Sabbath Day Thoughts – John 6:51-58
“So Jesus said to them, “I assure you: Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you do not have life in yourselves. Anyone who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. — John 6:53-54
We want to live forever.
Some turn to cryonics in pursuit of immortality. At death, their bodies or heads are subjected to low-temperature freezing with liquid nitrogen. Then, they are stored with the speculative hope that advances in science will one day allow them to be resurrected or digitally replicated. That will cost you about $80,000.
Others, in their quest for prolonged life, resort to calorie restriction. Citing the evidence of lab animals that live longer when their food intake is cut by half, calorie restrictors limit their daily diet to about 1,400 calories and maintain below-normal body weight. For a six-foot-tall man, that’s about 144 pounds, for a five-foot six-inch woman, 108 pounds. They say that their reduced body mass needs less energy to maintain and cuts their risk for age-related disease.
We may roll our eyes at the extreme practices of cryonics and calorie restricting, but we will gladly try whatever the doctor tells us will extend our lives. We’ll get outside and exercise daily, year after year. We’ll floss our teeth and eat our veggies. We may even quit smoking, give up red meat, and watch less television. What have you been doing in pursuit of longevity and that fountain of youth?
In our reading from John’s gospel, Jesus told his listeners in the synagogue in Capernaum that anyone who eats his flesh and drinks his blood will live forever. Jesus’ Jewish listeners found his words both puzzling and repulsive. To begin with, it sounds like an invitation to cannibalism—Eeeewww! On top of that, the most essential dietary restriction of the Torah was the prohibition on eating blood. Blood, the life of an animal, belonged to God alone. In the Temple, blood was poured out in sacrifice to atone for sins. In the slaughter of farm animals, blood was covered with earth as a memorial to God. According to Leviticus seventeen, the person who ate blood was cut off from God and the people. It is little wonder that those folks in Capernaum were shocked and offended by Jesus’ sermon.
When we hear Jesus’ hard teaching, we need to remember the story of the Israelites, and their forty years of wilderness wandering. Back then, the people were fed by God, who sent bread and meat from heaven—manna and quails—so that the people might live. Given that context, we are able to imagine Jesus as bread or manna or flesh, the spiritual food sent from heaven so that we might live. We also understand that Jesus spoke in metaphor. When Jesus talked about eating his flesh and drinking his blood, we hear in those cryptic words the institution of the Lord’s Supper. Each month we break the bread and lift the cup—eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ—in remembrance of Jesus. We further realize that Jesus’ saving death on the cross was like the ultimate outpouring of bloody sacrifice, an offering that atoned for the sins of the world. When we put that all together, we “get” what Jesus is saying here. But for “outsiders” like those in the Capernaum synagogue, for outsiders like our unchurched neighbors today, it all sounds like a gruesome and incomprehensible mystery.
Given the public fascination with cryonics, calorie restricting, and daily habits that may promote longevity, it seems that even those of us who get what Jesus is saying, find it hard to trust his promise that we will live forever. We have had tough experiences of death: the slow and painful demise of parents or the shocking accidental or untimely death of those who are young and vibrant. We have been traumatized by near-death experiences of our own. We are skeptical about highly publicized and lucrative accounts of those who have returned from death—from Pastor Todd Burpo’s book Heaven Is for Real to neurosurgeon Eben Alexander’s autobiographical work Proof of Heaven. When it comes to living forever, we wonder. We peer through a glass dimly. We won’t truly know until we are there, in the midst of the great what’s next.
Throughout history, the best Christian minds have sought to unravel for us the great mystery of the life eternal. In the fourth century, John Chrysostum taught about today’s reading from John 6, saying that in Jesus, God became flesh, condescending to live among us. When we partake in communion, eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ, we participate in God’s great, out-reaching love. We are commingled with Christ—inseparably mixed and joined. The “life, breath, and fire that terrify the devil” are imparted to us. We become a part of the life of Christ—and that life is eternal, reaching beyond the grave.
John Calvin in unraveling the mystery of John six eloquently wrote that in “becoming the Son of Man for us, Jesus has made us sons [and daughters] of God with him; that by his descent to earth, Jesus has prepared an ascent to heaven for us; that by taking on our mortality, Jesus has conferred his immortality upon us.” We live forever because in Jesus of Nazareth, God has freely and graciously chosen to open for us the way to eternal life. How good is that?
