Proper 15 · John 6:51-69 · August 16, 2009
By Joel Okamoto
Notes on the text
1. For the context, see Propers 13 and 14.
2. At this point Jesus provokes a fresh concern among the people. We might say that their concern shifts from the person of Jesus to his flesh. When Jesus first declares himself the bread of life that came down from heaven, the people wonder: “Isn’t this Jesus, the son of Joseph, someone we know? How can he say: Ί came down from heaven'” (v. 42)? When he responds to their grumbling, Jesus claims to be the “living bread that came down from heaven” and asserts that whoever eats this bread will live forever and that this bread is his own flesh (w. 50-51). The people now seize on and argue about the call to “eat his flesh” (v. 52).
3. Jesus responds to their complaints by affirming (“Truly, truly, I say to you”) that “except you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you” (v. 53). Christ calls his flesh “true food” and his blood “true drink” (v. 55). Eating this food and drinking this drink will give the hearers eternal life, assure them of the resurrection from the dead, and unite them with Christ (w. 54-56). Jesus further explains that this union with him is like the life he has with God the Father. Just as Jesus was sent by the Father and has his very life through the Father, so also everyone who feeds on Jesus will have the same life.
4. What constitutes “eating” and “drinking” in this context? This question is closely connected to (and therefore should be answered with) the question of whether Christ’s words about eating his flesh and drinking his blood constitute a reference to the Lord’s Supper. Of course, different judgments have been made concerning these matters, but my view may be put this way: Christ’s words do not constitute a direct or a primary reference to the Lord’s Supper. On the one hand, it is consistent with the earlier parts of the discourse to understand eating Christ’s flesh and drinking his blood as metaphors for believing in Him. As Luther said: “To eat is synonymous here with to believe” (LW 23.135). On the other hand, we should observe that Christ does not institute the sacrament in this passage as he does on the night of his betrayal. He also does not speak about the bread and wine in, with, and under which his body and blood are given to eat and drink in the sacrament.
Indirectly, however, Christ does speak about eating his flesh and drinking his blood. Earlier he had referred to himself as the bread of life (“I am the bread of life”) that is given to eat. Now, however, he expands on this and speaks of eating his flesh and drinking his blood—speech that, to the readers of the Gospel, obviously suggests the sacrament. That readers should heed the suggestion is indicated by the parallel between this passage and John 3 on baptism, especially in 3:5: “Truly, truly, I say to you, except a man is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.”
5. As this pericope proceeds the “Bread of Life” discourse comes to its climax. Once again, Jesus’ words offend. Earlier the Jews had grumbled when Jesus told them that he was bread that came down from heaven (w. 41-42). Then they argued about Jesus’ giving his flesh to eat (v. 52). Now even many of Jesus’ own disciples (cf. w. 16-24) are offended when he insists that eternal life depends upon eating his flesh and drinking his blood. “This is a hard teaching,” they say. It wasn’t hard to understand, but it was hard to accept: “Who can accept it?” (v. 60). Obviously, they could not. In John’s Gospel, “disciples” may refer to followers other than the Twelve, as it clearly does here. Joseph of Arimathea is identified as a disciple (19:38), and Jesus refers to the Jews in Jerusalem who have believed him as disciples (8:31).
6. Jesus does not try to soften this “hard teaching.” As Luther said, “And if flesh and blood is offended here and murmurs, by all means let it murmur” (LW 33.180). Instead, Jesus challenges the disciples further: “Does this saying offend you? What if you were to see the Son of Man go up to where he was before” (w. 61-62)? Earlier Jesus had “offended” by claiming to have come down from heaven. Now he compounds the “offense” by indicating that he will return to the heavens.
7. Then Jesus answers their question. Who can accept his teaching? No one, on their own. On the one hand, Jesus affirms that his words bring the Spirit and bring life: “The Spirit gives life; the flesh avails for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are Spirit and they are life” (v. 63). On the other hand, without God’s will and work no one will believe these words and so receive life. As Jesus teaches, life is the gift of the Spirit of God, but “the flesh,” that is, the sinful human nature, “counts for nothing” in salvation. Therefore, unless God desires faith for the hearer, there will be unbelief, even in the presence of the truth and with the promise of eternal life. And so, Jesus explains, “Because of this I have told you that no one can come to me except it is given him by the Father” (v. 65; cf. v. 44: “No one is able to come to me except the Father who sent me draws him”).
8. These words of Jesus might be called “the last straw.” “From this time [or “For this reason”—ek toutou] many of his disciples went back and no longer walked with him” (v. 66). Jesus’ words are Spirit and life; nevertheless, they offend and many of his followers no longer follow. Jesus has incited not only his opponents (“the Jews”) but even many of his own disciples.
9. When Jesus sees this, he makes no attempt to keep them with him. Instead, he turns to those who remain, the Twelve, and asks them: “You don’t also want to leave, do you?” (v. 67). Speaking for the Twelve, Peter acknowledges the truth of Jesus’ words and confesses faith in Him: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life, and we have believed and have seen that you are the Holy One of God” (w. 68-69).
