The Meaning of Baptism

Pentecost 22
October 21, 2018

I am happy to present to you today a book I’ve written. It’s called My Beloved Son, The Meaning of Baptism, Keeping the Faith in a Secular Age. I wrote the book for you and would like you to have a copy of it. So, if you didn’t take one as you came in please do so after the service, and if you’ll bring it to the coffee hour after church I’ll sign it for you. Those of you who have been coming to church here for the past 25 years will find little in this book that you haven’t heard from this pulpit many times. But then again, this is a book about the gospel of God: the teachings of Christ and the message of our salvation in Him (Rom. 1.1–6). The richness of that message, which is a revelation of the wisdom of God, is inexhaustible. I have found it to be a rule that we cannot meditate on the wonder of the gospel, study it, listen to it, and ask questions of it, without learning something new. The gospel of God is like a great symphony. As often as we hear it, we hear something new in it. Imagine a diamond with more facets than you could count in one lifetime; you would never tire of seeing it sparkle always from a different angle. Not that the gospel changes; it does not. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. But because the gospel of our salvation is the message of God’s grace delivered to us in person by Him, it is not just a story of something that happened once in a time long ago, in a land far away. If it were such a story, I guess we could hear it once or even twice and be done with it. But, the gospel of God is more than a report of things past. It is an event that is always immediate and new because He who loves us is with us here and now. His wisdom and his love, which flow from his divine nature, are infinite; therefore the meaning of the gospel of God is a mystery we can never fully comprehend or exhaust. To hear it once and love it is to always want more of it. That’s a poetic way of saying that if you are inclined to take this book home, put it on a shelf, and not read it because you think you’ve heard it all before, think again. Jesus called his followers “disciples” for a reason. Disciples are students. As long as we are on this side of the grave walking with the Lord, class is in session. When it comes to the meaning of baptism, we all have a lot to learn.

Having attended Sunday school in our youth and come to church these many years, what can we learn about baptism that we don’t already know? Let’s reflect for a moment on the curious question that Jesus put to his disciples when he asked them, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” (Mk.10.38). The disciples replied, “We are able.” And Jesus assured them that they would drink from his cup and receive the same baptism as He. But on that day before the triumph of Palm Sunday, when the disciples thought he was going to be crowned a king like all other worldly kings, only greater, the future bishops of Christ’s one holy catholic and apostolic church had no idea really what he was talking about. They would soon learn, the hard way. What is the cup that Jesus called “the cup that I drink?” What was Jesus referring to when he spoke of “the baptism with which I am baptized?” What does that “cup” have to do with baptism?

Let’s begin our meditation on these mysterious words by remembering where the disciples and Jesus were at the time. They were approaching Jerusalem. And as they neared the city, Jesus, foreseeing the prophetic events that would transpire there, told them that “the Son of man will be delivered to the chief priests and the scribes and they will condemn him to death and deliver him to the Gentiles, and they will mock him and scourge him and kill him and after three days he will rise.” (Mk. 10.33) Jesus knew what was going to happen to him in Jerusalem. But by their response to His saying this, the disciples revealed that they did not hear what He was saying, nor did they understand his mission. The clue that they were clueless about him comes when, following this prophecy of his death, they called him “teacher” and then asked a favor of him. Jesus was not just a “teacher.” The rich young man, whose sad story we read last week, made the same mistake. He thought Jesus was a rabbi like any other rabbi and so missed a singular opportunity to serve the Lord. The disciples, likewise, were incredibly slow learners. Jesus was, as he said to them repeatedly, “the Son of man”: the perfect representative of mankind to God, the divinely appointed mediator between man and God. As the Son of man, his mission was to do much more than just teach wisdom and morality. As he would say to them, “The Son of man came not be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”(Mk.10.45). A man who could say that about himself is not just a teacher. He was a prophet. But he was also more than a prophet. By giving his life as a ransom, he would become a Redeemer, Deliverer, and Savior. He did not prophecy that in Jerusalem he would be randomly murdered or assassinated by plotters. He said that he would intentionally give himself, willingly to death in order to free others. But free others from what? And how could he know all this ahead of time?

