Texts: Proverbs 9:1-6, Ephesians 5:15-20; John 6:51-56
As Christians, we almost always read this text Eucharistically. When we hear Jesus call himself the Bread of Life and hear him talk about eating his flesh and drinking his blood, we think of Holy Communion. This image allows us to keep from being disgusted, because instead of cannibalism, we can think of neat little pieces of bread and grocery store wine. However, John’s gospel doesn’t have a story of the last supper; he records no words of institution. When John shares this story with us, he’s probably not talking about Holy Communion. In fact, any time John shares a story with us, he is without fail talking about one thing and one thing only: Jesus’ hour, the greatest of his signs, the moment when he is lifted up and draws all people to himself—the crucifixion.
Here Jesus is talking about offering himself up for the world, about literally giving up his life so that we may have life. The moment in which that happened was the crucifixion. He gave us his flesh, and we crucified it. He offered us his blood, and we spilled it. What happened to Jesus was shocking, graphic, disgusting. And yet, what happened to Jesus also gives us life. So, perhaps it is good for us to be shocked into paying attention to what Jesus is saying here, to recognize that Jesus really did give us his body and blood. It was his flesh hanging on the cross and his blood pouring out that demonstrated his utter and complete love for us; and it is his resurrected flesh—complete with nail marks—and the blood that once again flowed through his veins that give us hope for a life that is more powerful than death.
Over the years, many people were shocked and disgusted by Jesus’ death. They tried to explain it away, to pretty it up so it wasn’t so horrible. There were people who believed that Jesus didn’t really die, but simply looked or acted dead. There were those who believed that his body really died, but that his spirit left his body before that, and returned after he was raised. Some even believed that because Jesus died, he could not really have been God’s Son, but just a really great prophet.
However, through it all, the Church has always held as truth that Jesus is God’s Son, that he did in fact die on the cross, and that he lay three days in the grave before rising bodily to new life; because if he didn’t, then the crucifixion was for nothing, and God may not actually have any power over death, and we may not actually have any cause for hope.
This same question of whether and how Jesus was present on the cross has been asked of whether and how Jesus is present in Holy Communion. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that in the meal, the bread and wine are replaced by the physical body and blood of Jesus, which looks and tastes and feels like the original bread and wine. Jesus is regarded as being completely and fully present in the elements. At the other end of the spectrum, many Protestant traditions teach that the bread and wine remain, and that Christ is present only symbolically, if at all. The meal is nothing more than a remembrance of the one meal Jesus shared with his disciples.
Martin Luther fell squarely in the middle. On the one hand, he did not believe like his Roman Catholic counterparts that the bread and wine are removed from the table, but that they are the physical signs God uses to convey the grace of the meal, much like Noah’s rainbow or Abraham’s son, Isaac; both of which were physical signs of the promises God made to them. On the other hand, he did not believe like the Swiss reformers that the meal is only a symbolic reenactment of something that happened once. For Luther, Christ is as fully present in the meal as he is on the cross; the bread and wine remain, but Christ is present “in, with and under” them.
For Luther—and for us—the question of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist is about far more than theological hair-splitting. Luther believed that just as it was Christ’s life, death and resurrection in the flesh, so to speak, that make those things beneficial for us, likewise it is Christ’s presence in the Eucharist in the flesh that makes it beneficial for us. Otherwise, it is simply a meal that leaves us hungry, both literally and figuratively. For Luther, it is a question of trust: if we can’t trust Jesus when he says “This is my body… this is my blood,” can we trust him when he says, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day”?
It may seem foolish and unnecessary that the God who created the universe would be present within mere bread and wine; but then it is also unnecessary for the God who transcends and nourishes the universe to become contained within human flesh and depend on a human mother for nourishment. It is utterly foolish that God’s Son should die upon a cross, when God could merely speak a word and abolish human sin.
And yet, this is precisely how God has chosen to act: God’s Son became flesh and lived among us; was crucified, died and was buried before being raised to new life. It is not in spite of these things, but because of them that we have come to know the length and breadth and depth of God’s unyielding love for us, and it is Christ’s true presence in the sacrament of Holy Communion that allows us to experience that love, in the flesh, again and again.
As Jesus says to the crowds today, “Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.” The life that Christ gives us is his own—a life of faith in the Father, a life of unparalleled love and devotion, a life that is stronger than death. As the old adage goes, “you are what you eat;” when we eat the body of Christ, we become the Body of Christ, full of the eternal and abundant life that comes from the Father, broken and given for the life of the world. The flesh and blood of the Son of Man—who gave his life for all and then rose from the grave—transforms us until we are like him.
Jesus’ words today are offensive, disgusting, even repulsive; but they shock us into realizing the gravity of what happens both on the cross and at the table: Jesus gives us himself to eat. Because the bread we eat is his flesh, because the wine we drink his blood, when we share this meal we are sharing far more than we might realize.
A couple weeks ago, you heard me say that everything I do up here is to point to something great happening in the meal. That something great, for me, is Jesus Christ, truly present in the bread and wine. That’s why you will sometimes see me eat the larger crumbs off the floor or drain one of the chalices after communion. Because I see the presence of Christ in these elements, I don’t want to see the body of Christ ground into the carpet or the blood of Christ go to waste.
This thought offended the Swiss reformers. They could not fathom the Holy God of the universe being so humiliated as to be present within humble bread and wine for just this very reason. Luther, on the other hand, saw God’s glory through Christ crucified. He saw God’s glory “… precisely [in] that for our sakes he comes down to the very depths, into human flesh, into the bread, into our mouth, our heart, our bosom; moreover, for our sakes he allows himself to be treated ingloriously both on the cross and on the altar…” (1)
Having said all this, it is also important to emphasize that none of us—not even Luther—really knows what happens in the Eucharist. Whether you can’t bring yourself to believe that the bread and wine are anything but bread and wine, or whether you are convinced that Christ is fully and completely present in those physical elements, Jesus’ invitation to us remains the same: “Come, for all is now ready.” The work of the Eucharist—however it is accomplished—is God’s and God’s alone. God will do whatever it is that God does for us in this meal regardless of how much or how little we understand about what is happening. The meal is a mystery to us, except that Jesus bids us come and eat. And so, as we come forward to receive the meal, perhaps we had best take Luther’s advice: “…one must close mouth, eyes and all the senses and say: ‘Lord, you know better than I.’” (2)
- That These Words of Christ "This is My Body, etc." Still Stand Firm Against the Fantatics. LW 37:72
- The Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ–Against the Fanatics. LW 36:343-345