Summary: The Communion, the Eucharist, the Lord’s Table -- whatever we name it -- is, by the Lord’s teaching in John 6, the seat and center of our existential experience of intimacy with Christ.
Fourth Sunday in Lent
“Eating the Bread of Heaven”
Jesus’ feeding the 5,000 is understandably one of the most preached passages from John’s gospel. I am sure you have heard a great many sermons on it. I know I have. I’ve even preached a few of them. I would guess, however, that you have heard far FEWER sermons on the rest of John chapter six. This is the gospel which you heard read a short while ago. It is, for many Protestants, one of the most difficult portions of the Bible, for in ordinary Protestant ears – at least in American Protestant ears – it sounds so very Roman Catholic.
There is a huge irony in this state of affairs, especially for evangelical Protestants. By and large, evangelicals have championed idea that teaching the Bible is an avenue superior to all others for attaining salvation and fellowship with Christ. And, yet, this passage – which contains the express teaching of our Savior Himself, teaching that is manifestly about salvation and a believer’s fellowship with God in Christ – this passage is, as I have said, a portion of Scripture which Protestant teachers and preachers tend to shy away from. And, when they do engage this passage in the ordinary Protestant pulpit, the sermon often becomes an exercise in what I call “unpreaching” the Bible – that is, explaining why the passage under consideration is NOT ACTUALLY saying what is so obviously plain and simple on its surface.
What, then, is so simple and obvious on the surface of Jesus teaching here? It is simply this: Jesus offers himself to us as food, and that by receiving him in this way, we attain a communion with Him and through Him with God the Father that amounts to eternal life.
“54Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” If that is not talking about eternal salvation, what is it talking about? “56He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him.” If that is not talking about communion with Christ, what is it talking about?
Many found these words hard to hear. John tells us that they grumbled and disputed. And in verse 66 John notes that “66From that time many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more.” What an irony, and what a tragedy – it is those who called themselves Jesus’ disciples who walk away, and they stayed away.
There is, in our day, a well-settled walking away from Christ among American Protestant communions. It was recently described by Dr. S. M. Hutchens in an analysis of the current worship wars coursing through evangelicalism today. [http://www.touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=17-09-018-v]. I want to quote a few points from Dr. Hutchens’ analysis and expand on them briefly.
Dr. Hutchens first noted a classical New Testament text for what it is that the Church is supposed to be doing when it gathers together, and that text is Acts 2:42, where we read that the church devoted itself to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to the prayers. Dr. Hutchens then writes this:
“The central problem here is that the ‘breaking of bread’—the communion meal that is the unique and necessary Christian addition to the synagogue service—has, doubtless in reaction to “Catholicism,” been downgraded and suppressed in the Evangelical [worship] service. Fermented wine, like bread a symbol of death and resurrection, has been replaced by a modern innovation with grape juice as though this were a perfectly natural part of biblical religion. The words of the Lord: “This is my body . . .” have likewise been suppressed, either by not repeating them, or by effectively denying them with some prayer or preachment that the bread and wine are ‘only symbolic,’ meaning that the words of the Lord, repeated by St. Paul, are to be taken only figuratively, so that anyone who believes that what they are taking is in some sense ‘really’ the body and blood of the Lord is in error.”
And, then, Dr. Hutchens puts his finger on what results from this downgrading of the Lord’s Table. He writes:
“An inevitable result of this denial is the distortion of the natural shape of Christian worship. … the very seat of Communion as instituted by the Lord himself has been removed. It is therefore little wonder that the Evangelical service should always be in search of ‘something deeper,’ something more profound and engaging, something that warms the heart and brings one into a more intimate relation with the Lord.”
This ‘something deeper,’ you see, is what gets lost when the deepest intimacy between our Savior and ourselves is diminished or, effectively, eliminated. And, because this “something deeper” is missing when the Communion is downgraded or otherwise explained away, it is natural and reasonable for evangelical Christians to sense this loss, even if they do not understand what is missing and why it is missing.