Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 15, 2021
John 6:51-58 Commentary
If you’re using the questions/objections to belief structure that I laid out last week, this week’s question from John 6 is: “How can he give us his flesh to eat?” The challenge: God offends us.
When the people asked that question to each other, they were offended at the thought of even being associated with it. Jesus seems to have uttered “fighting words” by telling them that they would “chomp on” his offered flesh—to think! Cannibalism! And Jesus makes the statement so nonchalantly—as though he’s been talking about it this whole time.
Do you notice that the people who have been in our stories for the last four weeks have not actually been talking with Jesus since verse 34? When they speak in verses 41-42, like here in verse 52, they react to Jesus’ words by talking to each other and not to him. They’re listening to Jesus, taking in his words, but they’re venting their frustration and confusion and questions with each other. It’s as though they’ve already taken a step back from him because what he is saying doesn’t make sense, and even worse, is offensive.
God is pretty good at offending us.
Notice the path that Jesus himself makes in parallel to their distancing activity. They came looking for him because he gave them a real meal. Then when they find him, he tells them that what he actually offers is an eternal spiritual banquet, thereby shutting down their “full bellies” idea and elevating the conversation from the physical to the spiritual (offering hearts full of wonder). As he does so, Jesus proclaims himself as more than Moses, says he is the bread of heaven itself, the miraculous gift of God. Furthermore, when they ask how this impossible thing can be so, Jesus raises the ante by saying that though he is physical, he is not of this world as they are (or Moses was); he is the gift of the Father for the life of the world; he is something unique, a way of being spiritual and physical that literally no one else is. Taken together, it does sound quite bizarre.
And now, what started as a spiritual truth is being proclaimed as a physical one: Jesus will offer up his flesh and they will eat it if they want eternal life. Jesus brings the topic back down to the very physical in a highly offensive way. He even calls his flesh “true food” and his blood “true drink.” True could also be translated as “real”… real bread and real drink. WHAT? But, like Jesus is, this is not just physical bread and cup, this is also spiritual nourishment.
About this, Dale Bruner writes in his John commentary: “the incarnate earthly Jesus rarely leaves his saving ways in the merely spiritual or subjective realms. He almost always makes the spiritual physical and the subjective objective.” (The Gospel of John: A Commentary, p. 432) Bruner goes on to talk about why God does this: to make it easier for us humans, more accessible. Oddly, what they came looking for in the first place is back on the proverbial table, just not in any way they would have imagined.
It’s quite the juxtaposition: that the thing that offends is also the thing that makes it easier to accept.
How? I think that the key to the “how” comes in what Jesus says next in verse 56: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” Over and over these last few weeks Jesus has told us to eat. To integrate him into our very being and daily existence. To accept what he offers, be nourished, and live. He first had to clear us of the notion that this is only physical before he could return it to being physical.
All of the verb tenses for having eternal life, for the living God, and that God and ourselves abide with one another, are in the present tense. (Promises for eternal life show up in the future tense.) We abide just as we sustain life: by eating.
In this, Jesus is not saying something new. We saw in verses 24-35 that Jesus was offering himself as our continuous nourishment. And in verses 1-21, we saw how physically feeding people brought them together—not only with each other, but in leading them to seek out Jesus for more. It culminates here as Jesus presents himself as the both/and.
Of course, we have the benefit of fuller knowledge of the gospel story. We know that Jesus offers his flesh for the life of the world as the bread on the cross. We also know how Christ made this pericope’s offensive message even more physical and concrete: the Lord’s Supper. Whenever we gather at the table, we “take, eat, remember and believe that the body of our Lord was given… and the blood of Christ was shed… for us…”
To us who believe this account of reality, the whole thing has become less offensive and easier to accept because we’ve got more of the “chapters.” But remember that the early church was accused of cannibalism—the very thing the people gathered around Jesus are offended to hear themselves be told to do! And if you consider all of the various views and debates that are still circulating on what is actually happening in the Lord’s Supper—does the bread turn into Jesus’ flesh? is it the “real” presence of Christ?—perhaps we’re still a bit offended by the idea of eating Jesus’ actual flesh and drinking his actual blood.
