Lectionary Texts: First Kings 8:1, 6, 10-11, 22-30, 41-43; Psalm 34; Ephesians 6:10-20; John 6:56-69
This morning we return one last time to the Bread of Life discourse of our Savior as recorded in John 6. Our reading begins by restating the final words of the discourse, then continues by recounting the subsequent conversation between Jesus and His puzzled disciples. No doubt they were stumbling over His remarkable statement, ”He who eats My Flesh and drinks My Blood abides in Me, and I in him.” These words must have seemed far too realistic to all of His hearers, not just the scoffers but even those many disciples who were not prepared to deal with this challenging and mysterious concept, and simply left. And we still puzzle over this seemingly inscrutable truth today; yet we, like Peter and the others of the 12, have committed ourselves to following Jesus and meeting Him at His table. We simply say with Peter, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life. We have believed and have come to know that You are the Holy One of God.”
Here is what we understand by “the Real Presence of Christ in the Sacrament:” He is truly present. He is here. He presents Himself to us is these holy mysteries. It’s a spiritual and sacramental reality that transcends our normal existence and mystically but truly unites us by faith with Christ in His once-for-all sacrifice for our sins. As Richard Hooker asked in one of his sermons, “Is there not a taste of Christ Jesus in the hearts of those who eat this supper? Do not they who drink behold plainly in this cup that their souls are bathed in the blood of the Lamb?”
That this happens by the power and efficacy of the Holy Spirit has been affirmed and reaffirmed by the Church throughout all 2,000 years of its existence. In our Prayer of Consecration, we say these words that we call the “epiclesis,” the calling down of the Holy Spirit’s blessing on the elements:
“And now, O merciful Father, in Your great goodness, we ask You to bless and sanctify, with Your Word and Holy Spirit, these gifts of bread and wine, that we, receiving them according to Your Son our Savior Jesus Christ’s holy institution, in remembrance of His death and passion, may be partakers of His most blessed Body + and Blood +.”
Note that everything is included here: all 3 Persons of the Godhead, the particular action of the Holy Spirit in consecrating the bread and wine, the remembrance of Christ’s passion, and the actual partaking of His Body and Blood according to His institution. This is why we also call the Eucharist “Communion.” “Communion,” as we saw last week, means “participating with” or “partaking of” or “fellowshipping with” someone or something: koinonia. For the Apostle Paul, it meant that in the Eucharistic meal, we are indeed communing directly with the Son of God through His Body and Blood given to us, with the result that we’re made one body in Him because “we all partake of the one bread,” as Paul wrote in I Corinthians 10 (vs.16, 17).
While the sacrifice of Christ is ever to be viewed as once offered, full and complete with neither the need nor even the possibility of its being repeated, the fact remains that Jesus continually pleads the righteousness of His sacrifice before the Father and we continue to receive His benefits when, at His altar, we say, “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us; therefore let us keep the feast. Alleluia!” (Romans 8:34, Hebrews 7:25, 1 John 2:1). And we do not hesitate to call His table an “altar.” Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount spoke of leaving our gift at the altar until we are reconciled with our brother, something He would not have been expected to say if altars were soon to be abolished. The author of Hebrews writes, “We have an altar from which…to eat.” (13:10). Ignatius, a disciple of John the Evangelist, refers multiple times to the altar as a place of prayer and reception of the Eucharist. And perhaps most compelling is that we read in Revelation of the golden altar that eternally stands before the throne of God in heaven (chs. 8, 9, 14, 16) where He is ever worshiped and glorified.
Here it is that the sacrifice is celebrated, commemorated and embraced both as Christ’s sacrifice for us and as the place where we offer our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. And here it is that we look forward to an eternity of praising the worthiness of the Lamb that was slain. His sacrifice was once for all, never to be repeated; but it’s recalled and acclaimed in perpetuity, forever and ever, world without end.
In the Holy Eucharist, Jesus comes to us corporately and offers His own Body and Blood in a true supernatural and spiritual sense. Here we sense His presence, here we feed on Him, here we are nourished, strengthened and sustained, and from here we are sent out in peace to love and serve the Lord, rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit. Paul wrote in Colossians 2:9; “In Him dwells all the fulness of the Godhead bodily” (somatikos).
Think of this for a moment more: is there any other place where all of this comes together as truly and vividly? Yes, individually each of us may and ought to have frequent occasions when, wherever we find ourselves, we will be freshly overawed by the wonder of Christ‘s sacrifice; and, in such moments, we renew our commitment to love and serve Him with gladness and singleness of heart. But this altar is where we come again and again both as individuals and corporately, to be in His Real Presence through His Body and Blood, to eat and drink, to truly commune with Him by faith, to be refreshed and nourished with spiritual food and to go out challenged and changed by this holy, Sacramental encounter with our Risen and Glorified Lord and Savior, the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world.