Jesus’ mission was to fulfill the scriptures. He knew what was going to happen to him because the Old Testament prophecies laid out what he would have to do to accomplish our salvation and what his enemies would do to him. The prophecy from Isaiah 53.1–12 that we read today tells the story. This is the most important prophecy in the Old Testament. You should know it by heart. It says that God’s “righteous one will make many righteous”, that he will be “numbered among the transgressors”; that God will “lay on him the iniquity of us all” and “by his wounds we are healed.” This prophecy was delivered to Israel five hundred years before Christ was born. But it remained an enigma to the Jews who didn’t understand it, and still do not. Israel waited all those centuries for God to act. Then Jesus was born, grew up in Nazareth, and received the baptism from John. Then Mark says he came into Galilee preaching the gospel and saying, “The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe the gospel” (Mk.1.15). Jesus called his message “the gospel”, the good news. His good news was the assurance that God’s righteous one foreseen by Isaiah had come and that he was about to fulfill the scriptures and by suffering and dying make many righteous.

But how would his suffering and death make many righteous? What could he accomplish by dying that he couldn’t do better by living? And what has his suffering and death to do with baptism and with a cup? It all seems so confusing, doesn’t it? The Bible, especially the prophecies, is not easy reading. One of the factors that makes reading the New Testament so difficult is that almost everything in the New Testament is a commentary on the Old, so that unless you know the Old Testament well, there’s no hope of understanding what’s written in the New. I’ve told you before; the gospel is not rocket science. It’s harder than rocket science. That’s why there are more capable rocket scientists than there are capable theologians. So pray for me, friends, as I try to explain the gospel.

Jesus told his disciples that he was going to drink from a cup. What cup? The cup that Jesus was destined to drink is the cup of God’s wrath. Isaiah 51.17-23, Jeremiah 25.28-29 and Ezekiel 23.31–35 spoke of it. The cup of God’s wrath is God’s anger poured out on the Jews for their disobedience to his laws and on Gentiles for their idolatry; the cup of God’s wrath is the punishment that God pours out on sinners for their immorality and apostasy. The cup is poison to our minds and souls. And yet the people of the world keep drinking from it because they prefer to be drunk and disorderly rather than keep sane and sober for their prayers. In this image of a world gone mad, there’s only one hope. Someone needs to drink the whole cup and drain it in order for others to stop drinking from it. If someone would drain the cup dry, there would be nothing more for the others to drink and without it, sanity and holiness would return to the earth. Human beings would then have hope of living in peace again with God and each other. When Jesus said that he would drink that cup, he meant that he would fulfill the scriptures of Isaiah and Jeremiah and that he would drink the poison cup of madness, drain it dry, and take God’s wrath upon himself. Jesus’ mission was to fulfill the scriptures and thereby win our salvation by drinking the cup of God’s wrath meant for us. By taking on himself the anger of God towards sinners, Jesus set us free; he abolished the curse put on Adam and Eve and their descendants and so restored us to God’s good graces.

Now, let’s think about something further. The Lord God said that “my righteous one will make many righteous.” He said “many” not “all.” Why are many saved to eternal life but not all? Because although Christ died for all, not all will believe in him, not all will accept him, not all will love him, not all will receive baptism in his name. It remains up to each one of us as individuals to decide whether we will believe in Jesus and rejoice in what he has done for us. As Jesus said, “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son to the end that all who believe in him may not perish but will have eternal life”( John 3.16). Jesus has done his part. He has drunk the cup of God’s wrath and fulfilled the scriptures that demanded his self-sacrifice. Now it’s up to you, as it’s up to each of us to decide. Will you love him or not? Will you open your heart to him or not? Many have, many do, and many will. But not all believe and not all will be baptized.

