever eats of this bread will live forever.

I am reminded of something that is not part of our Uniting Church liturgy now, but in the former Methodist order for Holy Communion people used to be served in groups at the communion rail (something most of our churches do not have any more) and each group would be dismissed with a verse of scripture. Sometimes ministers might use a word of blessing that was not strictly a quote from the Bible but conveyed a biblical truth, so the senior minister under whom I was working when I was ordained used often to say: "Having now received this food of your pilgrimage, go in peace." He used to describe himself not as a leader marching at the head of his army, but more like the cook behind the lines feeding the troops. In fact he was also quite capable of taking a lead up front when it was required, but he saw himself essentially as a "steward of the mysteries of God" (1 Corinthians 4:1). So the people are fed for their journey of life with food for eternal life. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever.

Then comes the hard part: and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh. (John 6:51). When Jesus said that, it caused many to depart. The gospel reading for next week picks up the shock of it.

We will take up the challenge which was too much for many of them next week in a broader context when we consider the alternatives as the twelve did when Peter said on their behalf, To whom can we go? It was in answer to Jesus asking them whether they too were going to leave him.

For our reflection today I want to leave most of that for later discussion and note only two things about it: the shock which gives cause for deep thought or disgust, and way that Peter moved from the topic of flesh and blood to the words of Jesus as words of eternal life.

We should not ignore the shock of the challenge. It is all too easy to say, "It is all symbolic; Jesus did not mean it to be taken literally". Or perhaps we might say that those were other times and a different culture: its meaning for us can be different. But how different? How much can we reinterpret something symbolic into our own terms and not lose its essential meaning? Modern people are inclined to think that such a question is itself a modern idea, the idea of cultural relativity - we all have own way of seeing things, our own values, our own meanings. But the same idea was not far removed from those for whom John wrote these words of Jesus. The same kind of question was being asked in the early church. Did the Gentile Christians, the Greeks, need to become Jewish, should they adopt Jewish ways of worship and daily living, indeed the whole culture of the Jews as the "people of God" among whom of the revelation of God in Christ was given? Or could the Greek believers in Christ carry on their lives in the ways of the different culture? That is a big question also for us today: how much can the words of scripture - coming to us from a foreign land, far away and long ago, a different place and way of life - how much can those distant echos bind us in the way we live today? It is a big struggle for many people and it is close the heart of the kind of problem we were dealing with last week in reference to the relevance of scripture to the current debate on sexuality (Speaking the truth in love). We do need to consider very seriously how literally or realistically we should take the words of Jesus when he said that those who belonged to him should eat his flesh and drink his blood.

It helps in this to see that we are not so very different from those to whom Jesus spoke those shocking words. Many of them were as offended as a modern people might be and often are. As we shall see next week, it was especially offensive to the Jews who went to great lengths to avoid consuming blood. Yet it was not seen by the early Christians who included both Jews and Gentiles as a purely Jewish sensitivity. It was not, like many other Jewish laws and practices, something which the Gentile believers need not take up. There was something more basic and universal in it.

The instruction to abstain from blood is almost the opposite of the command of Jesus to eat his flesh and drink his blood. To see what the disciples believed they should do in obedience to that command of Jesus it helps to understand the meaning of the apparently opposed agreement made at the "Council of Jerusalem" (Acts 15) that one of the few rules of Jewish life which Gentile Christians should also observe was that they should "abstain from blood". They wrote a letter from Peter and James and the others at Jerusalem and sent messengers to encourage the Gentile converts, saying,

The key point was that the blood to be avoided was believed to be the means by which life was shared. We still have some of this idea in our language when we talk of people being related by blood when we really mean they share a genetic inheritance, but it means the same in regard to having some characteristics in common, shared lives in a sense. The Jews believed that life resided in the blood of animals and people .

To share blood was to share life, or the essence of the being of another. Hence eating what was sacrificed to idols was a communion in the life of a false god. Eating animals which had been strangled, and therefore still contained their blood, was also a kind of spiritual pollution, sharing in the life of the animal. Even the reference to fornication depended upon the same basic idea of avoiding pollution through sexual relationships which were intended in creation to be the means of sharing the essence of life and generating life. So Gentile Christian were not required to be circumcised or to keep Jewish laws generally, but they should avoid spiritual pollution coming from communion with false gods and alien spiritual powers. It is not said here, but the disciples knew that by contrast they should share in the life of Christ through the communion of his body and blood. So in the Holy Communion we share in the life of Christ:

You can see how their understanding of the meaning of blood and sacrifices to idols affected some crucial tests of faithfulness in the early church. Paul dealt with it in his letters. He saw that it was a matter of what they believed about what they were doing. If they knew that the idols were false and had no power, they would not be polluted, but not everyone understood this and so they should be careful not to give offence:

It is really quite amazing how the subtle and sophisticated concepts of suggestion and symbolic power were so well understood. You can see how it was in Paul's view: even the supposedly universal injunction issued from the Council of Jerusalem in which Paul took such an important part could be modified in practice when its meaning and intention were understood. If you were not going to be spiritually polluted by eating meat then you could eat it, but if you or others following your example were to be affected then you should abstain. [See also Romans 14:1-17]. Or Paul again:

It is quite clear that we are dealing with the power of symbols in the human mind, not the literal physical affect of what was taken into the body. [A point Jesus himself made in another way: Matthew 15:11,18; Mark 7:20.]