This is why it’s important for us to reverence this altar in awe and wonder for all that it represents. The altar makes Christ’s Presence more palpably real, it instills in us a heightened sense of what He has done for us, it challenges us once more to serve Him unreservedly and it gives us His grace to sustain us in all that we do in His Name. It serves as an indispensable element in our sanctification, our growing into the likeness of Christ as members of His mystical Body, the Church. Here we come to know Him better than we do anywhere else. Back in v. 40 Jesus said, “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in Him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” Nowhere in our Christian experience and worship do we look on Him more intently and intentionally than here in the Holy Eucharist.
This is precisely why Jesus instituted this Sacrament with His disciples and commanded that we should observe it often in remembrance of Him. And it’s why Paul cautioned against eating and drinking the Sacrament to our own judgment, not only if we do so unworthily, but even if we do it without sufficient regard for the very Body of Christ (see I Corinthians 11:29). On the other hand in John 6:51, Jesus said, “He who eats this Bread will live forever.” And in v. 54 He said, “He who eats My Flesh and drinks My Blood has eternal life,” and for the second time He adds, “and I will raise him up on the last day.” He says this twice in order to emphasize the connection between the Eucharist and both His own bodily Resurrection and ours. This also is why Jesus includes a reference to His ascension in v. 62 when He’s explaining His meaning to the disciples.
Why is this discourse of Jesus recorded only in John’s Gospel while John, surprisingly, is the only one of the four Evangelists to omit the Last Supper? Similarly we might ask why John alone omits the Transfiguration when he was the only one of the Evangelists to have been an eyewitness of it? Or, for that matter, we might ask why John omits any birth narrative but moves directly to the Baptism.
I believe the answer to each of these questions is essentially the same. John must have been aware of the 3 accounts that we call the synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, and of their focus on narrative, miracles and parables. Accordingly he substitutes for birth narratives a profoundly theological prologue. Instead of recording the event of the Transfiguration, John makes his entire Gospel a picture of the transfigured Christ, only alluding to the event itself in 1:14 where he writes that “we beheld His shekinah glory, the glory as of the only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth.” And instead of retelling the narrative of the Last Supper, he records in full the amazing Bread of Life Discourse with its powerful Eucharistic message and its promise of eternal life in Him.
Imagine the “aha moment” when these disciples, who understandably were perplexed at their first hearing of Jesus’ words in the Bread of Life discourse, looked back later through the lens of the Last Supper and paired His statement here, “Unless you eat the Flesh of the Son of Man and drink His Blood, you have no life in yourselves,” with His words in the Upper Room, “This is My Body… This is My Blood” (Matthew 26:26, 28), “Do this in remembrance of Me” (I Corinthians 11:24, 25). I think they wept, with tears of joy. And so should we, when we realize that, in our frequent receiving of the Body and Blood of Jesus, we, too, are participating in the same event that was first given to the 12 with Jesus physically present.
He is still here. He is truly present. He is making Himself known to us in the breaking of the bread, just as He did with the two disciples in Emmaus after His Resurrection. The bread that Jesus gives, His very Body, parallels the Bread of the Presence in the Jewish Tabernacle, set on a golden table alongside vessels of wine, just as we have it here (Exodus 25, q.v.). In Leviticus 24, Aaron is commanded to set the Bread of the Presence on the golden table every Sabbath “on behalf of the sons of Israel as an everlasting covenant” (diathēkēn aiōnion, LXX), language the author of Hebrews adopts verbatim when calling the Blood of Jesus “the blood of the everlasting covenant” (diathēkēs aiōniou) (Hebrews 13:20).
Now we see more clearly how this thanksgiving feast of ours connects our faith and practice with our Jewish roots, our heritage among God’s covenant people. The very same thing that brought salvation to the Jewish people, the people of God, at the first Passover is now renewed and re-imaged in the sacrifice of Christ on our behalf.
Matthew tells us that when Jesus was with His disciples in the Upper Room, after celebrating the Passover Seder meal, “He took a cup, and when He had given thanks He gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is My Blood of the covenant (diathēkēs), which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28). All of this ties together seamlessly with the way the Passover Seder was celebrated. At the Seder meal, 3 cups of wine were presented, one during the introductory rites, a second during the meal itself, and a third, the berakah or “cup of blessing,” after the meal was finished. You may remember that Paul asked in I Corinthians 10:16, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the Blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the Body of Christ?” In Luke’s account of the Last Supper, which is the source of the words of institution that we say, it was “after supper” that Jesus took the cup, clearly the third cup, the berakah, the cup of blessing (22:20).
What was He doing? He was making a direct connection with the first covenant, which at the first Passover included sprinkling the blood of a lamb on the doorposts of every Jewish home. Now He speaks of the pouring out of His own Blood for us and for our salvation. And, as the author of Hebrews reminds us, in God’s economy and for the accomplishing of His purposes, “without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sin” (9:22). Jesus is saying clearly that this covenant does not so much replace the old one as it informs it with new meaning, with a new application, with a new methodology that was required in order for God to fulfil His divine purposes for all of His people.