I wish that I could tell you exactly what to expect in the great what’s next—hand you a detailed map, or email you a link to click, or paint you a beautiful watercolor—but I haven’t been there. Yet I find insight and anticipation when I ponder the metaphors that Jesus used to talk about it. When the Lord warned his disciples of his coming death, he said that he was going to his Father’s House. Jesus was drawing on the everyday reality of the Beth Ab, the home where many generations gathered under the extended roof of a patriarch and matriarch—elders, adults, children, and grandchildren, unwed aunts, disabled brothers, widows, orphans, slaves, and vulnerable neighbors, all living together with mutual regard and loving care. Jesus also liked to use the metaphor of the Great Banquet—like the Lord’s Supper on steroids—where all will be gathered in the love and generous hospitality of God, a feast with the finest food, the best conversation, and the greatest of joy.
We know that with the Father’s House and the Great Banquet Jesus was using earthly metaphors to try to describe an incomprehensible, holy reality. Yet Jesus’ words assure us that in that sweet bye and bye we will be perfectly loved, warmly welcomed, and completely accepted. We will be totally at home—safe and sound, nurtured, fed, and filled with joy. I like the sound of that. If that is what living forever is all about, then I want in. How about you?
Lord, give us this flesh to eat. Lord, give us this blood to drink. Lord, let us live forever. When we read John’s gospel, we hear, again and again, the way to eternal life. It’s pretty simple. We don’t have to be sinless—and according to John Calvin, thanks to our total depravity, we couldn’t be sinless, even if we wanted to be. We don’t have to undertake heroic works of mission, taking the gospel to drug-infested neighborhoods or to a remote village in the Amazon. We don’t have to be more pious than anyone else, making the journey of a thousand miles on our knees. We don’t have to pay $80,000 to be frozen in liquid nitrogen and warehoused until the time is right. We don’t need to drastically reduce our calorie intake. We don’t have to floss or give up red meat or shoot for 10,000 steps daily, even though those habits might be good for us. None of that will make us live forever.
According to John’s gospel, according to Jesus, all that is needed to live forever is belief. We simply need to trust that a God who loves us enough to become incarnate for us, to live with us, and to die for us, isn’t going to leave us hanging for an eternity. For God so loved the world that he gave us Jesus, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life (Jn. 3:16). The “yes” that we speak to God’s immeasurable love for us opens the door to eternity. It’s that simple. Does anyone want to share a yes with me this morning? Let’s hear it. Yes!
Karoline Lewis, who teaches at Luther Seminary in Minneapolis, reminds us that, for those of us who believe, our eternal life with God has already begun. We, who wish to live forever, are already on our way. In our lives as people of faith, as our relationship with Jesus is nurtured in the breaking the bread and lifting the cup, there is “an abiding, a unity, a reciprocity, and oneness.” Forever is tasted, here and now, as we live with God in the moment. That is a promise that we can trust for eternity.
One day, we shall arise in that far brighter light on that far better shore. The great mystery will come to an end and we will see clearly and know fully the immeasurable love that God has for us. We’ll walk with the Lord. We’ll take up residence in the Father’s House. We’ll find our seat at the Great Banquet. All will be perfectly and ultimately well. I hope to see you there. Amen.
Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion, vol. 2. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1977. 4.xvii.2.
Lewis, Karoline. “A Living Bread” in Dear Working Preacher, Aug. 9, 2015. Accessed online at www.workingpreacher.org.
Hendricks, Michael. “The False Science of Cryonics” in MIT Technology Review, Sept. 15, 2015. Accessed online at www.technologyreview.com.
Grabski, Isabella. “Can Calorie Restriction Extend Your Lifespan?” in Science in the News: Harvard University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Aug. 2, 2020. Accessed online at sitn.hms.harvard.edu
Meeks, Wayne. “Exegetical Perspective on John 6:51-58” in Feasting on the Word, Year B, vol. 3. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.
Morse, Christopher. “Theological Perspective on John 6:51-58” in Feasting on the Word, Year B, vol. 3. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.