Linus Pauling died of cancer this past Friday. As a chemist I remember him as the father of molecular biology and much of modern chemistry. Most of you will likely remember him as the guy who promoted megadoses of vitamin C as the preventative and cure of everything from the common cold to cancer. He is the man that made vitamin supplements the big thing, and if you’re in the habit of taking vitamin C tablets, you can thank Linus Pauling for that. But in the end, Dr. Pauling died, ironically of cancer, albeit at the age of 93, and no amount of orange juice could have prevented that.
Instinctively we look to food for solutions. That includes everything from the “comfort foods” we eat when we’re depressed, to “health foods,” which we probably wouldn’t feed the family pet, to the chicken soup or whatever that your mother fed you when you were sick. In our home it was chilled canned peaches. Whenever anyone was sick there was always chilled canned peaches. I still reach for the canned peaches when I’m not feeling well. I also go for Ben & Jerry’s New York Super Fudge Chunk ice cream. Linus Pauling pushed vitamin C; I go for megadoses of chocolate.
We have this notion, this instinct about food. If we could find the right diet, everything would be OK. Drugs are really another form of “food.” Pop the right pills and the promise is that we will feel better, look better, act better, live better, whatever the desired outcome.
This instinct about eating and food goes back to Paradise, to the garden of Eden. Eating was basic there. To eat was to live and to live was to eat. Not only could man and woman eat of every tree in the garden, except for the Tree of Knowing Good and Evil, including the Tree of Life. But man and woman turned away from God in rebellion were barred from the Tree of Life, banished from garden to wilderness, cut off from the life-giving tree by a flaming sword. And it is that hunger and appetite for the Tree that gives life forever, which drives all of our hungers and appetites. The quest for the wonder drug that cures every disease, or the wonder diet that prevents cancer, heart disease, or the wonder food that doesn’t make us fat, is really nothing else than the search for the Tree of Life from which we may eat and live forever.
There is a tree from which we may eat and live forever. Not the Tree of Life from Paradise. Al least, not yet. That eating comes in Paradise restored, in the new creation on the Last Day when we will again be given to eat of the Tree of Life twelve months a year. Now the tree of life is the tree of the cross, whose fruits are the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ. Eat of this food and you will live.
Up until this point in the synagogue in Capernaum, Jesus had been speaking about bread – the Bread of Life, true and living Bread sent from the Father which gives life to the world. He is the only Bread on earth from which a person may eat and not die, a bread that gives the eater eternal life and promises to raise him up on the Last Day. He is a bread superior to any bread on earth, superior even to the heavenly manna that fed the people of Israel in the wilderness for forty years. “Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die.”
Bread is a safe way of speaking, a metaphor, a word picture or parable. To speak in parables is to speak on the outskirts of things, to sneak up on the subject. For Jesus to say that He is the Bread of Life is to say that no one can live without Jesus, at least not forever. And that’s the point of it all. Just as you draw on bread for daily life, so you must draw on Jesus for eternal life. It is a simple and not terribly scandalous way of speaking. Oh, things got a little testy when Jesus said that He came down from heaven, because people figured they knew where He came from. But if all that Jesus had said in the synagogue in Capernaum was that He was the Bread of Life, that all who come to him and believe his message would never die, then He would have been nothing more than any other religious pitchman making his pitch, and there probably would not have been any problem.
But there comes the point with Jesus when word pictures and parables can no longer bear the full weight of what He has to give. Metaphors must give way to the real thing. Bread talk must give way to flesh and blood talk. It’s a little bit like the father who sits down with his son and says, “I’d like to talk with you about the birds and the bees,” and the kid looks at his father with this puzzled expression and says, “Birds and bees! I thought we were going to talk about sex.” There comes the point when it’s time to “get real.” And that point for Jesus comes in our Gospel this morning.
“This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.”
