“Feeding on the Flesh and Blood of Christ”
October 13, 2019
Faith Presbyterian Church – Morning Service
Our Scripture reading this morning is from The Gospel of John, chapter six, verses forty-seven through fifty-nine. As with our text last Lord’s Day, Jesus continues here in his conversation with the crowd of over five thousand that he has miraculously fed. They saw the miraculous sign that he did, they followed him across the sea, he has told him who he is, and they have still resisted him and refused to believe in him. And in the midst of that conversation, we come to verse forty-seven.
Please do listen carefully, for this is God’s word for us this morning.
6:47 [Jesus said to them,] “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life. 48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50 This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
52 The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 53 So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. 55 For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. 56 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. 57 As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” 59 Jesus said these things in the synagogue, as he taught at Capernaum.
This is the word of the Lord. (Thanks be to God.)
“All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord endures forever.” [1 Peter 1:24-25]
Let’s pray …
Lord, we come to your word hungry and in need of you – whether we realize it or not.
We trust what you say here, that you are true food and true drink to us – you are the bread of life that came down from heaven.
We are gathered before you.
Feed us now, we ask.
In Jesus’s name. Amen
Our text this morning is in some ways a strange one. Jesus uses strikingly physical language in ways that might confuse us or make us uncomfortable – and which certainly confused the crowd and made them uncomfortable.
And while commentators might debate what is emphasized in this text, one thing that emerges as we look at it more closely, is that part of what makes this passage so complex is that there are multiple layers to it. More specifically, in these verses Jesus is speaking both figuratively and sacramentally. On one level he is speaking of the heart of the believer’s relationship with him. On another level, it seems obvious that any Christian in any period of church history who comes to this text would be made to think in some way of the sacrament of communion.
And so, what we see is that in this passage Jesus is speaking of both. Jesus is speaking in metaphor and he is speaking of the Lord’s Supper. The two overlap, and we can best understand his words if we consider them together.
Jesus here speaks of his life and work, and also of the sacrament of Holy Communion, that he gave to his Church. And as we consider this text with both of those in mind, we can see how Christ gives eternal life to those who trust in him.
How then should we approach this passage?
Well, there are a number of angles by which we could come at this text. But since there is a sacramental aspect to it – a reference to the Lord’s Supper – I’d like this morning to come at it through the lens of the sacrament. Specifically, I’d like to come at it through the lens of what a sacrament is, and how it relates to the metaphor Jesus is using in John six. And as we do that, I think we will get a fuller picture of what is going on in this passage.
The Westminster Shorter Catechism (part of our denominational standards) defines a sacrament like this – it says: “A sacrament is a holy ordinance instituted by Christ; wherein, by sensible signs, Christ and the benefits of the new covenant, are represented, sealed, and applied to believers.” [WSC #92]
The Westminster Shorter Catechism tells us then that a sacrament like the Lord’s Supper is an act – a ritual – instituted by Jesus Christ. It tells us that it uses tangible things – bread and wine in the case of the Lord’s Supper, and water in the case of baptism. It tells us that the sacraments are a link, a connection, between Christ and the benefits of Christ’s saving work on the one side, and God’s people on the other side. And so, these rituals connect Christ and Christ’s people. And it tells us that that connection takes three forms – that a sacrament “represents, seals, and applies” Christ and his work to believers.
And so, the Lord’s Supper is a ritual instituted by Christ that is meant to “represent, seal, and apply” Christ and his work to God’s people.
As we look at John 6:47-59, I want us to consider it through those three categories. So, we will consider three things this morning:
First, the Lord’s Supper represents Christ and his work to believers. Second, the Lord’s Supper applies Christ and his work to believers. And third, the Lord’s Supper seals Christ and his work to believers. Represents, applies, and seals.
So, first: The Lord’s Supper represents Christ and his work to believers.
Or, another common way to put this is that the Lord’s Supper is a sign.
