The Words of Eternal Life

Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.

48 (Jesus said) ” I am the bread of life. 49 Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50 This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die. 51 I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh….56 He who eats 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 he who eats me will live because of me.” [58 (Jesus) is the bread, which came down from heaven. (This bread) is not like the manna the generation of Moses ate (in the wilderness) and died; those who eat (this true bread of heaven) will live forever. ]* John 6

In John 6, I think it is beyond doubt that Jesus is talking about the way that he shares himself with us in the Holy Communion. The author of the 4th Gospel whom we call “John” assumes that his readers know about the Holy Communion. He assumes that we know about either from the practice of the churches we attend where it has been common from the earliest Christian times to the present day, or from one of the other gospels, or from Paul (1st Corinthians 11). Yet John himself never mentions it. In John’s version of the Last Supper there is a foot-washing, but there is no Holy Communion. You can look for it until the cows come home; but it is not there. In the 4th Gospel the next mention of blood is when the soldier pierces the side of the crucified Christ and blood and water issues forth, biologically correct, theologically more correct, symbolizing the Holy Communion and Baptism.

Why does John leave something so important out? There are at least three reasons. First, because most of his readers are insiders; they already know the story of Jesus. Second, because it does not fit John’s time heavily weighted theological time frame; but this is another, longer sermon. Third, because John is a masterful writer, who was inspired by the Holy Spirit to set down the story of Jesus in such a way as to draw his readers into the story, making us virtual contemporaries of Jesus.

Some of you will say, “Wait a minute. How can that be, Jesus lived in the 1st century, we in the 21st?”

That is true, yet in the context of the 4th Gospel, and in the context of the Christian faith, we know that Jesus has Risen from the dead, and is “in the bosom of the father,” (John 1:18; John 20, John 21) and through the power of the Holy Spirit, (“another comforter/counselor,” John 1 4:16) he continues to be with us, and always will. In this sense Jesus is already our contemporary.

Now one of the ways that John draws us into the presence of Jesus is through a literary device known as “dramatic irony. “ In dramatic irony those who read the story, or hear it read, realize that they know more about what is happening in the story at a particular juncture in the story, than the characters in the story themselves. Let me demonstrate.

In John 6 there are three groups of characters who are a part of the story with Jesus.

  1. The first group of characters in the story consists of those disciples who are about to leave him. They were in the synagogue in Capernaum, and heard Jesus say, “I am the bread of life.” They heard him speak of “eating his flesh and drinking his blood, “ and they were offended by his words. The whole thing sounded a lot like cannibalism, and as good Jews who could not even touch a dead body without becoming “unclean,” and being isolated from the community until they were ritually purified (Number 9:13, etc.), they could not abide even the thought of cannibalism. Therefore they “murmured” against Jesus, just as the Children of Israel once murmured against Moses.
  2. The second group of characters in the story consists of Simon Peter and “the twelve.” At this juncture they, too, are almost completely clueless about what Jesus is really talking about, and it will be several years before fully understand it. For according to the chronology of the 4th Gospel this incident takes place a full year before the Last Supper that Jesus at with his disciples which, according to (Matthew, Mark, Luke and Paul) was the occasion when Jesus instituted the Holy Communion. However, unlike the first group, the twelve do not murmur. They do not murmur because they have seen more of God in Jesus than they thought possible on this earth, and they trust Jesus, and they are prepared to go forward with him, in trust, for as long as he will allow it.
  3. The third group of actors in this story consists of all those who read this text, or hear it read, and know immediately what Jesus is talking about, because we know about the Lord’s Supper, or the Holy Communion from other sources. For instance, when we read this story, and hear about eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Jesus, we remember that just before his arrest Jesus ate a final meal with his disciples. And we know how Jesus took the bread, and blessed it, and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, “This is my body which is given for you.” And how, after supper, Jesus took the cup, and shared it with his disciples saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood which is shed for you and for many; for the remission of sins, this do in remembrance of me.” We know that Jesus is talking about the Holy Communion.