So that brings us to the meaning of baptism. Jesus instituted baptism to be the sacramental means by which God unites us to his Son so that, through baptism, all the benefits of Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection become ours. Because He drank the cup of our punishment, died and then was raised up to eternal life with God in heaven, we who are united to Him in baptism also are freed from God’s wrath and blessed with a new eternal life. In other words, because God’s Son makes us one with him in baptism, we become in baptism as much sons and daughters of God as he is. We are not, as he is, in full possession of the divine nature. That prize will be ours in the final judgment. But until then we are, as the Son of man is, forever reconciled to God who has forgiven us our sins because our Savior obediently fulfilled the scriptures even unto death. Adam’s disobedience left us estranged from God. Christ’s obedience has restored us to full communion with God. Therefore, we no longer drink the cup of God’s wrath, but we drink the cup of God’s forgiveness that Our Lord shares with us in the sacrament of Holy Communion.

So that is what Jesus meant when he told his disciples, “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized you will be baptized.” Jesus has instituted the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion to be the means by which we receive the forgiveness of our sins. Don’t take any of this for granted. Many who think they know something think that baptism is just a little ceremony we do to initiate newcomers into the church and that Holy Communion is a little memorial we keep for the sake of tradition. Many grow weary of the gospel and tired of the church and lose their faith, thinking that all of this stuff about drinking the cup of God’s wrath is nothing but mythology. I can only tell you what I tell you every Sunday, that the gospel is not mythology but theology grounded in history that proceeds from a genuine revelation of God. Christ has really done this. He accomplished his mission by fulfilling the scriptures. If you don’t believe me read Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22 again and then read the story of Christ’s passion and death on the cross and see for yourself. Jesus did what he said would do. He gave his life as a ransom for many, as prophecy demanded. And we, who have been baptized in his name, owe our salvation to him. Today as we come to Holy Communion and drink from his cup, remember and never forget that salvation is not cheap. Christ purchased our salvation at the cost of his life. We owe him everything, really everything; and because of him we have everything, really everything to hope for and even in the darkest hour no reason ever to despair.

Are You An Evangelical Christian?

Pentecost 21
October 14, 2018

The first rule of preaching is not to tell stories about your wife and children. Leave them out of it. It’s hard enough on them living with a man whom dozens of others call “father.” Don’t embarrass them further from the pulpit. But I have permission to tell the following story. My wife was on a flight recently seated beside a man who was reading the Bible. She asked him, “What church do you belong to?” He said, “Church of God.” She asked, “What is that?” He said “We’re an evangelical church.” What does “evangelical” mean?” she asked. He said “It comes from the Greek word euangelion, which means ‘good news’.” “What do you believe?” she continued. He said, “We believe that you must be born again through faith in Christ and then live out the message of the New Testament.” “I like that,” she said, “it sounds like our church too.” After hearing that story, I felt sorry for that man. I dread the thought of getting on an airplane and sitting beside a person who wants to talk about religion when all I want to do is read and sleep. But I was proud of her answer. She heard the message that I have preached to you many times over these many years: that we are born again to eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ and we prove our faith to God by living the message of the New Testament.

My wife was right; we too preach an evangelical message. But is the Episcopal Church an evangelical church? Many within and without this denomination would say that we are not evangelical but that we are, what is called, a liberal Protestant Church. What’s a liberal Protestant church? Well, that’s a sermon for another day. Today I’d like to address the question, what’s an evangelical church? Are some churches evangelical and others not? What does it mean to be born again? Are some Christians born again and others not? Do some live the message of the New Testament and others not? Saint Paul exhorted Timothy to “preach the word, be urgent in season and out of season…be steady, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist” (1Tim.4.1-5). What is an evangelist? Are all preachers evangelists? What is evangelism? This morning I’d like to offer a short teaching to answer those questions.

And I’d like to begin, where Christians must always begin, by listening to Jesus. There are two kinds of people in this world: those who listen to Jesus and those who don’t. When Peter, James and John went up on Mount Tabor with Jesus, Our Lord revealed to them His divine nature. He transfigured Himself before them radiating pure light. But Peter was so intent on talking about his own ideas for the mission of the church that he missed what God was doing right in front of him. And so, in that moment, a voice from heaven said to Peter, “This is my Son, with whom I am well pleased, listen to Him!” Peter learned an invaluable lesson. There are two kinds of churches in this world: there are churches that listen to Jesus and do as He says and then there are those who have their own ideas for what a church should be and do. An evangelical church is one that listens to Jesus and obeys His word.