Signs point to something else. Signs are not the thing they point to, but they represent it.
All of language is, in this sense, a system of signs – sounds or letters that point to other things. A father can say to his child “I love you.” The words are signs. The words are not the father’s love itself – they’re just sounds. But those sounds have symbolic meaning. And so, the sounds are intended to point the child to the internal state of the father. The father has love and affection for his child. He says the words “I love you.” Assuming the child speaks the same language as the father, those sounds serve as signs to the child, and point the child to the father’s internal love and affection for her. This is how signs work – signs represent something else.
And the fact that there is a representative element can be seen throughout this text. And the representative key is given if we compare verse forty of John six with verse fifty-four. Back in verse forty Jesus said, “everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” Then in verse fifty-four he says, “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” Jesus’s language in this passage is more than a metaphor – but it is not less than a metaphor. And the metaphor is made clear in comparing these two verses. Feeding on Jesus’s flesh and drinking his blood is a sign – it represents, it points to, the spiritual reality of looking to Jesus and believing in him. It is a metaphorical sign in Jesus’s discourse … and it is also a visible and enacted sign in the Lord’s Supper itself.
In both the Lord’s Supper, and in our text, the idea of feeding on the body and blood of Christ point us to a spiritual reality.
With that in mind we might consider again verse fifty-three through fifty-seven: “So Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, 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 feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on 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 whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me.’”
Let’s start by noticing two things: First, Jesus says that unless we feed on him, we have no life in us. Second, Jesus says that if we do feed on him, we will have true life both now and for eternity.
Here Jesus tells us that he is the source of true life, and if we are not drawing our spiritual life from him, then we do not have true spiritual life.
And that claim should confront us with a reality. It’s the reality he meant to confront the crowd he was speaking to with, and it’s the reality we need to face as well. That claim pushes us to acknowledge that we often look to alternatives to Christ to feed our soul. Though Jesus tells us that unless our souls feed on him we will not have true life, still, we look to other things to nourish our souls. And they do not satisfy. They do not give us life.
And this is a pattern that the Bible points to again and again. We know that our souls are hungry. They desire. They are not self-sustaining, and they cannot find satisfaction in themselves. Our souls hunger. They need to be fed. But each one of us, to varying degrees, tries to fill our soul with things that are not true food to it, and which cannot satisfy and give true life.
Sometimes we look to respectable things: We try to feed our souls on worldly success, or achievement, or esteem, or power: a successful career, a good-looking family, an exceptional report card or transcript, a public achievement. We try to feed our souls on worldly success … but as enticing as those things often appear, they never seem to satisfy. When we get them, there is nothing to sink our teeth into – there are no true spiritual calories there.
And so, at other times we turn to less respectable places to feed our soul. We look to pleasure, to comfort, to sloth, to sex, to pornography, to misusing alcohol or drugs, or to something else. And we go to those things hoping that they will feed our souls … but as enticing as they may seem, they too only give fleeting satisfaction … and when they are done our soul’s hunger seems to grow rather than abate.
And maybe for you, you then turn to some other spiritual alternative – some sense of spiritual purpose or sense of god or the universe. And you pursue it and it might require a lot from you, or it might accept you as you are – but in any case, it promises so much … and yet as you either try to strive towards it or rest in it, you again find no satisfying food for your soul. What looked so promising has no spiritual nutrients to offer you.
We look to many things to try to feed our souls. But in the end, none of them satisfy – none of them give life.
And it is into that reality that Jesus tells us that he is true food and true drink for us. It is into that struggle that Jesus tells us that he is the spiritual food that satisfies, he is the spiritual food that gives true life – both now and for eternity.
Our souls were made to find their life in Christ – they were made to feed on him, to draw their life from him. And until we come to him to be fed, our souls are famished – they are consumed with hunger. But Christ is true food for our souls. He can satisfy. He can give our souls life.