Thus far Jesus has taken them from earthly bread to heavenly bread, from barley loaves to Himself. Now Jesus pushes further. Where Jesus once said “bread,” he now says “flesh.” Where he once said “eat,” He now says “feed.” And here for the first time He speaks of His blood. Literally, Jesus says, “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life.” You won’t see it consistently translated that way in our English versions because most translators decline to get as real with Jesus’ words as they ought to.
There is a two-fold eating in Jesus’ “bread of life” sermon in the synagogue at Capernaum. There is an eating of the Bread of Life that happens by faith whenever we hear His Word and believe it. This is the eating that the church father St. Augustine meant when he said, “Believe and you have eaten.” Then there is an eating of Christ’s flesh and a drinking of His blood that happens with the mouth in the Sacrament. And this two-fold eating as inseparable as the Word is from the flesh in Christ.
“The Word became Flesh and dwelt among us.” That is the key to understanding all flesh talk from the mouth of Jesus. He is the eternal, divine Word became human flesh. In Him God became man, and our reason and unbelief may drive no wedges between the Word and the flesh of Jesus, or for that matter between our believing and our eating, our faith and our mouth. Jesus says, “Whoever sees the Son and believes in him has eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day.” And in the same sermon he also says, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” Believing and eating, faith and the mouth, the Word and Christ’s flesh must be held together. We may not speak of believing in Christ apart from the eating that goes on in the Lord’s Supper. Nor may we speak of eating in the Lord’s Supper apart from believing in Christ. And any Jesus you cannot eat is not the Jesus who preached in Capernaum or hung on the cross.
When Jesus speaks of His flesh and blood, he does not mean His abstract humanity. He speaks of flesh and blood separately. Where flesh and blood are separated, there is sacrifice for sin. In the Old Testament, the flesh of the sacrifice was offered burnt on the altar and also eaten by the communicant. The blood of the sacrifice, on the other hand, was sprinkled, never eaten. To drink blood was strictly forbidden. “For the life of the creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life. Therefore I say to the Israelites, “None of you may eat blood, nor may an alien living among you eat blood.” Here Jesus invites His hearers to do what is utterly unthinkable and even forbidden – to eat His flesh and to drink His blood. Only the Lord can speak in such a way.
Jesus is both the ultimate sacrifice and the ultimate sacrificial meal – His flesh and His blood once for all on the cross as a sacrifice for the sin of the world, and as a sacrificial meal for the sinner to eat and drink. Sacrifice and meal go together. The sacrifice was accomplished once, some two thousand years ago on the cross. The meal continues in one on-going feast every Sunday.
“My flesh is real food and my blood is real drink.” Jesus is speaking of real things, not in pictures or symbols, but in a reality that goes beyond the mundane reality of bread. We are always in search of something real, something lasting and enduring. For some that reality is found in possessions or the means to acquire them – real estate, real property, real things. For others reality is in relationships. Real people, real friendships. We use the word “really” almost every other sentence, emphasizing the hunger and thirst we have for what is real and true.
Here is something more real than our puny perceptions of reality. Jesus says that his flesh and his blood are real food and true drink. He demolishes any grip we might have on reality and truth. Any attempt to soften or spiritualize Jesus’ words will do violence to them. Either Jesus is speaking the truth or He has lost His grip on reality. Either His flesh is real food and His blood is real drink or we’d better search somewhere else for what is real. There is no middle ground, no safe symbolic hiding place, no metaphorical shelter to hide from these words. His words are unduckable and unavoidable. They are as flesh and blood real as Jesus’ flesh and blood – born of Mary, crucified on Calvary, buried in the tomb, raised from the dead, and ascended in Majesty – are real. And it is in that reality of Jesus’ flesh and blood that we really have eternal life.
Real food and real drink is what we Lutherans mean when we confess Christ’s real presence in the Lord’s Supper. Not that Jesus is “really present” in some kind of generic, spiritual way. But that His flesh and blood are really present to be eaten and drunk as He bids us in this morning’s Gospel.
