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.”