Of course, we never feed on him perfectly in this life. Even faithful Christians fail to come to him to be fed as often as they should, and they frequently try to find satisfaction elsewhere. And so perfect satisfaction is not found in this life. Nonetheless, when we come to Christ, we find the spiritual calories and the spiritual nourishment that we need. He is true food and true drink to us.
And he is true food for us both in his being and in his works. Christ is our Maker, and so it is in union with him that we find our spiritual home – he made us for himself.
But in addition to that, we are fed by the works of Christ. He died for us – his body broken, his blood shed – so that we might be forgiven. And as we come to him, we are fed, forgiven, and healed by his work for us.
The first thing we see is that the food and drink described in John six – the food and drink we partake of in the Lord’s Supper – they are signs. They are representations. They point us to a spiritual reality: that Christ and his works are the source of true life and satisfaction for our souls.
That’s the first thing we see: The food and drink described here, and the food and drink received in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, are signs whereby Christ and his work are represented to believers – to all who trust in Christ.
Second, we see here that the Lord’s Supper applies Christ and his work to believers.
And that word can be kind of startling to most Protestants. But there it is in the very protestant Westminster Shorter Catechism: Sacraments apply Christ and his work to believers. That means they actually do something. But how? How do they do something?
And as we get into this point, we come to the difference between a sign and a sacrament. Signs merely point to the thing they symbolize. They are not the thing itself. Sacraments are different. “Sacraments actually participate in the mysterious reality to which they point” – the sacrament in some sense really makes the thing it symbolizes truly present. [Boersma, 22-23]
An analogy often used by Dr. Jack Collins may help.
It might help us to think about the difference between the words “I love you” and a hug.
As we said before, a father can say the words “I love you” to his child, and the words are sounds that serve as signs to represent his internal feelings. The words are heard by the child, and in the mind of the child the words are deciphered, the child understands what the father is saying about the father’s internal state, and he knows his father loves him. He reads the symbols. That is how words, how signs, work.
But a hug works differently. When a father hugs his child, the child, while receiving the hug, does not step back mentally and think: “Ah! My father has placed his arms around me, and is gently squeezing me. That is a symbolic representation of the fact that he has affection for me. Now I know that my father loves me!”
That’s not the primary way a hug works. A hug is in some ways a sign – it does represent affection. But it also makes affection present in a way that words do not. It both expresses and generates affection. Somehow the embrace of a hug between father and child both expresses and creates the very affection it symbolizes.
Now in some ways words can do this too … but with words the symbol and its mental interpretation are primary. And that’s not true in the same way with a hug. A hug has a sort of sacramental quality when it comes to affection.
And maybe the best way to show the difference is this: I’ll bet that you could not recreate the same kind of communication of affection with words that you can with a hug. A hug cannot be reduced to just symbols. There is something over and above the symbolic nature in it. In some way, that is a bit mysterious if you really think about it, a hug both expresses, and generates, and so makes present the very affection it points to.
And there are other expressions of love and affection that work in similar ways. In fact, we could stretch out a continuum of other acts or rituals in relationships that do the same thing.
Think, for example, of a handshake in the realm of acquaintances. A handshake connects two people by physically connecting them. It both expresses something and generates it – a handshake participates in the very greeting it represents, in ways that the words “Hello” do not do on their own.
Or, in the realm of the family, think of a mother nursing her child. The act of nursing serves the utilitarian function of feeding the baby, it is also a picture of the life-giving role a mother plays in the life of her child, but in addition to that it not only pictures the love and affection between mother and baby, but it grows that love and intimacy – it generates it in some sense, and therefore makes it present.
Or, in the realm of marriage, think of the role that sexual union plays. It is on one level a symbolic picture of two people becoming one flesh. But it’s not just a symbol. The act itself, in some sense, makes husband and wife one flesh. It connects them physically, emotionally, and spiritually, so that in some mysterious way, it applies, and makes present, the very union it represents.