Now to be honest, in America today when we hear the term “evangelical church” we think of TV preachers like Charles Stanley, Billy Graham, and many others who succeed in creating what are called mega churches. Many Episcopalians when they hear this quietly say to themselves: “I don’t want anything to do with that kind of religion.” But it may help us to remember that as great a preacher as Billy Graham was that the greatest evangelists of all time were not Protestants who became wealthy through preaching, but were Catholic saints like Patrick who converted all of Ireland, and Ignatius of Loyola who organized a great mission to evangelize the whole world. But the greatest of all evangelists was Saint Francis who won the hearts and minds of his entire generation by simply living the poverty and humility of Christ. Saint Francis had a wonderful saying by which he lived: “Preach the gospel always,” he said, “If necessary, use words.” An evangelical Christian is one who, like Saint Francis, listens to Jesus and lives by His word. An evangelical gives Jesus what he asks for: the commitment of his whole heart and the attention of his whole mind; not one quarter or one half some of the time, but all you’ve got all the time. An evangelical is one who is all in for Jesus. If that isn’t you, I hope after hearing this sermon it will be.

An evangelical Christian is one who lives for Jesus and encourages others likewise to make a full commitment to Him. That’s not an easy task. Not everyone is willing to make that kind of commitment to Jesus. The story of the rich young ruler that we read this morning is a case in point. When Jesus told him what He required of his disciples, that they give up everything to follow him, the rich young ruler turned away. And as he walked away Jesus said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” His disciples were astonished by this and Peter asked him, “Who then can be saved?” Peter asked this because Jesus seemed to be saying that it’s virtually impossible for any man to be saved, because we’re all “rich” to some extent. If only those who give up absolutely every material possession can be saved, then almost no one will be saved because almost no one can do that. Jesus then explained to his disciples that many will be saved but it may not be those you think. The world looks up to wealthy, powerful, well-educated people and admires them and thinks that they have an advantage, but God looks down on us all. The “rich,” as Jesus used the term, are those who are preoccupied with their status and position in this world to the exclusion of heavenly things. Our status in this world has no bearing on our eternal salvation. It doesn’t matter to God how important you are in the community. It only matters to God how important Jesus, his Son, is to you. An evangelical Christian is one to whom Jesus Christ is of first importance. If Jesus Christ is not of first importance to you then you are not an evangelical Christian. But if Jesus Christ is not of first importance to you, then what does that say about you?

So do you see what I’m getting at? Some try to draw a distinction and say that some churches are evangelical and others not. But this is a false distinction because there is only one kind of Christian and that is the man or woman who puts Jesus Christ first in his or her life. If that isn’t you, then you may be a nice person, a very good person as the world judges such things, but you are not a true Christian. You may be a church-goer and celebrate Christmas, you may have gone to Sunday school as a kid and had parents and grandparents who were faithfully, but until you put Jesus Christ first in your life you are not really a Christian. In other words, all Christians who really are Christians are evangelical. You become a member of the church the day of your baptism. But you become a true Christian the day you know that there is no one in your world more important to you than Jesus Christ. The day you know yourself to be totally indebted to and committed to Him who died on the cross for you is the day you become an evangelical.

You want to know what’s wrong with religion in this country and why the church is in constant crisis. It’s that so many of those who self-identify as “Christian” in this country are play-acting. They don’t take sacred tradition seriously as the deposit of divine revelation. They don’t take the sacraments seriously as the means of grace, nor do the take the Bible seriously as the word of God. They hide behind the popular pagan fiction that with death our suffering ends and we all then mercifully go to a better place. They hear it said, “You must be born again” and they think to themselves, “that’s just weird; that’s not for me.” But what do you think it is to be born again? Where does that doctrine come from? It comes from the lips of our blessed Lord; it’s the central teaching of Jesus Christ. How could you come to church your whole life and not know this? “Unless a man is born again he cannot enter the kingdom of God” Jesus said, “… you must be born anew of water and the Spirit” (John 3.5-8). Jesus died on the cross so that we who are condemned to die an eternal death because of sin could be born again to the new life of grace. He instituted baptism as the sacramental means by which we who are born under the curse of death put upon the descendants of Adam and Eve might share in His divine life and thereby escape that curse. This is what the saying means that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners. He saves us by imparting to us his own divine life and so through baptism and by faith Saint Peter said, “we become partakers of the divine nature.”