His words leave no room for abstractions or philosophies. Perhaps He spoke this way because He saw the day coming, our own day, when He would be turned into an idea, a teaching, a philosophy, rather than a real Savior from real sin and real death. Perhaps it was because he already saw the unbelief in the synagogue Capernaum, offended that God should stoop so low as to come in the form of a lowly carpenter from Nazareth. Jesus pushes our human reason to the snapping point. You must feed on my flesh, he says. You must drink my blood.
This is a hard saying. This is “in your face incarnation” as one person put it. Offensive and scandalous. It was offensive and scandalous to Jesus’ 1st century hearers in the synagogue in Capernaum. It was offensive and scandalous to the 2nd century Roman world that wrongly accused Christians of cannibalism on account of the Lord’s Supper. It is offensive and scandalous to us sophisticated and scientific 20th Americans, who “ought to know better.” This sermon cost Jesus His following. His numbers dwindled. Many of his own disciples drew back and no longer wanted to be seen with Him. The scandal is repeated every Lord’s Day in the bread and the wine.
How can he give us his flesh to eat? Those in the synagogue questioned and argued. We too question how a fragile, thin wafer of bread can be His flesh? How a cup of wine can be His blood. We propose elaborate explanations. We spiritualize, philosophize, and theologize. We categorize and rationalize. But Jesus never offers any explanations. He simply says “Take, eat. Take, drink, and you will live forever.” He gives His flesh and blood to eat and to drink, not to comprehend or explain. Those who are hungry and the thirsty don’t care about how bread and wine are made. They are grateful to have food and drink.
How can this man give us his flesh to eat? The first catechized Christians to read St. John’s Gospel must have surely smiled at the question. They knew how He did it. You know. He did it by taking bread into His hands on the day of His death and saying, “Take eat, this is my body.” He did it by taking the cup of wine into his hands and saying, “Take drink, this is my blood.” By commanding His apostles to “do this in remembrance of me.” He did it by giving His flesh and blood on the cross. By rising from the dead. By ascending to the highest Majesty at the right hand of God. That’s how can give us His flesh to eat and His blood to drink. He is the crucified, risen and glorified Son of God and Son of Man. And who are we to say that He can’t?
Jesus gives two benefits of this eating and drinking, and we must know them if we too are to come and feast at His table. The first is life. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life and I will raise him up at the Last Day. Jesus promises life to the eater. Not simply life in the hereafter, but eternal life already here and now, life that will see us through to the resurrection of the dead on the Last Day. To eat His flesh and drink His blood is to eat and drink the life Jesus has from the Father, the life of the One who is the Resurrection and the Life.
The one who feeds on me will live because of me. Every other food we eat is eaten in view of our death. But this food of Jesus’ crucified, risen and glorified flesh and blood is eaten into eternal life.
The second benefit is communion with Christ. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. Every other food becomes our own flesh and blood. We transform it. That includes the little wafer of bread and the sip of wine in the Lord’s Supper. But His flesh and blood, which we also eat and drink in the Lord’s Supper, transform us. He abides in us and we in him. We are joined to him as branches are joined to the Vine. We draw our life, our strength, our identity, our purpose from Him, and He bears His fruit in and through us.
One day we all will die. Our flesh and blood remains sinful in this life. There are no statistics to show that those who commune frequently live longer or healthier. For that you might try vitamin C. It didn’t seem to hurt Linus Pauling. Christ’s flesh and blood do not alter the fact of our death. They alter the outcome of death. Though we die yet will we live. And though we die we never really die for Christ’s life lives in us and our life is in Him. It is for this reason that the ancient church rightly called the Sacrament the “medicine of immortality”:
Antidote that we die not
But live in Jesus always.
Here is a food which you may eat and live forever, the flesh and blood of Him who died for you. Real food. Feed on Him and you have the life of His flesh and His blood at work in you. Feed on Him and He will raise you up on the Last Day, for He will not deny His flesh and blood. Feed on Him, and He will remain in you and you in Him. For His flesh is real food and his blood is real drink that you may really live now and forever. Really.
In the Name of Jesus,