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07.23.17 Eating in the Presence of Christ Luke 24:36-53 Sermon Summary

by on July 24, 2017

The interpretation of one verse continues to reform the church within the Reformed branch of Christianity. Eventually, one hopes, it will reform the whole church.

Summary Points

  • Zwingli’s interpretation of the sacraments
  • John 6:63 in context
  • Calvin’s reading of John 6
  • How God overcomes our weakness
  • The role of the sacraments in the life of faith

One verse, embedded in a very long and complex discussion between Jesus and crowds of disciples, set the course of sacramental theology for the Reformed wing of the Protestant Reformation. It is John 6:63, when Jesus says, “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.”

Ulrich Zwingli, the reformer of Zurich who changed his mind about infant baptism, took this verse along with this thoughts about baptism, and denied the presence of Christ at the Lord’s Table. In his debate with Luther, it was this verse that convinced Zwingli that “is,” in the phrase, “This is my body,” means “represents.” Review his full argument here, but this verse sealed the deal for Zwingli, since it proves that the flesh doesn’t matter. The Spirit matters, and the Word matters, and our response, i.e., faith matters. But not the flesh.

This was Zwingli’s position against both Roman Catholicism and against Luther. And it would eventually lead to non-sacramental Christian fellowships like the Quakers and the Salvation Army. And it would contribute to the theology of the Anabaptists (and today’s Baptists) who observe the sacramental rituals but call them “ordinances,” since they are obedient responses to Christ’s command.

The context of John chapter six is that Jesus has just fed 5000 people with some loaves and fish. Now crowds are growing and following him, and Jesus offers the “Bread of Life” discourse to thin them out. We’re told that many disciples abandon Jesus over this teaching. To them, it smacks of “crass materialism”: “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” they ask.

Is John 6 talking about the Lord’s Supper? In its context, the literal answer is no. But within the context of John and the Christian liturgical practice, the obvious answer is yes. John has a complex relationship with the sacraments. Through narratives about water, bread, and wine, he offers us the most beautiful elaborations of sacramental theology. But John embeds these teachings in indirect narratives. He does this to deny an ultimate value to the sacraments.

Here, in the “Bread of Life” discourse, John presents Jesus as over miracles (the feeding of the 5000), over mana (the tradition inherited by the Jews), and over the meal (the Lord’s Supper as practiced by the early church). Jesus is over all these, but not against them per se.

This is the point Zwingli missed. He read this passage as saying Jesus is not only over these realities, but against them as well. And so he took the “uselessness of the flesh” literally.

Fortunately, John Calvin of the next generation of refomers, read John 6 differently. Whereas Jesus, Roman Catholicism, and Lutheranism could all be accused of “crass materialism” with regards to the flesh of Jesus being contained and eaten in the bread of the eucharist, Zwingli could be accused of “mere symbolism,” leading to the practice of the Quakers. Calvin saw that the problem was with the adjectives, not the nouns. The bread is material and symbolic; the real problem comes when these are crass and mere.

Calvin saw that when Jesus says the flesh is “useless,” he is being rhetorical. The emphasis in John 6 is on Jesus, yes. And on the Spirit. And on the Word. And on faith. To highlight these emphases, Jesus points out that relative to them, the flesh is “useless.” He has to do this because it is so easy to over-value miracles, mana, and the meal at the expense of Jesus.

How did Calvin arrive here? Remember that Luther was motivated by his search for peace. Zwingli was motivated by his search for precision. Calvin was motivated by the question of perseverance. “How can we survive the spiritual life,” Calvin would ask, “given that we are so weak?”

This weakness is evident at the end of Luke’s Gospel. Jesus had been appearing all day: First to the women at the tomb, last to the two disciples traveling to Emmaus, and in the meantime to Simon. Now, “while disciples were talking about these things,” he appears to them again. And STILL they are startled and terrified, fearing they are seeing a ghost.

Jesus himself seems surprised at this. He asks them incredulously why they are frightened and have doubts arising in their hearts. Don’t they know him? Can’t they recognize him? So he offers them his material body. “Look at my hands and feet! Touch me and see. I’m not a ghost. I’m not something to be feared. I am still truly Jesus, still truly here, still truly present.”

But still we are weak. The disciples are in their joy, but they are still disbelieving and wondering. So Jesus eats a fish in their presence. This is crass materialism. In only one other story does it get more crass. But it teaches that in no way is the flesh useless. On the contrary, Jesus uses his flesh to overcome our weakness. Far from useless, the flesh is indispensable.

Someone recently asked me, “Why do we rock when we grieve?” The answer has to do with the fact that profound grief is an extraordinary experience. We’re not practiced at it. We have a difficult time expressing it. But grief has to be worked out through our bodies. Why do we raise our hands when we’re elated? Why is our breath taken away at overwhelming beauty? Why do we cry involuntarily? It’s because we are flesh, and necessarily these immaterial aspects of being human must find physical expression.

The flesh is necessary because we are flesh and God wants all of us. God wants not just our disembodied spirits, or our exalted thoughts, or our sanctified memories. Jesus said we are to love God with our heart, soul, mind, AND strength—strength is a reference to our flesh.

But the flesh is weak and needs strengthening. God’s physical presence is that strength. God comes not to judge our weakness, but to help us despite it. This is why there are Old Testament sacraments which culminate in Jesus Christ. This is what Jesus means when he says, “the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms are fulfilled in me.” In Jesus Christ the coming of the God’s Kingdom has begun. Where he is, the kingdom is. We experience it now in part only, but now nonetheless.

This is why Jesus lifts up his hands at the end. He is reminding the disciples of his presence even in his imminent absence. Luke is telling us that God meets our weakness by coming to us in the flesh. God strengthens us this way, and also calls us beyond our weakness. And so Jesus “withdraws” and is “carried up to heaven.”

In his absence, Jesus has left us the New Testament sacraments. They are symbols, but not merely symbolic. Jesus’ presence is material, but not crass materialism.

This perspective is articulated in the Scots Confession of 1560:

“in the Supper . . . Christ Jesus is so joined with us that he becomes the very nourishment and food of our souls. . . this union and conjunction which we have with the body and blood of Christ Jesus . . . is wrought by means of the Holy Ghost, who by true faith carries us above all things that are visible, carnal, and earthly, and makes us feed upon the body and blood of Christ Jesus . . . if anyone slanders us by saying that we affirm or believe the sacraments to be symbols and nothing more, they are libelous. . . On the other hand we readily admit that we make a distinction between Christ in his eternal substance and the elements of the sacramental signs. So we neither worship the elements, in place of that which they signify, nor do we despise them or undervalue them, but we use them with great reverence.”

The point is, we need the sacraments. The spiritual life is too hard. Our faith is too weak. We need a savior. We need the assurance of the Incarnation: God with us; of the Crucifixion: God loves us; of the Resurrection: God rescues us; of the Ascension: God calls us still; and of the sacraments: God is with us still.

Thanks be to God for giving us these assurances in Word, in Spirit, and in sacrament.


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