Sermon for the Service of Holy Communion
Sunday August 16th, 2015, the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity
The Lessons: Proverbs 9:1-6, Psalm 34:9-14, Ephesians 5:15-20, John 6:51-58
Text: John 6:51-58
Theme: Jesus Christ the Bread of life, the Manna from heaven
One Sunday morning, an elderly pastor was searching his closet for his clergy collar when he found a small box containing 6 eggs and a hundred one dollar bills. He called his wife into the closet to ask her about the box and its contents. Embarrassed, she admitted having hidden the box for the entire 30 years of their marriage. Disappointed and hurt, the pastor asked her, “Why?”
The wife replied that she didn’t want to hurt his feelings.
He asked her how the box could have hurt his feelings.
She said that every time he had delivered a poor sermon, she had placed an egg in the box.
The pastor felt that 6 poor sermons in 30 years was certainly nothing to feel bad about, so he asked her what the one hundred one dollar bills was for. She replied, “Each time I got a dozen eggs, I sold them to the neighbors for a dollar!”
Sometimes, what we regard as bad sermons may well be the very sermons that are full of God’s word, and the discomfort it may bring us in challenging both our understanding and our behavior.
JOHN 6:51-58: THE CONTEXT
The greatest challenge of understanding to the Jews who listened to the Lord Jesus’ discourse on the Bread of Life was his saying, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you” (John 6:53, KJV). It would have sounded quite repulsive to the Jews of the time, unless we understand Jesus as introducing the New Passover, the New Exodus. The context of the Lord Jesus Christ’s discourse in John 6 is the Miracle of the Feeding of the Five Thousand (John 6:1-15). The crowds that witnessed this miracle believed that Jesus was the Prophet like Moses who was to come into the world (John 6:14), as Moses had long ago prophesied (Deut. 18:15-18). At the time they thought of Jesus as both Messiah and the new Moses, because in the time of Moses God had fed the people of Israel with manna during the wilderness wanderings until they reached the Promised Land. The Jews in Jesus’ day believed that the Messiah would be the new Moses, and that he would bring down the heavenly manna again. When the Jews asked Jesus to perform a sign to show He was the Messiah, or Christ, so that they could believe in Him, they referred to the sign of the manna from heaven given to their forefathers. They believed that when the Messiah came, he would restore the giving of the heavenly manna forever. That is why, when Jesus tells them that it is the Father who gives them the true bread from heaven, and this bread is himself, they ask him to give them this bread always (John 6:34).
JESUS THE BREAD OF LIFE
Jesus replies to them, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me shall never hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst (John 6:35). In this way, Jesus tells the Jews that he himself is the true and everlasting bread, or manna, from heaven. Just as the manna of the Old Testament was miraculous and supernatural, so is the new manna, the Bread of Life. Just as the Jews in the wilderness needed the manna to survive and to have strength for the journey, so Christians today, who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, daily need to feed on Him spiritually, to have strength for their Exodus, their journey through this life to the Promised Land of heaven.
THE BREAD OF THE PRESENCE
The ancient Jewish idea of the Bread of the Presence may shed light on our understanding of Jesus as the Bread of Life. In the Holy Place of the Tabernacle, Moses was instructed to put the Ark of the Covenant, the golden Lampstand (or Menorah with seven branches) and the golden table on which the Bread of the Presence, or Shewbread (Ex. 25:23-24, 29-30), had to be set. The Hebrew term for “Bread of the Presence” could also mean “Bread of the Face,” that is, “Bread of the Face of God.” This means that the bread itself was a sign of the face of God. God’s instructions to Moses were given immediately after the heavenly banquet on Mt. Sinai, in which he and the elders of Israel shared (Ex. 24). In the banquet account, it is written, “They beheld God, and ate and drank (Ex. 24:9-11). The Bread of the Presence was thus intended to be a memorial of the heavenly banquet in which Moses and the elders “saw” the God of Israel during their meal. The earthly Bread of the Presence is a visible sign of the invisible presence of God (p. 122, Brant Pitre: Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist).
The Bread of the Presence was meant to be a continual sign, also, of God’s everlasting Covenant with His people, the twelve cakes of bread representing the twelve tribes of Israel. Not only was it a sign, but also it was a kind of sacrifice to God in itself.
THE HOLY COMMUNION
All of the above insights assist us in understanding today’s Gospel Lesson, in which Jesus states that He is the Bread of Life, and people must eat His flesh and drink His blood to have life in them. Jesus’ teaching here must be understood according to the principle that he gives to his disciples soon after this passage: “It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life” (John 6:63). From this, it is clear that Jesus’ references to eating His flesh and blood must be understood in a spiritual and not a carnal sense. “Spiritual” does not simply mean “symbolic” or “emblematic” either.
In the institution of the Holy Communion, the Lord Jesus Christ gives a new meaning to the Passover bread and to the cup of wine after the Passover meal, saying of the bread, “Take, eat; this is my body,” (Matt. 26:26) and of the wine, “Drink ye all of it. For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins” (Matt. 26:27-28). In so doing, He gives the bread and the wine of Holy Communion a new spiritual being, as means of grace and signs of His Real Presence.
THE MEANING OF COMMUNION
The person who spiritually eats of Christ’s body and blood, abides in His presence, and so we ought often to come to Holy Communion and often to receive of it. But, because this Holy Communion is spiritual, it is something that can be done spiritually every day, even when one is not at a service of Holy Communion. For every day, we can use the means of prayer, reading Holy Scripture, listening to God in silence, doing good works, resting in the Lord, reading books on prayer and other devotional or theological books, to dwell in the Lord’s presence, so far as these may help us.
But we must always remember how the Lord’s institution of Holy Communion is the institution of the New and eternal Covenant of God’s presence with His people, the means of living in His presence continually, as we spiritually eat of the Body and Blood of Christ and abide in Him.