Tuesday, August 21, 2018
How can this be?
How much trouble begins with words like “How can this be?” How much of God’s Word ends up being rejected because we do not understand it or because it conflicts with the reality as we think we know it? How many times is the Word of God read and because we either do not comprehend it or like it, we insist that it cannot mean what it says? Methodists encounter St. Peter’s words “Baptism now saves you” and wonder what it means because it surely cannot mean that baptism saves anyone. Or Baptists who presume they take the Word of God seriously until they get to “This IS My Body and Blood” and then insist that bread cannot be Christ’s body and so the words cannot mean what they say. Or Lutherans who joyfully read “by grace are you saved without works” and then wonder what James means when he says “faith without works is dead.”
The Gospel reading for today begins with the Jews grumbling among themselves about what Jesus said. “How can this man give us His flesh to eat?” If Jesus was simply referring to faith, to a spiritual feeding upon Christ in your heart by faith, why would that so upset the Jews who heard Him? That is the point. It would not. What the Jews heard was what Jesus said. He is giving His flesh not as spiritual food but as real food and real drink. For the Jew this was completely abhorrent. Cannibalism? Blood? These were among the most offensive things to Jews who sought to keep the Law. So did they misunderstand Jesus who was speaking metaphorically (I am as hungry as a horse) or did they get what Jesus was saying?
Jesus presses on. “UNLESS you eat of the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood you have no life in you at all. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life and I will raise Him upon the last day. For My flesh is real food and My blood is real drink.” Is Jesus deliberately trying to make them angry or is He insisting that God can be found only what God has revealed Himself? The word for eat there literally means to munch on.
Faith meets Christ where Christ is and where Christ is at work. We love to paint the pristine picture of nature and speak of God being there but God has given no promise there. He is there but He is not accessible. Just because we appreciate the picture of a forest or a waterfall or a great canyon does not mean that God is there to bestow upon us forgiveness, life, and salvation. These things are accessible only where God has placed them. He gives Himself and His gifts in the means of grace, in the Word preached and taught, in the absolution declared to the contrite sinner, in the waters of baptism that make alive that which was dead, and in the Holy Communion where Christ’s flesh and blood are our food and drink.
Here is the principle. What may be meaningful to you, is not where God has put His promise. God has put His promise in the Word and the Sacraments. This is the scandal in Jesus’ words. We want to meet God where we want to meet Him but God will meet us where He has promised to be. We don’t get to pick and choose from God’s Word or ways.
If you seek Christ apart from where He has promised, you have no guarantee that Christ is there or that He will bestow the saving fruits of His atoning death and life-giving resurrection. This is not a new idea to Jesus. Isaiah said it clearly. Seek the Lord where He may be found and while He may be found. This is not a Lutheran idea but the Word and promise of Christ.
There is no life apart from Christ and the life of Christ is not what you think it could be or should be but where Christ has put it. This is why going to Church is important. Church is where Christ has placed His Name and His Name is in the Word and the Sacraments. Where two or three are gathered there, Christ is there. He is not more present because more people are there or less present because fewer are there. He is there in His fullness in the Word of God preached and taught, in the absolution that forgives our sins, in the water of baptism that unites us to Jesus’ death and resurrection, and in the bread which is His body and the wine which is His blood. Christ does not give things to the Church. He gives Himself. He gives Himself where He wills and where He has promised.
We are here because Christ is here. Here is the true manna come down from heaven to feed the lives born anew in baptismal water. Here is the true blood of the covenant, the blood of the Lamb, that cleanses us from sin and seals us as His own. Here is the Word made flesh incarnate for us in the living voice of the Gospel.
Holy Communion is not a re-enactment of the Upper Room. It is the Upper Room. We are not memorializing Christ in our minds but Christ is coming to us in the living memorial of this Sacrament of His body broken and crucified, risen and glorious and in the Sacrament of His blood offered and poured out for us. His flesh is real food and His blood is real drink.
We may to a certain extent re-enact what the Pilgrims did on the first Thanksgiving but we eat hybrid birds with plenty of the white meat we love most of all and we set the table not with the harvests of our fields but with the foods we like and want to eat. Not here. Here we are not trying to replicate the Upper Room, the Upper Room comers to us because it is not the place but the Christ who gives Himself to us in bread that is His real flesh to be real food and in wine that is His real blood to be real drink. It is here Christ comes to us to abide in us and we in Him, now and for the rest of this mortal life and even to everlasting life.
Here in this meal, all the typological and symbolic and metaphoric promises of the Old Testament are fulfilled and delivered to us – not simply as words for the mind or spiritual food for the soul but real food also for the body. Everything from the promise to Adam and Eve to the promise to Abraham to the promise to the children of Israel in the wilderness to the promise of the Temple is met right here in this Blessed Sacrament. Everything that went before was a type of reality to come. Here in this Holy Communion, we meet that reality, Christ’s flesh and blood for the life of the world that He may abide in us and we in Him and that forgiven we may be restored to do the good works of Him who has called us from darkness into His marvelous Light and love Him above all and our neighbor as ourselves.
And now we get to the crux of the matter. Like the disciples of old, we find it hard to swallow – literally. Who can bear it all? Who can get it all? And Jesus, knowing His disciples were grumbling just like the Jews, says “Are you scandalized by ME?” Jesus is blunt here. The Spirit must plant this life in you and it happens not by comprehending or by understanding but by faith, by believing Christ and trusting in Him only. The flesh is of no avail. In other words, you cannot reason yourself into the Kingdom of God or think yourself into that kingdom. The only way you enter that kingdom is by meeting Christ where Christ has promised to be.
Some of those who followed Jesus never belonged to Him. Our Lord is speaking here specifically of Judas. But He is also pointing to a larger principle. You do not decide for Jesus. The Father calls you. Salvation is not a matter of a good call or a wise choice. It is the fruit of the Spirit’s work, working in you through the means of grace, to bring Christ to us that Christ may bring us to the Father.
In the end, we are left with the promise of Christ that confounds reason or the reasonable path that offers no salvation at all. Peter, it is always Peter, speaks for the disciples and for us. Lord, where else can we go? You alone have the words of eternal life. We have come to know and believe You are the Holy One of God. And guess what. Is that not what we sing every Sunday morning? Yes, faith is hard. But what are the options. It is faith and life or unbelief and death. Our minds never grasp the fullness of it all or understand it but that does not keep us from receiving Christ where He has promised to be and proclaiming Christ where He may be found to a world still searching for hope and life and rejoicing in this blessed message forever.