But if we walk in the light, just as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ, His Son, cleanses us from all sin. 1 John 1:7

Lent 4 – 2023

John 6:26-69

After the miraculous feeding of the multitude, which today’s Gospel reading from St. John recounts, Jesus and his disciples left the place where this had happened and went to Capernaum. The next day, when the people had figured out where Jesus had gone, they followed him. It would seem that they wanted an ongoing supply of free food to fill their stomachs.

Jesus then began a long conversation with this crowd, about the heavenly bread which they should actually be seeking. Please listen with me to a portion of that conversation, often called the “Bread of Life” discourse, from the sixth chapter of St. John, beginning at verse 26. Jesus said: “‘Most assuredly, I say to you, you seek Me, not because you saw the signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled. Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to everlasting life, which the Son of Man will give you, because God the Father has set His seal on Him.’ Then they said to Him, ‘What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?’ Jesus answered and said to them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent.’ Therefore they said to Him, ‘What sign will You perform then, that we may see it and believe You? What work will You do? Our fathers ate the manna in the desert; as it is written, “He gave them bread from heaven to eat.”’ Then Jesus said to them, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, Moses did not give you the bread from heaven, but My Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is He who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’ Then they said to Him, ‘Lord, give us this bread always.’
”And Jesus said to them, ‘I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world.’ The Jews therefore quarreled among themselves, saying, ‘How can this Man give us His flesh to eat?’ Then Jesus said to them, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. 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 feeds on Me will live because of Me. This is the bread which came down from heaven – not as your fathers ate the manna, and are dead. He who eats this bread will live forever.’ These things He said in the synagogue as He taught in Capernaum.”

In his teaching on this occasion, Jesus uses the imagery of bread, both to describe who he is, and to describe what he gives. First, he says, “I am the living bread which came down from heaven.”

Always pay close attention whenever Jesus says, “I am.” “I am” is God’s own testamental name. The Old Testament refers to God as the great “I am” – that is, as Yahweh or Jehovah – on those occasions when he is being described as the Divine Helper of Israel, who makes and keeps promises to his people.

And the ultimate promise that God made and kept, was his promise to come among men as a man, to save us from sin and death in person. Jesus is Immanuel – God with us. Jesus is the Child who was born, and the Son who was given – who is called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

And now, as Jesus says, “I am the living bread which came down from heaven,” he is deepening our understanding of God’s character, and of God’s work for our salvation, in the person of his incarnate Son.

The launchpad for this discourse was a question that the Jewish crowd asked Jesus, about why they should be willing to believe what he was saying and to put their trust in him. They compared Jesus’ claims to the claims of Moses and wondered if he would prove himself to them, in a way comparable to how Moses had proved himself to their ancestors – in particular through providing manna for them to eat.

The manna that God had miraculously provided for the daily sustenance of the Israelites, in the time of Moses, was a foreshadowing, and a picture, of what would someday happen, when God himself would come down from heaven, and give himself to a spiritually starved humanity.

The image of a person eating and swallowing a piece of bread, is an image of a deep internalization of that bread on the part of the one who is eating it. And so, just as literal bread is received into the inner digestive system of the body, so too does Jesus want to be received into the heart and soul of the one who believes in him.

Believing in Jesus, in the true sense, is not merely an intellectual exercise. It is a deep and intimate receiving of Jesus into oneself. And that’s why it is so frightening to so many of us, to receive Jesus into our life on his terms, and not on our own terms.

In our sin and selfishness, we would no doubt prefer to keep Jesus at arm’s length. According to our sinful nature, we would prefer that he not be allowed to get too close, since we fear that he would judge us, and change us into something quite different from what we are now.

And that threatens us, because we are comfortable with what we are now. And you know what? All those suspicions are essentially correct – although the reality is actually worse than what you suspect.

You can’t be physically nourished by a piece of literal bread that you keep at arm’s length. And you also can’t have a fulfilling and meaningful relationship with God, without taking Jesus deeply inside of you.

But once he is on the inside, he does not just change you. He kills you. As far as your old sinful nature is concerned, the bread of life is poison. Jesus, from the inside, suppresses and drowns the old nature – together with all its wicked desires, and all its destructive passions.

But, the bread of life is indeed a source of life. And so, from the inside, Jesus also re-creates you. By his Spirit, he implants, brings forth, and nourishes a new nature, made in his image.

When you, by means of a penitent yet expectant faith, “eat” the bread that comes down from heaven – and when you continually eat it by continually embracing Christ – you become and remain truly alive before God. You become and remain truly alive in God forever – because in this way, through your mystical union with Christ, God remains truly alive in you.

But Jesus does not use the imagery of bread only to describe himself as the one who comes down from heaven, which is obviously a reference to his divinity. He also uses this imagery to describe what he givesfor us on the cross, and to us in the means of grace.

He says: “And the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world.” In speaking of his “flesh,” Christ is referring now to his humanity – which he as the Son of God took to himself in the womb of his virgin mother.