In each of these areas of human life we get something similar to how God applies Christ and Christ’s work to believers through the sacraments. The Lord’s Supper is a picture. But it’s not only a picture. It doesn’t just point to what it symbolizes, but in some mysterious way it makes it truly present. It makes present the very thing it symbolizes – it applies the very thing it represents. Jesus’s lifegiving being and work – his body broken for you and his blood shed for you – are not just represented in the Lord’s Supper, but they are truly present to you.
And that’s why Jesus can speak as he does throughout our text. It’s why he can call on his followers, in such physical language, to feed on his flesh and drink his blood. It’s why he can draw such a close connection between his body and blood and literal food and drink. It’s how Jesus can be, at the same time, both highly metaphorical, and highly literal and physical.
Jesus’s lifegiving being and work – his body and blood – are truly present to you in the Lord’s Supper … and yet the bread and wine are not magically changed. And again, this is the same sort of thing we see in those other parallels from human life.
A hug makes love and affection present … but the embrace is not the affection itself. And sexual union creates a deep and mysterious bond … but the mechanics of the act is not itself the mysterious bond. These acts make the thing they symbolize present … but they do not magically become the thing they make present.
And so, with the sacraments. In the Lord’s Supper the bread and wine remain bread and wine. And yet, in some mysterious way they not only point to, but they truly make present to all believers, the lifegiving body and blood of Christ our Lord – his being and his work.
Sacraments make the thing they symbolize present without magically becoming the thing they symbolize. But even so, they still do it in an objective way. And those same human examples we’ve mentioned can help us understand their objectivity as well. As with the sacraments, there is something objective in how these sorts of relational acts work.
And so, while some hugs might be especially emotionally charged, others are routine – almost ritualistic. There is a subjective emotional difference between them … but in both cases they still accomplish something. An emotional hug between a parent and a child may have deep significance. But in the end, it’s the thousands of routine everyday hugs that do the most to form the deep relational bond between them.
And the same is true of sexual union in marriage. Sometimes it is extra special. But it is not the minority of special unions that form the deep bond between husband and wife over time, but the many ordinary ones.
In the same way, Christ’s being and his work are really applied to believers, are really connected to believers, in an objective sense every time they receive the sacraments.
The Lord’s Supper applies Christ and his work to believers.
And this is important for us to consider, because many of us, in one way or another, don’t really believe that God would work that way through the sacraments. Many of us don’t really believe that Christ and his work are truly and objectively made present to believers every time they receive the Lord’s Supper. And those objections might come in the form of intellectualism, the form of emotionalism, or the form of spiritualism.
The intellectualist objection acts as if we only grow close to God through our minds. And anything that is not mentally focused is viewed as suspect. Such people like to study God, to study their faith, and study theology and philosophy. And they see that through study they can better know God. And that can be true. God calls us to love him with all our mind. But that’s not the only way he calls us to love him. And it’s not the only way God draws close to his people. And it’s important to realize that because if we try to draw close to God only through study and the intellect, then we are prone to treating God as an object to be studied, a thing to be researched, rather than a person (or more accurately, three persons). And the Lord’s Supper confronts the intellectualist head-on, because it asserts that Christ is drawing close, even as no new information is being presented. Christ at work, even as no new concepts are being taught. In the Lord’s Supper, Christ is made present to the believer, whether they are thinking deep thoughts or not. Just like in a hug, the love of Christ is made present regardless of how hard we are thinking about it. And that tells us something about God: He is to be sought with the intellect – but not only with the intellect.
The common emotional objection is similar, but it focuses more on feelings than on thoughts. For this person, God is to be sought through the emotions. There are times and places and situations where God’s presence seems especially felt – and for the person who is especially tuned in to those times, the reality of those experiences can quickly shift into a belief – spoken or unspoken – that God is only really at work, he is only really close, when we feel his closeness.