An evangelist is one who faithfully spreads that message. An evangelical is one who whole- heartedly believes it.

Let me leave you with one last thought. Evangelism began with the Romans. In the days of the Roman Empire, following a victory in battle, the Emperor would send out an evangelist to proclaim the good news of his victory. Jesus, knowing Himself to be the King of kings and Lord of lords and far out-ranking a Roman Emperor, appropriated that language and called His message the gospel. He boldly came into Galilee preaching the gospel of God and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mk.1.15). Jesus’ gospel is a proclamation of a great and glorious divine victory. Not of a temporal military victory but a universal and eternal spiritual victory, the greatest victory imaginable: a total defeat of mankind’s greatest enemy, the annihilation of Satan himself. As Saint Peter said, Christ came into the world to destroy of works of the devil. He who led Adam and Eve into sin has seen justice done to him. And with Satan defeated, human beings are delivered from bondage to sin and are liberated to live again with God as we were meant to live in the beginning, in blessed holy communion with our Creator. This is not only good news for the Jews who knew the prophecies and expected the messiah to come. But the advent of Christ is great news for the whole world; because Jesus Christ is not just the Savior of some but of all. Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners. He delivers divine forgiveness to us all. That is why when the angels appeared to the shepherds in Bethlehem the night of Christ’s birth, they said to the shepherds, “Be not afraid, for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

Evangelism is the work of spreading the good news that God has come among us, as one of us, in the man Jesus Christ. The Lord Jesus has won our salvation by His death on a cross. All who believe in Him and are baptized in His name are born again to eternal life. Evangelism is what every church that really is a church does. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that it’s the ordained minister alone who does evangelism. Every Christian who really is a Christian is an evangelist. You were born again when you received the Spirit from Christ in baptism; on that day the Son of God made you His own. Now make Him your own. Trust Jesus, crucified and risen from the dead, to be your Savior. He will never let you down, because He who loved us enough to suffer death on a cross for us wants us to live for Him and to live with Him forever. As the man said, live the message of the New Testament. Put Jesus Christ first in your life and don’t give a second thought for a secular and increasingly strident socialist society that is perishing without Him. But do the work of an evangelist. Show a doubting world by everything you say and by everything you do that you really do believe that Jesus Christ is Lord!

Holy Communion

Pentecost 13
August 19, 2018

John 6.52 “The Jews then disputed among themselves saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’”

      I said in the sermon last Sunday that it is disingenuous to say that Jesus was a good teacher and leave it at that. You can say that about Confucius and Siddhartha, Moses and Mohammad. You can say that about a great many people whose wisdom and charisma have inspired others to live better lives, to choose hope over despair, kindness over wrath, and love over hate. Jesus had wisdom and charisma, and he inspired others in those ways. But you can’t rank him with those other spiritual teachers because he simply wouldn’t allow it. He did not present himself as one more prophet in a line of Israel’s prophets or as one more rabbi in the tradition of Judaism. He presented himself as the Savior of mankind. 

       His mission was not simply to educate others about the right way to live but to save them by giving them what they lack: a life that will not end in death.  “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,” he said. Jesus prefaced many of his most important teachings with the words “Truly, truly” or “Amen, amen." Usually an “amen” would come at the end of a prayer, as an affirmation by others of what was said. By putting the “amen” first and doubling it, Jesus was claiming for himself an authority for his teaching that had no equal on earth and needed no affirmation from men. He was summoning his audience, the Jews, to hear the authoritative word of God from his lips: “You have no life in you.” he said. We can imagine the thoughts going through the minds of those in the synagogue in Capernaum who heard him say this: “You have no life in you? Does he think we are dead souls? Who is he to say that we have on life in us?” 

