Many of you in church today have had the experience of holding down a very demanding job. Perhaps it requires you to work long hours with lots of overtime; perhaps it cuts into evening hours and weekends; perhaps it carries with it a lot of stress and it’s very difficult for you to leave it behind when you go home from work. Perhaps you’ve even found yourself wondering whether you have any other life at all apart from going to work! I’ve actually heard people talk about that; they’ll be lamenting the fact that their job takes up so much of their time, and they say, “I really need to get a life!”
It’s a curious phrase, isn’t it: ‘Get a life’? What does it mean? The person who says it does, in fact, have a life! Their heart is pumping the blood around their body and their lungs are working fine; surely they already have ‘a life’? What do they mean when they say, “I really need to get a life”?
But the truth is that we all understand instinctively what they mean. We understand that it is possible to be alive in a biological sense, but still not to be experiencing real life – what Jesus once referred to as ‘life in all its fulness’ or ‘abundant life’. We understand that people can be in good health, can be working hard and enjoying success in their chosen profession, and yet still find themselves thinking, “There’s got to be more to life than this!”
In John chapter 6 Jesus talks about this issue of real life, or, as he calls it, ‘eternal life’. We’ve been going through the chapter in stages over the summer, starting with the feeding of the five thousand in verses 1-21 and then going on as Jesus and the Jewish leaders dialogue about the meaning of that sign. But before we dive into this week’s passage, let me remind you of the Old Testament story that serves as background to this whole chapter. It’s the story of how God fed his people when Moses was leading them through the desert on their long journey to their promised land. There were thousands and thousands of Israelites, and of course the desert is not a good place to find food for even a few people, let alone a huge multitude. So the Book of Exodus tells us that the people complained about this to God, and he responded by sending them bread from heaven. They called this bread ‘manna’, and they ate it every day for the forty years that they wandered in the desert.
John tells us that when Jesus fed the five thousand people, they immediately thought of Moses giving their ancestors this supernatural bread in the desert, and they reminded Jesus of this. No, Jesus replied – Moses didn’t give it to them, my Father did. And anyway, those who ate that bread all died eventually, but if you eat of the true bread of heaven, you will not die. He goes on to explain that he is the bread of life; all who come to him will never be hungry, and all who believe in him will never be thirsty.
So far so good, but in our gospel for today things get a little more confusing. Jesus says in verse 51, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh”. This causes a furious argument amongst Jesus’ hearers: “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (v.52). But Jesus’ reply doesn’t do anything to alleviate their concerns: “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (v.53).
We Christians, of course, have two thousand years of Communion services in our collective memory, so when we hear these words, we immediately think of the bread and wine of Holy Communion. The people who first heard these words from John’s Gospel would have thought the same thing. But I’m going to suggest this morning that we slow down, and not go there right away. We need to ask ourselves, what would these words have sounded like to those who first heard them spoken? Imagine the revulsion they must have felt at what must have sounded to them very much like cannibalism. Not only does Jesus talk about eating his flesh, but drinking his blood – and in the Old Testament, people were forbidden from consuming blood, because of the ancient belief that ‘the life is in the blood’. It’s not surprising that a few verses later on we read that ‘when many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’ (v.60) – and some of them left Jesus altogether.
So what does it really mean to eat Jesus’ flesh and drink his blood? And why would we want to do it anyway? What are the benefits that we receive from it? I want to consider the second question first, and then come back to the first question at the end.
Why would we want to eat Jesus’ flesh and drink his blood? What are the benefits we’re promised from this? Well, we’re told in verse 54 that ‘those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life’. And we need to remind ourselves that the phrase ‘eternal life’ doesn’t just mean ‘life that goes on and on forever’. In a prayer to his Father in John 17:3 Jesus tells us what eternal life is: “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent”. To receive eternal life, then, is to be brought into a relationship with the living God and with his Son Jesus Christ. To put it bluntly: to know God is the only way to be truly alive.
This is the sort of language that lovers use, isn’t it? The lover says to his beloved, “Before I knew you I wasn’t really alive. I began to live the day I first met you”. That’s what Jesus is saying here: to be physically alive, but not to know the God who made you and loves you, is not real life – it’s a kind of walking death. But to meet the God who made you and his Son who died for you, and to grow into a real relationship with that living God – that’s real life! If you’re looking for the meaning of life, look no further – this is it.
Jesus describes this relationship in very intimate terms; he says in verse 56 “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them”. To ‘abide’ somewhere means to make your home there, and so in this lovely symbolic language Jesus says to us, ‘If you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you’ll be making your home in me, and I’ll be making my home in you’. Can you imagine such a thing – to make our home in Jesus, and for Jesus to make his home in us?
I’m sure that some of you can imagine it, because you have begun to experience it for yourselves. Maybe it’s not yet a constant thing; maybe you go for long stretches of time when you find it difficult to perceive the presence of God. But there are days when you know that he is very real and close to you as well, and what you experience on those days is enough to spoil you for anything less than this. You know that nothing else in the world can compare with the joy of knowing the living God and his Son Jesus Christ; once having tasted of this, you are determined to do what it takes to taste it again and again – in other words, to know God better and better. You sing those words from your heart: ‘As the deer pants for the water, so my soul longs after you; you alone are my heart’s desire and I long to worship you’.