And the Lord’s supper confronts the emotionally-focused individual, because it asserts that Christ is drawing close, even when it is not an emotionally charged moment. Christ is at work, even when no unusual feelings are being felt. In the Lord’s Supper, Christ is made present to the believer, whether they feel it or not. Like the thousands of ordinary embraces that form a bond in an important relationship, the love of Christ is made present regardless of whether it feels like a special moment to the believer or not. And that tells us something about God: He is to be sought with our emotions – but not only with our emotions.
Finally, we come to the spiritual objection, which says that God can’t really work through such crude physical things as bread and wine – he is purer than that, he is loftier than that, he is a Spirit and he works through spiritual things. The spiritual objection finds it primitive to think that God would be made present to people through bread and wine.
C.S. Lewis addresses this objection in his book Mere Christianity. He draws attention to the fact that in Christianity “new life is spread not only by purely mental acts like belief, but by bodily acts like baptism and Holy Communion.” And while many are uncomfortable with that, Lewis points out that “There is no good trying to be more spiritual than God. God never meant man to be a purely spiritual creature. That’s why He uses material things like bread and wine to put the new life into us. We may think this rather crude and unspiritual. God does not: He invented eating. He likes matter. He invented it.” [Lewis, 65]
And so, again, the Lord’s Supper confronts the individual who makes this spiritual objection, because it asserts that Christ draws close to his people through matter, in ways that he doesn’t when that matter is absent. Christ is at work through ordinary bread and wine in ways that he is not present in even the deepest contemplation. In the Lord’s Supper, Christ is made especially present to the believer, whether it seems spiritual to them or not. Like a hug, something is made present through a very physical act that could not be fully captured without that physical element. And that tells us something about God: He is to be sought with our souls – but not only with our souls. God loves the physical world he made, and he loves physical creatures – and so he pursues us as whole persons: body and soul.
In all these ways and more, the Lord’s Supper applies Christ and his work to believers.
So … the Lord’s Supper represents Christ and his work to believers, it applies Christ and his work to believers …
Third and finally, the Lord’s Supper seals Christ and his work to believers.
It seals Christ and his work to believers.
Now … what does that mean? How is a seal different from a sign?
The use of both words comes from the Apostle Paul in Romans 4:11, and John Murray points out that the two words do indicate two different things. “a sign,” he writes, “points to the existence of that which it signifies, whereas a seal authenticates, confirms, and guarantees the genuineness of that which is signified […] it adds the thought of authentication” and it therefore is meant to assure the recipient. [Murray, 138]
And once again, there are many reflections of this in our human lives. John Calvin, trained earlier in life in the field of law, points to how seals are reflected in the legal world. The seal of a government official on a legal document does not add any new information to it, but it does confirm the words of the documents, assuring those who see it that the words are true. [Calvin, Institutes, IV.14.5]
For a more personal seal, we might think of wedding rings. The content of the marriage promise is made in the vows. The rings add no new content. And yet, the rings are meant to be a token of the promise made, and a personalization of the promise made. The wife places a ring on her new husband to confirm that it is him, it is that specific man she is promising herself to for the rest of her life, and the husband can look to that ring in the years and decades ahead as a reminder and an assurance of her promise to him specifically.
Like a government seal, a personal signature, or a wedding ring, a seal is a token to confirm one’s word, and a personalization of the promise made … and its end, its purpose, is to give assurance to the one who receives it.
And so it is with the Lord’s Supper. It seals Christ and his work to believers, assuring them of the truth and reality of Christ’s love for them and his work for them. [Letham, The Westminster Assembly, 348]
And so, as a seal, the Lord’s Supper is to give us assurance. But how does that work, exactly?
I think that theologian Peter Leithart explains it in a pretty helpful way. He writes:
“The Bible in many ways promises that God will retain those who are His own. Jesus assures His disciples that no one can snatch them from His hands […]. Paul’s letters breathe out a triumphant air: Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus […]. The God who began a good work will, Paul says, bring it to complete maturity in the day of Jesus […].