In Christ, God became one of us. He did this, so that he could offer – in our place – a genuinely human sacrifice, to satisfy the judgment of his own divine justice against our human sin.

God does not demand such human sacrifices from us. In fact, they are forbidden most stringently.

And they wouldn’t work anyway, because all human beings – other than Jesus – are corrupted by sin. Instead, in the incarnate person of his Son, God offers and gives himself as the one and only pure and perfect sacrifice for human sin that will ever be necessary.

What Jesus gives in sacrifice to his Father, on the cross of his death, he gives for the life of the world. By his death, he delivers us from the death of sin. And by his resurrection from the dead, he unites us to his life.

The now-glorified Jesus – who fills all the heavens, but who is also still in human flesh – still comes to us as our divine-human Savior. He makes himself accessible to us in his Word and Sacraments. Most intimately, and most meaningfully, he comes to us, and makes himself accessible to us, in the Sacrament of the Altar.

We would not say that our Lord’s bread of life discourse is only about the Lord’s Supper. But there are obvious allusions to this sacrament in the terms that Jesus uses.

The events that John describes in his Gospel happened before the institution of the Lord’s Supper. But John’s writing and publishing of his Gospel took place several decades later, when the regular observance of the Lord’s Supper in Christian congregations was already firmly in place.

Imagine, then, what the original audience of John’s Gospel would have thought when they heard these words of their Lord, which John quoted; and what connections they would automatically have made between these words and their current sacramental experience as a Christian community:

“Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. 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.”

There is no way in which this cannot in some way be about the Lord’s Supper. At the very least, these words necessarily apply themselves most naturally to the Lord’s Supper, and to the blessings that we in faith receive in the Lord’s Supper, even if that is not their only application.

But more broadly, the bread of life discourse, and all the many things that Jesus says in this discourse, are about Jesus himself: his coming to earth, his past saving work on earth, and his present giving of himself to his people on earth.

According to the point of comparison that is made in this larger discourse, the “eating” by which we receive Christ as the bread of life – in all the many ways in which we do receive him – is faith.

But even with that being the case, there certainly is a clear application to be made for us in the Lord’s Supper. Any passage of Scripture that is about Jesus, is, in the final analysis, about the Lord’s Supper – and can be applied to the Lord’s Supper – because Jesus is the content of the Lord’s Supper.

This sacrament is called the Supper of the Lord, not just because he owns it, but because he is it. It is the true body and blood of Christ, under the forms of bread and wine, for us Christians to eat and to drink.

This sacrament is, of course, not properly received, unless it is received in faith. This is a faith that acknowledges that what God’s law says about the offensiveness of our sin, and about our need for forgiveness, is true.

This is a faith that acknowledges that what God’s gospel says about our Savior from sin, and about his atoning and reconciling sacrifice for us, is also true. And this is a faith that clings to Christ’s very specific words – and that receives Christ himself in his body and blood, for forgiveness and strength – in the sacrament that he instituted on the night in which he was betrayed.

The Lord who comes to us in this Supper of the Lord, is the One who said:

“I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world.” Faith discerns Jesus, and the flesh of Jesus, to be savingly present in the sacrament. And faith receives his flesh and blood for salvation, as the bread and wine are received with the mouth.

Receiving Christ in Holy Communion can be scary. There is an apostolic warning that those who receive this sacrament in an unworthy manner – without true repentance, and without true faith – sin against the body and blood of the Lord, and thereby receive his body and blood to their judgment.

If you are a communicant, examine yourself, therefore, before you come forward. Explore your conscience, and test your faith. Take this seriously, because it is serious.

But a humble faith – which admits the reality and danger of sin and turns from sin, and even more so which knows and recognizes humanity’s Savior from sin – is not afraid of this Supper. Such a genuine faith – even if it is a weak and struggling faith – yearns for a closer connection with Jesus, and yearns to be fed by Jesus.

Such a faith rejoices to hear Jesus say:

“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 feeds on Me will live because of Me.”

A little further on in his discourse, Jesus also says: “The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life.” Indeed, all the words of pardon and peace that Jesus speaks – to all of us, in all of the means of grace – are spirit and life.

His words of comfort and hope do not apply only to a reception, in faith, of the Sacrament of the Altar. They apply to a reception, in faith, of Christ’s Word in general, whenever and wherever his Word comes to us and touches us: as his Word is spoken and applied to us in Holy Baptism; in Holy Absolution; and in hearing, reading, and meditating on the Scriptures.

And the Word of Christ always delivers Christ – the bread of life from heaven – to our hearts and souls.

We close with these words of prayer from hymnist Bartholomaüs Ringwaldt:

Help us, that we Thy saving Word, in faithful hearts may treasure;
Let ever that Bread of Life afford new grace, in richest measure.
O make us die to every sin, each day create new life within,
That fruits of faith may flourish. Amen.