Sermon Text: John 6:51-58
Date: August 18 & 19, 2018
The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B
51“I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats this bread, he will live forever. The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
52At that, the Jews argued among themselves, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”
53So Jesus said to them, “Amen, Amen, I tell you: Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life in yourselves. 54The one who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the Last Day. 55For my flesh is real food, and my blood is real drink. 56The one who eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. 57Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. 58This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like your fathers ate and died. The one who eats this bread will live forever.”
Gnaw on Your Savior
This past week we spent our vacation in Seattle. One of the things that stood out to our whole family as we walked the streets of the city was that the adorable dog level was off the charts. It felt like every block we walked on there was at least one dog our whole family would’ve welcomed into our family if they needed a home.
Along with that, the city was well equipped for the pups walking the streets. Many businesses had bowls of water out front of their shops. One bakery sold peanut butter and bacon dog biscuits. The meat markets often sold giant bones for dogs to gnaw on at home.
If you’ve ever watched a dog work on a big bone, it’s pretty remarkable. They work at it tirelessly, chewing, scraping, gnawing, getting every last bit of something worth while off of that bone—sometimes even devouring it completely! It’s a natural survival instinct, trying to get as much out of a meal to survive as possible.
In our Gospel this morning, we continue down the path of Jesus’ teaching the crowd in the events surrounding his feeding of the 5,000 men on the hillside. Jesus has been trying to get the people to lift their eyes heavenward, to see that there’s more to this life than what is immediately surrounding them. They shouldn’t be following him hoping for their next free lunch; they should be following them because he provides eternal life.
But, as always, Jesus hit a road block. The people really didn’t want to hear what Jesus had to say on this. They wanted Jesus to perform a miracle—preferably one that provided them with more food. They claimed that for them it would be proof that he could save them eternally, but Jesus knew better. They didn’t really want to hear Jesus; they wanted him to perform for them, a trap we are often guilty of falling into as well.
That’s at least partially because the Gospel is a remarkable stumbling block to people. You would think we would all be ecstatic to learn that eternal life is a free gift that we don’t have to work for. But that actually doesn’t resonate with us as well as we think it should. We’re all predisposed to think that we need to do something, pay something, anything to earn that. And so “free” sounds too good to be true. It sounds that way to us today as it did to the people in Jesus’ day. Even some of the questions they asked betrayed this, such as the question from two weeks ago asking what was the work God required from them. They just couldn’t handle, as often you and I can’t, that forgiveness and eternal life are free gifts from a grace-filled God.
So today, Jesus ups the ante. He uses some shocking pictures to drive this point home. All along Jesus had been comparing himself to the bread that he had given the people to eat and even the manna their forefathers had eaten in the wilderness after God freed them from slavery in Egypt. But now Jesus cranks the pictures up to a whole new level, “I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats this bread, he will live forever. The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
The crowd is understandably confused by this turn of phrase. Jesus is the living bread that we should eat, the bread that he gives for the life of the world? Should the people start taking chunks out of Jesus’ arm and legs and eating them to live forever? What was he talking about?
Jesus sticks with the symbolic language. “Amen, Amen, I tell you: Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life in yourselves. 54The one who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the Last Day. 55For my flesh is real food, and my blood is real drink.” In these pictures, Jesus is not talking about actual eating. Eating Jesus’ flesh in these words is a picture of having faith in Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins. That faith is the one thing that God lays out as a prerequisite of eternal life. It’s an affront to our natural reason and feeling about how we are saved, but here it is: you need Jesus. No one and nothing else will help you with your sins. Only Jesus’ sacrifice of his perfect life means forgiveness and eternal life for you. Without him, we are doomed to hell for our sins. But with Jesus? We have eternal life, free and certain.
What, then, would Jesus have us do? We miss something in this exchange in most English translations. Jesus transitions verbs in v. 54. He moves from the normal word for “eat” that he’s used up to this point to a more uncommon word that would be more often used to describe a dog chewing or gnawing on a bone. We might read it like this, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you do not have life in yourselves. The one who gnaws on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life…”
Here’s another indication that Jesus is not talking about a literal eating here. This is not a precursor directive to the Lord’s Supper. Jesus is stressing the intimate and active nature in their relationship with him. They thought they could save themselves. But they actually were so dependent on Jesus for everything for eternal life, they needed him for so much more than just a free lunch every now and then, that they should be gnawing on him like a dog on a bone. There is nothing that they bring to the table; they need everything the Bread of Life provides.
This is the kind of wrestling that the apostle Paul tells us to partake in when he tells us along with the Philippians, “continue to work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12, EHV). Paul is not telling us to do work to save ourselves; he’s telling us we should be mining the depths of God’s Word, digging into our Savior, actively, with great fierceness, knowing that the free gift of eternal life is there. This is a not a taste test at the ice cream shop—this is a desire to know more and feed more on what our God has done for us each and every day. Rip, tear, gnaw on the Bread of Life because he alone saves. Treat God’s Word like the dog treats the bone. Let your time in his Word be like it would be your last meal—devour every last thing you can get from it. And when you have the chance to sit down for a fresh meal, devour it with the same intensity.
I mentioned earlier that Jesus is not referring to the Lord’s Supper in these verses, although we can hardly not think about it when he mentioned eating his flesh and drinking his blood. But his words here are more general, broader, speaking to faith at large rather than a sacramental eating. And yet, one of the ways that we “gnaw” on Jesus to come to his table. As Jesus provides for us his body and blood in with and under the bread and wine, this is one of the ways he builds our faith. This is one of the ways that this intimate connection we have with our Savior is strengthened, this is one of the ways that we wholly devour the good news of forgiveness in his life and death alone.
Jesus would give up his life to save us: we, who so often miss the point of this life; we, who so often prioritize this life rather than eternal life; we, who so often are content to maybe get a whiff of this bread or do a taste test rather than really digging into it; we, who have so misused and abused God’s love; we, people who do not deserve it—we have eternal life. So, my brothers and sisters, do not leave this a feast over here while we tend to things over there. Gnaw your Savior. Devour his love. Consume what he has done for you as of first importance in your life. In these things, you live forever, because in these things, God’s grace forgives your sins and gives free access to the perfection of heaven.
Thanks be to God, our eternal Bread of Life! Amen.