It is important not to condemn actions of self discipline others undertake in good conscience, but it is a tragedy that some can follow the injunction against consuming blood so literally as to refuse blood transfusions. They are to be commended for their having the strength of faith to observe a discipline, but if only they could understand the symbolic power of blood as a sign of life and the purpose the apostles and elders of the early church had in counselling restraint they would be free to enjoy the liberty of the children of God. In a way those who so misunderstand the meaning as to endanger life are closer to the truth than those who take an overly liberal approach thinking they can ignore ancient rules which are "out of date", but by giving it a meaning that was never intended they bring about in death the very opposite of that saving of life which was intended by the early Christian leaders to be a universal purpose in all cultures at all times.

So how about the flesh and blood of Christ that he said was food for eternal life? Can that also be interpreted symbolically in terms of the power of symbols to act on the human mind. Here we are inviting trouble if we not careful. It is a mine field of misunderstanding and divisive disagreement among Christians, but let me risk a little for the sake of more faithful discipleship and the hope of future unity. Again we might refer to Paul on the theme of whether it matters what we eat and drink,

It was because some sincere Christians saw that it was the spiritual qualities of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit that really mattered that they decided centuries ago not to celebrate the Lord's Supper. Quakers are a good example. The Salvation Army might say they have something similar. If you allow the kind of freedom that Paul did you might even say that the direct command of Jesus to Do this in remembrance of me could be interpreted in a spiritual sense rather than in a literal physical sense. Look at the words of institution and of the Lord's Supper and think about it:

Compare that with our text for today and the verses that go with it:

It is very direct and definite. At the same time you can see how it depends upon belief. Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life....This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. Can you say that the physical acts and symbols are arbitrary and unimportant? It would not appear so. It is too deliberately physical in both the food and the actions by which we are commanded to remember him, yet there is something in the idea that if you understand the spiritual intention you might seek to obey Jesus in other ways. I would prefer to say that we can obey his command and fulfil his purpose both in the actual eating and drinking of the Holy Communion and in those human acts of service, peace and joy which work out his commands of love. It is not one or the other. Nevertheless it may be helpful at times to see that other Christians can honestly believe that they are obeying Christ spiritually without the symbols.

Protestants and Catholics have parted company on issues of this kind in previous generations, Catholics tending to see the words of Jesus the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh as meaning more plainly what it says and Protestants tending to emphasise its symbolic character. (There is something a little strange in that difference when you consider that it is Protestant "Evangelicals" who have been so strong on taking scripture to mean what it says in the ordinary sense of the words.) These days the differences between so called Catholics and Protestants are not great, and it has been possible for joint theological commissions to reach agreement on the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Protestant ministers do not easily say now of the bread, once it has been set apart for its holy purpose, that "it is only a sign"; and even the description "Protestant" is not so often used as we all affirm our belief in the Holy Catholic Church. Let those old battles lie behind us. It is the body and blood of Christ that we are fed, and this food of our pilgrimage comes to us in powerful symbols through which we share in the life of our Lord and Saviour.

The symbols are effective. Jesus said it quite plainly and with strong terms: for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. {56} Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Through the symbols we share in the life of Christ. It is a matter of faith: Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. {48} I am the bread of life..... {50} This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. The faith we hold is a belief that he "came down from heaven"; that is, it is about who Jesus is; it is a belief in him as Messiah, the Holy One of God (John 6:69). As John put it elsewhere:

It was flesh that the Word became. It is embodiment of the eternal Word in human flesh that is at the heart of our faith. We are promised eternal life on the basis of that belief: Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. Or as John expressed it in a better known recollection of the words of Jesus:

We cannot hold this faith in a way that is entirely "spiritual" in the sense that it is separated from material existence. True, it is spiritual, and it is the spiritual aspect of this eating and drinking that we have been thinking about, as suggested by Paul's treatment of the pagan practices we considered before, and as is made quite plain a little later in John chapter 6, as we shall see further next Sunday:

God, however, did not rely upon anything purely spiritual, or even exclusively on spoken words, as a the means of making himself known and establishing communion with us: he did it through human flesh, or human life in the body of a man. If we believe his words and accept him as the Son of God, then we have the means of sharing in his life, which is the very life of God, and life eternal.

So faith in Christ is the basis of our communion in which that life of God that was in him is shared. I am not saying that it is by faith that Christ is present in the Eucharist, but the benefit of his presence comes to us personally through faith. When we set aside the common things of bread and wine in the great prayer of thanksgiving with the word of institution remembering what Jesus commanded us to do, we do no more than offer a prayer. We do believe that God will answer our prayer so that he gives what we have offered back to us as food for eternal life. It is not magic. No formula can bring it about. Nothing follows automatically from saying the right words even when they are said by the right people in the right way. It is a gift entirely depending upon the grace of God who chooses in his complete freedom to answer our prayers. That is the difference between prayer and magic. We do not manipulate but humbly ask God for what we need as children asking a parent for food knowing that a father or mother will decide whether and how to answer a child's request. When we come to handle the bread and wine on the Lord's Table we make our request in confidence because we have been told that we should ask for this food of eternal life. We receive the gracious gifts in faith, looking to eternal life, remembering that Jesus said to men in flesh that his life would be shared with them in the material stuff of life in this world, which is God's special provision for us earthly believers as we travel on our journey of faith,

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