Still, the graphic nature of this passage raises the question of how Jesus is present in the Holy Communion. It is a memorial, a simple remembering? Or is it what the Lutherans call consubstantiation with the body and blood of Jesus spiritually in around and through the elements? Or is it what the Catholics call transubstantiation wherein the bread and wine become the body and blood of Jesus, though the accidents remain the same? There are other ideas about the Holy Communion. We Moravian say that Jesus is present like a 300 lb. canary—-any way he wants to be!

Jesus addresses all three groups, but most especially this third group to which we belong—because it is the living contemporary Christ who speaks. Jesus says, “No man can come to me unless the Father draws him.” And that explains why some people have rejected Jesus, and some people have accepted Jesus, and it reminds us that faith itself is a miracle, and “the gift of God.” This is why we Moravian pray:

“By our own reason and strength we cannot believe in the LORD Jesus Christ or come to him, but You, O, God, call us and enlighten us by your grace.”

It is after this incident in the synagogue that many of those who followed Jesus drew back and “no longer went about with him.”

And it is after this epic desertion that Jesus spoke to the twelve and to us, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered for all believers in all times when he said:

68 “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life; 69 and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.”

Now we have come down to the nitty-gritty, the twelve came to Jesus because they had seen God at work in him. And they stuck with Jesus because Jesus partially opened for them the curtain that separates this life from the next. He alone had “the Words of Eternal Life.”

Let us spend a few minutes talking about “Eternal Life.”

Human beings have long believed in life after death. William Jennings Bryan said that the best evidence for life after death is the blazing dissatisfaction of the human race with any other solution. We human beings view ourselves as so important in the scheme of things that we cannot imagine not being. Consider these few examples of belief in eternal life.

The Ancient Greeks spoke of a paradise that they called Elysium. Elysium was “the isle of the blest,” where heroes and righteous men relaxed on mossy beds by crystals streams. They believed that the residents of Elysium are forever protected from all the woes of this life including, hunger, thirst, pain, suffering, and death. Even the great philosopher, Socrates, retained an optimistic view of life after death. In fact, just before he drank the hemlock that took his life, Socrates told his companions how he was looking forward to his soon to take place conversations with those great figures of history who had lived and died before he was born. .

Or what about the idea of reincarnation? Plato wrote of reincarnation, and the idea of reincarnation has entered into our popular culture through personalities like General George Patton, who believed that he had been a legionnaire with Julius Caesar in Northern Gaul, and an English knight during the Hundred Year’s War. And, of course, the actress Shirley McLain, who says that she was once “a harem girl in Turkey,” and “a Muslim gipsy.” Even Mitch Miller taught us to sing, “Be kind to your friends in the swamp, for that duck may be somebody’s mother.” Arguably, even some minor characters in the New Testament seem to believe in incarnation, though it is certainly never countenanced. (Mark 8:28 etc.)

That said, when we think of reincarnation, most of us think of the Hindu faith. Hindus believe in karma. People make their own karma, good or bad. They also believe that when someone dies, they are reborn into a new life. The nature of that new life is determined by how well they live the present life. In India there is a rigorous caste system. It is hard to move up in the world. According to the doctrine of reincarnation people of the lower caste, even untouchables, who live a good life may be reborn to a higher caste. Of course, it can work the other way, too. People of a higher caste who live selfish lives may be reborn as untouchables, or worse. Today many people romanticize the idea of incarnation, but Hindus who have lived under the tyranny of it for many centuries do not. The goal of the devout Hindu is “Nirvana, “which is “the state of the snuffed out candle.” The devout Hindu wants only to get off the wheel of human suffering.

And what about the ancestors of Jesus, the Jews? There were deep differences of opinion about life after death among the Jews. We know from the New Testament that the Sadducees did not believe in life after death. They did not make a division of the body, mind, and spirit or soul, it was all  one piece. They believed that the death of the body was the death of the person. Some have suggested that, like many Reformed Jews of our day, their idea of heaven was a happy, prosperous life surrounded by family and community and a good Sabbath Rest. They enjoyed their heaven right now, on earth, one day out of seven. Other devout Jews, like the Pharisees, were more optimistic. Like the Sadducees the Pharisees believed that when the body was dead, a person was dead. However, they also believed that, God’s justice demanded that at the end of history as we know it, there would be a Great Resurrection Day, and God would raise the righteous dead to eternal life and the unrighteous to judgment.

