The Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost
August 15-16, 2009
Text: John 6:51-69
Dear Friends in Christ,
Back in 1973 there was a program called Key ‘73. It was created and promoted by Billy Graham. What Graham asked, is that every congregation of all denominations join the effort. Each congregation would be assigned an area, normally the area right around the church building. They would call upon every house in the area, regardless if it was a churched household or not. They had a presentation and they would hand out little red booklets that contained Luke and Acts from the Good News Translation. Many LCMS congregations did participate in this effort, including my home church. My father was one of the Key ‘73 callers. I remember having stacks of the booklets setting at home. There are probably a few copies still on the shelf someplace. The effort actually accomplished very little. Research has shown that such campaigns rarely do. But it did have a profound effect on the callers, if they were astute and carefully thought about what people told them. One of the things that shocked by my father, was how few people actually knew that salvation was a gift of God, in Jesus Christ, given apart from anything that we do. Many of the people he called upon thought they had to earn their salvation by being a “good” person. Now you have to understand that many of the people he was calling upon were members of our own congregation. These were life long Missouri Synod Lutherans who had went to Lutheran elementary school and had been thoroughly catechized. Recent research shows that only 21% of American Lutherans believe that salvation is a gift from God. We can’t blame this in the loosey goosey ELCA or the legalistic WELS. The LCMS is more than 21% of American Lutheranism by itself. So at lease some of the 79% that got this wrong are our people. Actually, these stats do not shock me. This has been observed for centuries. Luther talks about this. And this is why as pastors we must constantly come back to the basic teaching of Justification by grace in our sermons. Remember that the doctrine of Justification is the doctrine upon which the church rises and falls. We get this wrong, there is no church.
One of the places in Scripture where we can see the Gospel clearly explained is John 6. Here before us are the climactic verses. Christ says: “The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” Notice the verb here, in the future tense - give - as in will give. This is denoting a future action. It points forward both to His death on the cross and His establishment of the Lord’s Supper. The key here to understanding this passage is that verb give. Christ gives. Christ is the giver. A gift is never earned. We are not owed a gift. A gift is something the giver chooses to give.
Now we place these words into their original context. The original situation was unbelief. Jesus is confronting the unbelief of the people. In another place Christ says that if the miracles performed around the Sea of Galilee had been performed in the pagan cities of Tyre and Siden the people of those places would have been on their knees, in sack cloth and ashes, begging God’s forgiveness. But the Israelites, who had the promise that God Himself would come and redeem them from their sins, couldn’t see it. And yes, we know from the first that it was understood among the Old Testament believers that the Messiah would be God Himself. We can look to Genesis 4:1, which is a verse that causes many translators to whimp out. Even Luther was unwilling to translate what the Hebrew actually says. Eve gave birth to her son and she said, I have given birth to a man who is the Lord. You see Eve didn’t understand that it would take four thousand years for God to fulfill His promise. She thought it would happen immediately. But it is clear from Genesis 4:1 that Adam and Eve already understood that the Messiah would be God come into flesh. Yet, many of the Jews of Jesus day, seem scandalized by this very idea. Earlier in this discourse Christ makes the claim that He is the only who has seen the Father - that He is only One to come from God the Father. This is a claim of divinity.
He is God, Christ is making this point clear. More than the He gives Himself to be our heavenly food and drink. He goes so far as to say that unless some eats of His flesh and drinks of His blood, he cannot be saved. Life comes from eating the flesh of the Son of God and drinking His blood. Now our Orthodox brothers take from this that receiving the Lord’s Supper is an absolute necessity for salvation. Because of this understanding a child is communed immediately after they are baptized. They’ll crumble a little bit of bread into the wine and place it in baby’s mouth with a small spoon. In the west, the understanding has always been that one must have a conscious knowledge of what they are doing. So infants, the unconscious, the severely demented and the like are not communed. It should be noted however, that at many times and places in the history of Lutheranism, first communion was at about age six. So is it necessary that one partake of the Lord’s Supper to be saved? Yes, but not absolutely necessary. One cannot reject the Supper and be saved. This does not necessarily mean communing every time its offered. But it does mean communing often and regularly. However, if say a child were to die before they had received the Lord’s Supper, simply by matter of custom and lack of instruction, this does not deprive them of their salvation. But if one steadfastly refused to partake of the Lord’s Supper, then they would indeed stand condemned before God, as they have refused God’s gift to them.
What is Jesus really pointing too by calling His flesh bread and His blood drink? He is pointing toward His sacrifice on the cross for the sins of the world. When one came to Jerusalem, to the temple, to make a sacrifice, a whole bunch of things happened. You would present your animal to the priest and he would inspect it. Only unblemished animals could be offered up to God. The priest would then kill the animal. The blood, considered the most holy part of the animal, was poured out on the altar. Under no circumstances was the blood to be consumed. Certain parts of the animal were given to the priest as his payment for offering the sacrifice. Then certain parts were returned for you to eat. You would eat this holy meat right at the gate to the court of the priests, looking in upon the altar of sacrifice. By eating that portion of the animal you were saying to God, count this sacrifice to my account. Of course no sacrifice that we could bring would ever really pay for our sins. So God Himself gives us the perfect Lamb of God, Jesus Christ. Then He returns to us a portion of the flesh for us to eat and claim this sacrifice for ourselves. But there is more still. This time, we are given to the most holy blood to drink. For of course as every student of the Old Testament knows, the life is in the blood. The life is in the blood of Christ which is now sprinkled, not just upon us, but in us.