       Jesus was nothing if not controversial. Had he stuck to healing and teaching men to love one another and be always generous and forgiving, he would never have angered anyone, thus never crucified, and we would never have heard of him. He would be today at most an obscure footnote in ancient history texts along with Honi the Circle Maker, another charismatic healer of that age. But Jesus did much more than heal the sick through prayer and preach about love. He taught that humans, whether Jew or gentile, are dead souls who because of sin have no hope of life beyond this one. He promised to give them life that would extend beyond the grave. And he promised to do this by making them acceptable to God.  But how could he, a man, make other men acceptable to God? Who was he to claim he could do this? After all, Moses taught that we are acceptable to God by keeping the law and obeying God’s statutes.  Moses went up Mt. Sinai to meet God and receive the word from him directly. Who was this nobody from Nazareth compared to Moses? You can’t blame Jesus’ contemporaries for wondering about him and questioning his authority to make such a fantastic claim.

       But Jesus was not intimidated by their skepticism. Knowing that they were wondering how he would save them apart from obedience to the laws of Moses, Jesus told them: “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” The obvious question follows: who but God can raise others up on the last day? Did Jesus declare himself in the synagogue at Capernaum to be God? Let’s listen again to what he said. He said that “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” He then said, “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life.”  Is he the Son of man? Who is the Son of man? The Son of Man is the title that Jesus most often applied to himself. The Son of man is a figure in the prophecy of Daniel (Dan.7.9-14). He is the perfect representative of humankind, the man who comes to God on the last day on behalf of humankind and receives from God all power, dominion, and authority on heaven and on earth (Mt.28.18). He is the man through whom humankind becomes one with God from whose presence we were exiled because of Adam’s sin. The Son of man is our redeemer, the one in whom humankind finds salvation, complete reconciliation of fallen humanity with God. 

       This is why I said to you last Sunday that you cannot just dismiss Jesus as a good teacher. If he was who he claimed to be, the Son of man, then he was much more than a good teacher; he was humankind’s redeemer, a divine man sent down from heaven whose mission was to lift men up to God and bring many souls to heaven. If he was not who he claimed to be, he was then a bad man and therefore not a good teacher. Good teachers don’t deceive their students. So you see the problem? Jesus has not left us the option of just lumping him in with all the other gurus, faith healers, prophets, Biblical scholars, law givers, and mystics, of which there have been thousands through the ages. If he was who he claimed to be, he is the most important person who ever walked the face of the earth. If not, he was a charlatan and a fraud, maybe a pathological narcissist who should be totally rejected. Many did then and many do now.

      And you can see why many would reject him. This is a hard teaching to accept, especially for Jews: “For my flesh is food indeed and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me.”  What does that mean? It means that the only hope Jews (and remember he was preaching to his fellow Jews) have of salvation is to eat the flesh of Jesus and drink his blood. You can imagine if you were in the synagogue that day that you’d turn to your friends with a quizzical look and ask, “Did I hear that right”? (There’s a wonderfully comic scene in the movie The Life of Bryan, a Monty Python satire of ancient Rome, in which Bryan, a contemporary of Jesus is listening to him preach the Sermon on the Mount. Bryan’s at a distance and is having trouble hearing Jesus. He says to a friend beside him, “What did he say? Blessed are the cheese makers? Why favor them?” To which his friend replies, “He didn’t mean it literally. He means blessed are the makers of any dairy product.” The lesson there is before you criticize the sermon, check with your friends first to be sure you heard it right.) You can’t blame the Jews in the synagogue that day for murmuring among themselves and wondering about Jesus.  “How can this man give us his flesh to eat and his blood to drink?” they asked indignantly. What does he think we are? Cannibals?”  He did not seem to mean it figuratively. He seemed to be saying that others, (and again, I repeat, he was speaking in a synagogue to Jews, the tribe that God called out from all the pagan tribes on earth to be the bearer of his revealed word), he’s telling God’s chosen people that they must eat his flesh and drink his blood if they wish to attain salvation. You can’t blame faithful Jews if they walked away from him that day thinking he was crazy and weird, not to mention he was overturning a thousand years of Jewish teaching about righteousness and obedience to the laws of Moses and seeming to establish a pagan cult that idolized him.  John implies that none of the twelve understood at the time what he was saying. How could they? His doctrine would not come into focus until the night of the last Supper.