A great many 1st century Jews were comforted by this doctrine of resurrection, and have been ever after. In his book, This Is My God, the famous novelist Herman Wouk talks about the faith of his grandfather, a Rabbi. He said that the Rabbi believed so much in the power and goodness of God that he found it easier to believe that God would raised the dead than to believe that God would forget him. I believe that David was getting at the same thing when he said:, “(O, Lord) You will not abandon my soul to Hades, or allow your holy one to see corruption.” (Psalm 16:10)

You and I tend to think that the doctrine of resurrection and eternal life permeates every part of the Bible. It does not. In John 5:39 Jesus said to the Jews, “You search the scriptures because in them you think you will find Eternal Life, and they are they which testify of me.” In other words, “The idea of eternal life is there, in the scriptures, but you have to search for it, and when you find it, it speaks of me.”

I wonder which passages Jesus was talking about that spoke of him? Certainly he was speaking of certain psalms, and passages from the prophets, and of Job 19:25 wherein Job confesses, “I know that my redeemer lives, and without my flesh I will see him.” These texts contained powerful promises; but these isolated hints of life after death remained disconnected, and disjointed, and not easily understood, until that time when Jesus came speaking “the words of eternal life.”

In the 4th gospel the phrase “eternal life” appears 17 times, often on the lips of Jesus. The word “life” appears an additional 30 times by itself, and it often refers to eternal life.

John 3:14-15 declares:

14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

You know John 3:16:

16 For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

And some of you will remember John 3:36:

36 He who believes in the Son has eternal life; he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God rests upon him.

And what about John 11. Lazarus has died, and Jesus has just arrived at the house of his sisters, Mary and Martha. Mary is busy elsewhere, and Jesus talks with Martha. Martha says to him, “If you had been here my brother would not have died.”

Jesus responds saying, “Your brother will rise again.”

And Martha says, “I know he will he rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”

And Jesus says:

“25 I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, 26 and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26)

This question, “Do you believe this?” is an extension of the question in John 6, “Do you also wish to go away?” Disciples are those who do not go away, and come to believe that Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life. Not long after this conversation, Jesus he stood before the tomb of Lazarus, and wept, and cried out, “Lazarus come forth.” You know that story, and you know the rest of The Story. You know that Jesus not only brought the words of eternal life, and performed miracles, and raised the dead. Like the author of the 4th Gospel, you know that Jesus is Word of God who became flesh and lived among us that he might demonstrate that had the power to lay down his life and the power to take it up again. (John 10:17)

Dietrich Bonheoffer says that apart from Jesus Christ we live in the anxious middle: We don’t know where we have come from, and we don’t know where we are going. We can see the womb at one end of life, and the tomb at the other, but that is all. We cannot see beyond either. In Christ, we see that we have come from God, and we are going to God. And we hear it, too, for it is the Risen Christ, our contemporary, who says to us as he once said to his disciples:

1 Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me. 2 In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3 And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.
John 14:1-3

Finis
Notes:

* Translation my own; amplified within the context of the passage. Please remember that the original manuscripts give translators a few very unique problems. They contain a sea of letters running together with no punctuation, and no division between words, sentences or paragraphs. Sometimes, especially in John’s gospel, it is hard to distinguish between when Jesus is speaking and when the author of the gospel is speaking. When Jesus uses the 1st person, we know it is him; however, he sometimes speaks of himself in the third person, as does, of course, the author of the gospel. In verse 58 I have chosen to translate as if the author of the gospel is speaking, though there are certainly reasons why the RSV translates as if Jesus were speaking, including the fact that the movement between Jesus speaking of himself in the first person and the third vacillates back and forth.

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