And there’s still more. At the conclusion of the Passover Seder, it’s mandated that 4 or 5 of Psalms 113-118, known as the Hallel Psalms, Psalms of Praise, are to be sung or recited (the first and/or the second having been read or sung earlier). Both Matthew and Mark tell us that after the third cup, Jesus and His disciples sang a hymn before going up to the Mount of Olives. Have you ever wondered what hymn it was that they sang? Well, we know the answer: it was the same Hallel that is sung at every Passover Seder! And here are just a few of the lines from those psalms that Jesus would have sung then:
- First, “I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the Name of the Lord” (116:13). That’s what we call this cup when we say: “It will become for us the cup of salvation.”
- Another: “O Lord, I am Your Servant, the Son of Your handmaiden; You have loosed My bonds” (116:16). These words suggest both the Virgin Birth and the victory of Christ over the bonds of sin and death.
- Then there’s “I will offer You the sacrifice of thanksgiving” (116:17). This is precisely what we call our Eucharist, which very word means “thanksgiving.”
- “I shall not die but live” (118:17), obviously foreshadowing the Resurrection.
- Fifth, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone” (118:22), words that were applied to Jesus by Peter (in both Acts 4:11 and I Peter 2:7) and Paul (Ephesians 2:20) and by Jesus Himself (Mt. 21, Mk. 12, Lk. 20).
- And then, “Blessed is He Who comes in the Name of the Lord” (118:26), words used by the crowd acclaiming Jesus on His Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem (Mt. 21:9, Mk. 11:9, Lk. 19:38) and, once again, used by Jesus with reference to Himself in His lament over Jerusalem (Mt. 23:39). Jesus sang all these words!
We’re not left without possible explanations. First, as only John tells us (in ch. 15), when Jesus took His disciples out of the Upper Room, His next words to them were, “I am the true vine and you are the branches.” Soon after that, He led the disciples to the Garden of Gethsemane, where He prayed 3 times, “Father, if it be possible, take this cup from Me.” Jesus knew that there was to be a 4th cup, the “cup of salvation” about which they had just sung in the Hallel. Jesus refused the customary offer of wine when He was on His way to the Cross. But in His final moments on the Cross, He said, “I thirst,” and then accepted sour wine from the sponge. And John tells us that “when Jesus had received the wine, He said, ‘It is finished;” and He bowed His head and gave up His spirit” (John 19:28-30). The Passover was now completed. The sacrifice was finished. The blood of Christ was poured out for us. The cup of salvation was filled.
And there is another possible explanation. Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell us that Jesus said to His disciples, “I tell you that from now on I shall not drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it anew with you in My Father’s Kingdom.” Discounting a sip of sour wine from a sponge in the moment of His death, Jesus may have been telling His disciples that the omitted 4th cup was to be saved for that glorious moment when we, along with His disciples and all the company of heaven, will be seated at the table for that great feast called in Revelation “the Marriage Supper of the Lamb” (19:6-9). That will be the greatest imaginable Hallel cup, the very cup of everlasting praise, where the finest food and the royal wine of heaven will be ours to enjoy in the company of the One who shed His blood and instituted this feast where we may partake of Him.
“He who eats My Flesh and drinks My Blood abides in Me, and I in him; he who eats this Bread will live forever” (John 6:56, 58). “Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech haolam, hamotzi lechem min ha-aretz.” “Blessed are You, Lord God of all creation: through Your goodness we have this bread to set before You. It will become for us the Bread of Life. “Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech haolam, borei p'ri hagafen.” “Blessed are You, Lord God of all creation. Here we have this wine to set before You. It will become for us the cup of salvation.” Prepare yourselves to meet Him here this morning. Then come. Eat and drink “in remembrance that Christ died for you, and feed on Him in your hearts, by faith, with thanksgiving.” “This is His Body, broken for you; this is His Blood, shed for you.” In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 It’s not spiritual “hocus pocus,” words that literally were created as a caricature of the Eucharist, probably based on a perversion of the sacramental blessing from the Mass, “Hoc est corpus Meum,” "This is my body"
 “Power” comes from the Latin virtus , Gr. dunamis; “efficacy,” from efficacia, refers to the operation of the H.S. in effecting the Real Presence of Christ in the Sacrament. Calvin adds the Latin vigor, by which he means the life that Jesus promises to those who eat His Flesh and drink His Blood (John 6).
 Some of the thoughts behind this were drawn from Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist: Unlocking the Secrets of the Last Supper by Brant Pitre (Doubleday, 2011). Pitre also credits The New Testament and Rabbinic Judaism by David Daube (Hendrickson, 1995, original 1956).