Sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, 2018 (Proper 15B)
Text: John 6:51–69
Grace, mercy, and peace be unto you from God the Father and Jesus Christ our Lord.
Why some and not others? This is the dilemma formally referred to as the crux theologorum, the cross of the theologian. It is a question for which there is no answer that fully satisfies our human curiosity without forsaking biblical authority. Our reading of Scripture leads us to ask why some are saved and others are not, but the question is not fully answered in Scripture. For Scripture tells us that God desires all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth and that each person's salvation is the work of God alone, and yet not all are saved because some do not believe. We can address the question, but we cannot answer the question. “Why some and not others?”
Today I would like to address these same words applied to a different subject. Let us apply the question “why some and not others?” in regard to the creed. No, I don’t mean in relation to why we might hold to one confession of the faith and not another, but why do the creeds we do confess contain some of the things Jesus did and not others?
When the saints who have gone before us were faced with doctrinal challenges, they studied the Word of God in order to confess rightly what God has revealed to us in His Word. There are twin forces at work in the history of the Church to shape our creeds and confessions. On the one hand you have the revelation of Scriptures giving us the substance from which the creeds were formulated, and on the other hand you have the conflicts that forced our fathers in the faith to shape their confession.
One may think of it as the Scripture being the raw material, the marble, that is shaped into a concise confession by the chisel of controversy. For instance, when Arius taught that Son was a creation of the Father such that he could be called a god, but not true God, the faithful responded by making sure that the Nicene Creed confessed Jesus to be “very God of very God, begotten, not made”, and “of one substance with the Father.” But what are we do make of all the things that did not make it into the Creed.?
Have you ever noticed that the Nicene and Apostle's Creeds make no reference to any of what we typically refer to as miracle stories? We don’t confess that Jesus cast out demons every time we confess the creeds, even though with this faith demons are routinely cast out, including in our baptismal rite. And certainly in the history of the Church these things also have been contested. Why some and not others?
The Nicene creed which we have just confessed can be divided to include three articles, each corresponding to a Person of the Trinity, and the second article itself can be broken into three distinct points: The divinity of Christ, the humanity of Christ, and the work of Christ. But the works of Christ that are included in the Creed are all things that Jesus does according to His humanity. That is to say, it is as a man that Jesus does these things. And that is important to remember. That is not to say that He does these things apart from His divinity, but it is important to note that it is a man who does these things.
The active verbs of the second article relating to the incarnate works of Christ begin with the incarnation itself. Our Lord Jesus Christ came down from heaven. That is the turning point not only of the Creed but of history. There is a reason that for centuries the church acknowledged the importance of the mystery of the incarnation by bowing whenever she confessed that Jesus was made man. It is only because the Son of God assumed our human nature that He suffered under Pontius Pilate and was buried and rose again. Without a human nature, there would be no death, no resurrection, no ascension. Without a human nature, it would not be our brother who was to come again and judge the living and the dead.
So again I ask, why some and not others? Why do we confess these actions of our incarnate Lord and not others? Why do we not confess that Jesus cast out demons, taught with authority, turned water into wine, and foretold events yet to come? I would suggest to you that the ancient fathers omitted those things because though Jesus did them while in the flesh, they did not require His flesh. God had done those things in the past through the prophets and He would continue to do them through the apostles and His Church.
Now I have said all of this about the creed in the prayerful hope that it will help us gain a correct perspective on Jesus’ words. During the Reformation there was great debate about what Jesus meant regarding His words, “The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh,” and “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood you have no life in you.” Some said these words were a reference to the Lord’s Supper. Others denied that.
Some said that they referred to the Lord’s Supper but since Jesus said, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh avails nothing,” that the Lord’s Supper was only a spiritual eating and drinking of the Lord’s body, and that the substance that was consumed was not important. Others used Jesus’ Words to teach that all one had to do was receive the Lord’s Supper and even without faith in His promises such eating and drinking would result in benefits to the recipient. Both of these view are in error. And if we ask our question of the day to these two views, we see that they are lacking. For why are some of Jesus’ words taken seriously and not others? For to say that because Jesus says the flesh is of no avail, therefore He does not truly give His flesh in the supper, undermines the Words of Christ which say, “My flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.” And to say that Jesus' promise that “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him,” removes any requirement of faith to receive His blessing ignore Jesus' statement that “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are some of you who do not believe” and “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.”
What we have in our Gospel lesson then is not a pre-institution lecture on the Lord’s Supper, but discourse on the Incarnation. Jesus is bread that came down from heaven. Life-giving bread. A supernatural bread. Yet He is real food and drink. There is real substance, earthly physical substance, to His body and blood. For He is eternally of one substance with the Father, but since He has come down form Heaven for us men and our salvation he also shares our substance. You cannot get from Jesus' divinity to the Lord’s Supper without going through the Incarnation, and that is where Jesus directs us—not to His human nature, nor to His divine nature, but to His one person which is human and divine, earthly and heavenly, true food and true drink, while having His source in heaven. The flesh is of no avail, unless it is joined to the Spirit who gives life.
This is a hard saying. Who can believe it? We scoff at these words. How often do we confess the creed without paying attention to what it means? How often do we fail to examine ourselves to see whether our faith is genuine and so eat and drink at the Lord’s Table in an unworthy manner?
For remember, it was his disciples who heard Jesus and said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” and turned back and no longer walked with Him. It is very easy today for us to become complacent and turn away from Jesus because we don’t like the implications raised by the question “Why some and not others?” Why are some saved and not others? Why is it necessary to confess Jesus as God and Man, and not just that we should be kind to one another? Many more of our friends could be saved that way.
Do not think that turning away from Jesus is a thing of the past. You do it quite often, when you stop listening to God’s word because doing other things are more convenient.
Thanks be to God, that our heavenly Father does not give up on us so easily, but continues to draw us through the words of spirit and life to come to Jesus who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was made man. When you have strayed from God, remember the words of Peter, who strayed himself more than once: “Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
Through those words Jesus comes to us again today. We receive the God-man according to His promise as we spiritually feed on Him by believing His promises and as we receive Him orally in the Sacrament of the Altar. For though Christ’s words in our Gospel reading may not be as simple as a discourse on the Lord’s Supper, they certainly apply to the faithful reception of Him there as well.
The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
Soli Deo Gloria