        On the other hand, remember why Jesus was preaching in Capernaum. He was there in the synagogue to explain to them the meaning of the miracle of the loaves and fish that he had performed the day before. Almost everyone in Capernaum had been with him in the wilderness and had seen the miracle with their own eyes. They ate the bread and the fish he gave them. He had worked in public view the greatest miracle Israel had seen since God rained down manna for them to eat in the wilderness a thousand years before. Jesus had every right to explain to them what it meant and to be believed. A man can who feed five thousand other men with a few loaves and fish shouldn’t be too hard to believe.

      Nevertheless, whether he meant his words to be taken literally or figuratively, there was enough in what he said to incense and offend any faithful Jew. Judaism is based on obedience to the laws, traditions, and rituals of Moses. A Jew becomes righteous by faithful adherence to those sacred laws and customs; period. There is no other way to salvation for a Jew than through obedience to God's word as it was handed down to Moses on Mt. Sinai. And yet Jesus, in this remarkable—and from a Jewish perspective utterly unorthodox—sermon is offering Jews a new way to attain salvation. He offers his flesh and blood to eat as the means of our salvation, apart from the law. Jesus was saying that no one has ever been saved by obedience to Mosaic laws and customs, because no one keeps them perfectly and therefore, no one is without sin (Rom.3.23). The only way to salvation is to receive the life that comes from Jesus, the Holy One of God, a man without sin (Mk.1.24; Is.53.11). The law is a guide to moral conduct but Jesus is our salvation (Gal. 3.21-26). Jesus alone is without sin (Heb.4.15). Jesus alone is perfectly acceptable to God (Mt.3.17). Therefore, the only way to become acceptable to God is to be united to Jesus Christ, to share his holy life (Gal.2.20-21). Jesus teaches that because he is the Son of man and in full possession of the divine nature, because he is uniquely among men one with God he alone can offer men salvation by sharing his life with us. If we receive his life we become as he is: without sin and therefore perfectly acceptable to God. And we share his life and become one with him by eating his flesh and drinking his blood. 

       We know in hindsight that when Jesus said that his flesh was real food and his blood the drink of eternal life that he was referring to the Blessed Sacrament of Holy Communion that he would institute at the Last Supper (Mt.26.26-28). Holy Communion is the heart of the Christian faith. When Christians say that they believe in Jesus they mean that we are saved not by his wisdom or our great faith but that he saves us by uniting us to himself. He is our salvation. He does this for us, as a free act of grace though we are undeserving (John 1.17; Rom.5.15-17), once through baptism in which he forgives original sin and often through Holy Communion in which he forgives our actual sins by cleansing our soul with the perfection of his body and blood. Whether he meant the words of institution at the Last Supper (“This is my body… This is my blood”) to be taken literally or figuratively is still debated today. Protestants insist that he meant it figuratively, that we receive him only through faith in his word. But the first Christians did not take it this way, and Catholics today still teach that he meant it literally: the bread and wine, through an act of transubstantiation become Christ’s actual body and blood sacrificed on the cross. St. Ignatius, a bishop and martyr in the early second century, called it, “the medicine of immortality.”

        I’m not going to enter today into this unfortunate debate between Protestants and Catholics. I’m only going to emphasize again that Jesus’ most important teaching is that there is only one way to salvation and he is it (John 14.6). Jesus is the world’s savior, the one sent from the Father in heaven to save sinners (1 Tim.1.15). He saves us by uniting us to himself by giving us in the sacrament of Holy Communion his flesh to eat and his and his blood to drink.

       That leaves each of us with a decision to make. Will you believe in Jesus or will you, as so many did in Capernaum that day, dispute his claim to divinity and reject him? I urge you not to reject him but believe him. Humble yourself to faithfully receive the gift he offers us in the sacrament of Holy Communion. “For my flesh is food indeed and my blood is drink indeed,” he said. “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him. As the living father sent me and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me.”