Notes for preaching
1. I would suggest once again that the sermon take its lead from this excerpt (for a reason, see the “Notes for preaching” in the study for Proper 14). Here Jesus explains about eating his flesh and drinking his blood. In a similar way, a sermon based on this excerpt might first seek to explain what Jesus teaches about himself, and then to assure hearers of the truth of Jesus’ words about himself and the salvation he brings.
2. The preacher might begin by observing that the confusion continues. In the previous pericope we find the Jews confused and offended by Jesus’ describing himself as the bread from heaven, because this implied that he was claiming to be the Son of God. But Jesus reiterates his claim and calls on his hearers to eat this bread, that is, appropriate or receive it. But this call, as the opening of this pericope details, further confuses and offends his audience. They ask and argue among themselves: “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”
3. Next, the sermon could work through Jesus’ response as an explanation of “giving us his flesh to eat” (see above, #3 and #4 in “Notes on the text”).
4. The sermon could then present Christ’s flesh and blood for people today to eat and to drink for eternal life. As readers and hearers of John’s Gospel, we are in a very different position from that of the people portrayed by the Gospel. Jesus, the bread of life, was right in front of the people. He was there as the bread that came down from heaven to be believed upon. But Jesus has now ascended into heaven and is no longer present in the same way. Nevertheless, he still makes himself present for us as true food and drink: in his body and blood in the Lord’s Supper.We truly have Christ’s flesh to eat and Christ’s blood to drink. Therefore, for us, eating Christ’s flesh and drinking Christ’s blood no longer comprise only an image for being given Christ as our Savior and for our reception of him by faith. Now it is also a means of grace, i.e., in which Christ, the bread of life, is given to and received by us who are perishing that we may live forever.
5. The disciples were right: Jesus’ teaching was hard. And Jesus’ response to their complaint was just as hard. The teaching and the response were truly like a fire and a hammer (Jer 23:29): they offended the hearers. But as hard as they were, his words were Spirit and life. This text lends itself to the doing of the two chief works of God in human creatures: terrifying, and then justifying the terrified, or making them alive (Ap XII.53). It would be appropriate for a sermon on this text to proclaim Jesus and his words about salvation in a way that challenges today’s hearers and then to speak “the words of eternal life,” that is, the promise of Christ that they are his people, the objects of God’s choosing, the recipients of his grace.
6. After an introduction, the sermon might begin by clarifying the question of the disciples: “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” It wasn’t hard to understand Jesus’ teaching. To be sure, the disciples may not have understood it fully, but they understood it well enough. It was a hard teaching to accept. Jesus’ response is “a hard teaching” in the same way. It was hard to accept.
7. Then the sermon could move on to what is easy enough to explain but hard to accept. Jesus is not hard to understand when he says: “The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing.” Life and salvation come from the Holy Spirit alone; we can and will do nothing that brings eternal life. Again, Jesus is not hard to understand when he says: “The words I have spoken to you are Spirit and they are life.” Jesus’ message is a Spirit-filled and life-giving Word. Apart from his Word there is no salvation, and apart from believing him and in him there is no salvation. Yet again, Jesus is not hard to understand when he says: “No one can come to me except it is given him by the Father.” Unless God wills one’s salvation, Christ’s Word will not be believed and the Spirit will not give life.
8. The sermon might next show how this teaching is brought out elsewhere in the Scriptures and confessed and taught by the church. For instance, Jesus’ earlier words in verse 44 (“No one is able to come to me except the Father who sent me draws him”) are an obvious reference, as are Jesus’ words, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit” (15:16), and the Prologue about becoming children of God, born of God (1:12-13). We confess and teach this in the Small Catechism: “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him. But the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel….”
9. The point of the last suggestion is to deny the possibility of explaining away the scandal of Jesus’ words in the text. One might say that we have no words about God and his salvation through Christ and the Spirit that can remove or relativize the force of the teaching that salvation is by grace alone.
10. The issue, then, is clear. There is no question that salvation is by grace alone. That is a hard teaching, but it is true. In view of this, the question is whether God will save us. Will God save us? Will Christ, his Son, raise us on the last day? Will God give us life? The sermon should turn at this point to the word of salvation, either by reminding hearers that they have the word of eternal life already in baptism or by promising them life and salvation in the name of Jesus Christ, the bread of life. Because of this word, we can say with Peter: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life, and we have believed and have seen that you are the Holy One of God.”
This explanation by Luther may be also helpful:
Since God has taken my salvation out of my hands into his, making it depend on his choice and not mine, and has promised to save me, not by my own work or exertion but by his grace and mercy, I am assured and certain both that he is faithful and will not lie to me, and also that he is too great and powerful for any demons or adversities to be able to break him or to snatch me from him. “No one,” he says, “shall snatch them out of my hand, because my Father who has given them to me is greater than all” [John 10:28ff] (LW 33.289).