But maybe not all of us feel that way. Maybe some of us can only think to ourselves, “I must be missing something here”. Maybe some of us have just started out on this Christian life and we haven’t yet really experienced the touch of God in any direct sort of way. Maybe, in fact, some of us have been attending church all our lives and have never really made any personal contact with God. How do we get that?
Jesus is quite direct about how we get it: he says we have to eat his flesh and drink his blood. But what does that mean? As I said, lifelong churchgoers are tempted to jump right away to the bread and wine of Holy Communion, but let’s not go there too fast. Instead, let’s go back to the first mention of the bread of life in John 6, in verse 35. Jesus says, “I am the Bread of Life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty”.
Apparently, in Judaism, there was a long history of seeing the Torah, the Old Testament law of God, as the true manna from heaven; it was said that God fed the people with the words of his mouth. So to listen to the Law or Instruction of God, to think about it and chew on it, and to put it into practice in your life, was seen as a way of receiving the true spiritual bread of life.
Jesus is clearly following in this spiritual interpretation of the bread of life here. It’s actually a rather audacious claim that he’s making, given the reverence that Jewish people felt for the Law of God; he’s claiming to be the embodiment of the ‘Torah’. To ‘come to him’, and to ‘believe in him’ is to believe that he is who he says he is, to give ourselves to him in faith, and to put his words into practice in our daily lives.
This ‘coming to him’ and ‘believing in him’; is it a moment of crisis, or a gradual process? Well, for many of us there is probably a gradual process of growing into faith, but it often has moments of decision attached to it as well. After all, when two people fall in love it may be a gradual process, but their wedding day is a moment of decision – a moment of commitment, in fact. On that day they are consciously entrusting their lives and their futures to each other; they aren’t just saying, “I’ve fallen in love with you”, but “I promise to love you, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, for the rest of our days”.
Many people experience these moments of decision in their life of faith as well; I know I certainly have. These are the moments when we sense the challenge of the gospel: will you put your life in the hands of the one who loved you and gave himself for you? Will you follow him and be faithful to him for the rest of your days?
How do we respond to that challenge to ‘come to Jesus’ and to ‘believe in him’? A friend of mine used to say that, if you understand the invitation that Jesus is giving you, the most eloquent prayer in the world could be the one simple word, ‘Yes’. Jesus is with us this morning and is giving us this invitation: ‘Will you come to me and believe in me? Will you put your life in my hands and let me lead you from this day forward?’ And if your heart is responding to that call, then there’s no need to worry about getting the words right; if all you can manage is the word ‘yes’, that will do just fine.
That’s a moment of commitment to Christ. But I also want to say that we renew that commitment each week, every time we come forward to receive the bread and wine of Holy Communion. Some of you may be familiar with the old revival preachers and their practice of giving ‘altar calls’. Billy Graham of course made this famous; at each of his evangelistic crusade services he would say, “Now I’m going to ask you to get up out of your seats!” and he would invite people who wanted to give their lives to Jesus to come forward to the front of his crusade services as a public act of commitment to Christ.
To many lifelong Anglicans the very thought of an altar call is a shock to the system, but I want to suggest to you that, if we understand what we’re doing in Holy Communion, we have an altar call every week in the Anglican Church! Jesus tells us that if we come to him and believe in him our spiritual hunger and thirst will be satisfied. We respond to that invitation; we get up out of our seats and come to the front, and we hold out our empty hands and ask him to fill them. The emptiness of our hands is a symbol of the emptiness of our lives; without him we have no life, but when we come to him in faith, he give us that life. And so we receive the bread and wine in faith, and, as the old prayer book says, we ‘feed on him in our hearts by faith with thanksgiving’.
So, as Billy Graham used to say, in a few minutes ‘I’m going to ask you to get up out of your seats’. Come to the front of this church and put your lives once again in the hands of the one who loved you and gave himself for you. Hold out your empty hands, and your empty hearts, so that he can fill them.
But realize also that this isn’t just something we do at Holy Communion; it’s something we do every day of the week as followers of Jesus. To go back to verse 35, Jesus says, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty”. To receive Holy Communion together here on a Sunday is one way of ‘coming’ to Jesus and ‘believing in him’ – a vital way, but not the only way. All week long, he is inviting us to continue to come to him and put our faith in him. In Matthew’s gospel he says to us, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).
So let’s come to him – not just today at Holy Communion, but tomorrow as well, and the next day, and the day after that. Let’s put our trust in him, ask him to make himself known to us and to give us the strength to put his teaching and example into practice. The writer of the psalms says, ‘O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him’ (Psalm 34:8). That’s not just about Holy Communion; it’s about a daily walk with Christ. In the end, that daily walk is the best way I know to ‘get a life’.