So we return to the notion of abiding. In one sense, abiding is participating with someone in something. The apostle Paul tells us when we drink the communion cup and eat from the shared loaf we are “participating” in the body and blood of Christ. (1 Corinthians 10.16) We are acknowledging that spiritually, we are becoming one with God through Christ because of how he gave himself physically, and somehow, we’re becoming part of that physical sacrifice. The meal is meant to be this reminder that Jesus Christ isn’t just a spiritual reality, he was and is a physical one. Lest we forget and let it all be a “spiritual thing,” we remember the gospel story in its entirety with the physical experience, eating the bread and drinking the cup of the communion meal.
Or perhaps we’re offended by the whole idea that a real, true, sacrifice was necessary. Difficulties with substitutionary atonement are not new; it is an idea that still offends. (And it is an incomplete picture of the whole of Christ’s mediation for humanity, so some hesitancy may be warranted.) The people gathered around Jesus are offended at the idea of what they must do for the offering of life that Jesus describes. But the reason it must be done can also be offensive: needing someone besides yourself… that in some way, we don’t (and can’t ever) measure up on our own. Unfortunately, so much of our sin talk today has become associated with the idea of “being bad” people, which is an offensive idea. Normal, law-abiding citizens aren’t bad people! How many of us have walked by a street evangelist and been turned off by being told to repent or face the wrath of God?
The Heidelberg Catechism’s Q & A 79 connects the sacrifice and abiding for us by framing it with the covenantal language God chose to use while instituting the Supper with his disciples [connections to our text added]:
…he wants to assure us, by this visible sign and pledge, [i.e., physical]
that we, through the Holy Spirit’s work,
share in his true body and blood [both physically and spiritually]
as surely as our mouths receive these holy signs in his remembrance,
and that all of his suffering and obedience [it was real, true]
are as definitely ours [in a real, true way]
as if we personally
had suffered and paid for our sins.”
There’s no hiding from the real, true nature of the work of Christ. To abide is to become immersed and intwined in it. I’m not sure that this is less offensive, but it reorients it as a relational reality rather than us “being bad” people, which is good.
A clear emphasis for Jesus throughout John 6 is on us having life and living. If abiding is participating with someone, then when we abide with Jesus, (according to him!) we are abiding with the living Father (God). When we integrate Jesus into our very existence by feeding on him spiritually, we come to live his way physically. Or in the language of the Lord’s Supper table, having been reconciled with God, we become God’s agents of reconciliation in the world. More and more we become the “true” body and manifestation of Christ on earth that Paul says the church is…
To overcome being offended, to have eternal life, and to be nourished even now in this life so that we might not die but abide with Jesus in the present, all we have to do is eat and believe. It seems to me that we cannot rationalize our way to it and we can’t avoid directly encountering God by talking amongst ourselves. At some point, we have to take Søren Kierkegaard’s “leap of faith,” go through C.S. Lewis’ wardrobe, and sit at the table of God, encounter the Holy Spirit, and eat Jesus’ flesh. Just go for it; life’s on offer.
Obviously, this would be a great Sunday to have the communion meal together. It would also be a good opportunity to create more space for reflecting on what is happening in the meal, according to your tradition, and to underscore that the meal is about something that happened in the past (Jesus came down from heaven just the once), is happening in the present (we are continuously nourished when we eat, integrate, and put into practice all that the Holy Spirit offers to us), and will happen in the future (when Christ raises us up into life eternal). These have been the main points of our time in John 6, after all.
The Lord’s Supper and God’s Offensive Welcome
If you want to further expand upon the offensiveness that is the reconciling work of Christ, Scott Hoezee’s sermon commentary from this text last time around is a stellar one.
Going for it!
When it comes to “just going for it,” I’m reminded of that scene in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, when Harry is at the train station to head to Hogwarts for the first time. Confused and more than a little unsure of what to do, he asks a train employee for help, but the employee is a “muggle” so he has no idea about magical things. Opportunely, the Weasley family arrives and they help him learn the way to Platform 9 ¾. Harry has to go by himself, but he sees the others do it with joy and fun, which makes it easier for him. Plus, waiting for him on the other side is this whole life and way of being that will allow Harry to finally, truly, be himself.
Isn’t that exactly the picture of living we imagine abiding with Jesus to be: truly being and becoming the self we are meant to be by God? I particularly love Mrs. Weasley’s line to Harry as he prepares to go through the wall: “Best to take it at a bit of a run!” YES! Let’s go!
To watch the scene: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MTykayOv_XA
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