“But to whom are these promises addressed? How can I know that they are addressed to me? Simple quotation of words of assurance from the New Testament does not solve the existential problem of assurance for an individual. Paul says, ‘Nothing shall separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus,’ but how do I know that ‘us’ includes ‘me’? Paul doesn’t appear to tell me. He doesn’t say, ‘Nothing shall separate Peter J. Leithart from the love of God in Christ Jesus.’ How can I know that I’m included in that ‘us’?” [Leithart, 100]
After going over some possibilities, Leithart then focuses on one answer.
“How can I know that my name belongs within the ‘us’ when Paul says, ‘Nothing can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus’?” Leithart asks, “How can I know that the Spirit is speaking to me?
“Easy,” he says, “I heard Him.
“God addressed this promise to me in my baptism; He addresses this promise to me every week when I hear the minister pronounce the absolution of sins; He renews this promise to me, out loud, every time I hear a sermon; He addresses this promise to me every week when I come to his table to eat and drink in His presence. Through these the Spirit woos me, hugs me, encourages me, kisses me, feeds me, visits me, clothes me, challenges me, rebukes me, convicts me, changes me. There is no doubt that the Spirit is addressing me.
“At the table, He says, ‘Here I offer you life through the Son.’ I believe, and come to the table expecting to be renewed. Jesus says, ‘Come over for dinner, and I’ll feed Myself to you for your life.’ I trust Him, so I come to His table as often as I can, trusting that all my hungers will be satisfied as I feast with God’s people on the bread of life.” [Leithart, 103-104]
Some are tempted to worry that Christ’s love and work is for others … but not for them. And every Lord’s Day the Lord’s Supper is meant to be a seal, a token, a confirmation, that Christ’s love and work are for you personally. Every week you are to come forward, and receiving the bread you hear the minister say, “The body of Christ, given for you.” You walk a bit further and receive the cup as the elder says to you, “The blood of Christ, shed for you.” And as you receive those in faith, you should receive the assurance that Christ’s gospel is for you – that it is for you that Christ bled and died – and he will lose none whom the Father has given to him.
The Lord’s Supper seals Christ and his work to believers, giving them assurance.
The Lord’s Supper represents Christ and his work to believers, the Lord’s Supper applies Christ and his work to believers, and the Lord’s Supper seals Christ and his work to believers.
All of those truths underlie our passage this morning.
And as we look at our text and reflect on the sacrament, there is a lot to consider and to contemplate.
But in the midst of that all, we need to keep our eye on what is at the heart.
John six points us to the truth that Christ is the one we need – that Christ is the only one who can satisfy our souls and give us true life.
John six points us to the truth that Christ loves us so much that he not only obtained our salvation, but he actively applies it to us. Through his word, through his Spirit, and in a special way through the Lord’s Supper, Christ gives himself to his people – he reaches out to us, embraces us, and truly feeds us with himself.
John six points us to the truth that Christ does all this for us. For you. It’s not just abstract. It’s not just theoretical. It’s not just other people. Christ offers himself, every Lord’s Day, to you specifically. And as you receive him by faith, you should be assured of his love for you.
Christ, our Lord, loves us. He has given himself for us, and his flesh is true food, and his blood is true drink. He is the living bread that came down from heaven. He loves you and has given himself for you, that you might be with him forever.
Seek the life and the satisfaction of your soul in him.
This sermon draws on material from:
Boersma, Hans. Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011.
Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Translated by Ford Lewis Battles. Edited by John T. McNeill. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1960.
Carson, D.A. The Gospel According to John. PNTC. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991.
Leithart, Peter J. The Baptized Body. Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2007.
Letham, Robert. The Lord’s Supper. Philipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2001.
Letham, Robert. The Westminster Assembly. Philipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2009.
Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity. New York, NY: Touchstone, 1943 (1996 Edition)
Murray, John. The Epistle to the Romans. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1968.