"The Martyrs and We Partake of Christ"
Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
St. John 6:51-69
August 20, 2006
IN NOMINE JESU
Over the past few weeks we have spent considerable time examining what our Lord means when He calls Himself the Bread of Life. We have also pondered extensively what He means when He speaks of eating His flesh and drinking His blood. In short, we have heard what it means to eat of the Bread of Life. In these words of our Lord, recorded in John chapter six, the Lord is calling upon His hearers to believe in Him. To eat His flesh and to drink His blood, in the context of John chapter six, is to believe in Him, to be intimately close to Him, to believe in Him as one's personal Savior and Lord. The Lord says, "He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him" (v. 56). "Abide in Him…." Had all these false disciples, those who fell away at hearing His words, continued following Him, they would have heard Him speak these words on Maundy Thursday evening:
"Abide in Me, I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me. I am the Vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in Me, he is cast out as a branch and is withered; and they gather them and throw them into the fire, and they are burned. If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you. By this My Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit; so you will be My disciples. As the Father loved Me, I also have loved you; abide in My love. If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love, just as I have kept My Father's commandments and abide in His love. These things I have spoken to you, that My joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be full" (15:4-11).
He invited His disciples, those in addition to the Twelve, to abide in Him. This is what it means for one to eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood. It means that one hears the Word of the Lord and keeps it, for the words the Lord speaks to us are spirit, and they are life. The Lord wants us to eat His Word; for this reason we pray in the Collect for the Word: "Blessed Lord, who hast caused all Holy Scriptures to be written for our learning grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, AND INWARDLY DIGEST THEM, that by patience and comfort of Thy holy Word we may embrace, and ever hold fast, the blessed hope of everlasting life, which Thou hast given us in our Savior Jesus Christ, who liveth and reigneth with Thee and the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end. Amen" (TLH, p. 14, emphasis added).
Such a notion was a scandal to the unbelieving Jews. They just heard the Lord declare that, as the Bread which came down from heaven, He is greater than the manna that fell for their ancestors, for they died, and anyone who partakes of the Bread of Life will live forever. The blessed Apostle and Evangelist St. John writes, "Therefore many of His disciples, when they heard this, said, 'This is a hard saying; who can understand it?'" (v. 60). The Lord asked them, "Does this offend you?" The Greek word for offend is the root of our word scandalize. Originally, the scandal served as the stick that, when tripped, activated the trap and ensnared the prey. The animal would be caught up in this entrapment, in this scandal, and would meet and early death. The Jews were scandalized by the words of the Lord. They could not accept His teachings. In the hardness of their hearts they were unable to think past the physical language He was using, and they refused to understand that they needed to believe in Him. To them He was nothing more than the Son of Mary and Joseph. Thus they were scandalized by His words and followed Him no more. They would thus meet an eternal death on account of their sin.
The Jews in our text are not the only ones who were scandalized by the Lord's words. We are also offended. We are also scandalized. The Word of God scandalizes us. We are caught in the words of God's Law, for the Law exposes us as poor, miserable sinners who are by nature sinful and unclean. We are not like the Israelites in our Old Testament Reading who, following Joshua, served the Lord. Rather, we are, as the blessed Apostle St. Paul says in our Epistle, partakers with the sons of disobedience. Paul exhorts us to "have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of those things which are done by them in secret" (Eph. 5:11-12). Yet we associate with them and even become them, for we despise preaching and God's Word, we do not hold it sacred, and we do not gladly hear and learn it. We hold Scripture with such contempt that we reject those parts of it that we don't like, those parts that make us uncomfortable, those parts that don't make us feel good about ourselves. We despise the Law because we don't like to think of ourselves as sinners, and it hurts our feelings. We also hate the Gospel, for the Gospel tells us that there is nothing—absolutely NOTHING—we can do to get into heaven, for Christ has paid the price for us with His very life. The martyrs paid for their faith with their very lives, for they by the Holy Spirit confessed Christ, even at the very losses of their own lives. During this Martyrs' Tide of the Time of the Church, we recall those who ate the flesh of the Son of Man and shed their own blood for Him, such martyrs as the mid-third century deacon St. Laurence, whose martyrdom was celebrated ten days ago, the blessed Apostle St. Bartholomew, whose feast day is this Thursday, those who lifted high the cross and lost their lives as we celebrate Holy Cross Day on September 14, and the blessed Apostle and Evangelist St. Matthew, whom we commemorate one month from tomorrow. They and countless others have lost their lives for the sake of Christ, for the sake of the Gospel, and for the sake of the Church.
The martyrs serve as examples for us to follow on this the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, the Second Sunday in St. Laurence' Tide, in the Year of Our Lord Two Thousand Six. They ate of the flesh of the Son of Man and drank His blood. They read, marked, learned, and inwardly digested the Word of the Lord. They had the promise of eternal life because, by the Holy Spirit, they believed in Christ; they craved the Bread of life, the promise they now realize in its totality as they were faithful unto death. The Lord calls us to this same faithfulness, even if we do not die due to martyrdom. He continues to call us to be faithful to Him all the days of our lives, just as He has been faithful to His heavenly Father for all eternity. Christ's faithfulness led Him, "who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary and was made man" (Nicene Creed). "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth" (1:14). The Word Incarnate revealed His glory when He would have His flesh nailed to the cross and His blood poured out for the life of the world…for the life of you and me. Let us remember, though, that Christ was no martyr, for He is "the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" (1:29), has mercy upon us, and grants us peace, His peace, that peace which surpasses all understanding, that peace which the world cannot give. This flesh which was nailed to the cross would die, be buried, and on the third day rise again. The Word who became flesh died and rose again for the life of the world…for the life of you and me. And since Christ has risen, the Word He speaks in our hearing is spirit, and it is life.
By the Holy Spirit, we who believe the Incarnate Word who gives us the spoken Word have the promise of eternal life, which we shall see with the martyrs and all who have gone before us in the faith, as they now partake of the unending Feast in heaven, the Feast of which we shall one day partake, the Feast of which we are given a foretaste this day in the body and blood of Christ. At this table we shall eat of Christ's body and drink His blood sacramentally, for we have been prepared to do so in eating of His flesh and drinking His blood spiritually, as we have been fed Christ through Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution, and the ongoing catechesis that comes through the teaching and preaching of Holy Scripture. By the Holy Spirit are we bold to say with the blessed Apostle St. Peter, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. Also we have come to believe and know that You are the Christ, the Son of the living God" (vv. 68-69). This is the spiritual eating to which the Psalmist refers when he says: "Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good; blessed is the man who trusts in Him! Oh, fear the LORD, you His saints! There is no want to those who fear Him. The young lions lack and suffer hunger; but those who seek the Lord shall not lack any good thing. …Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the LORD delivers him out of them all" (Ps. 34:8-10, 19).
And now, having been fed Christ spiritually, we now look forward to a few minutes from now when our Lord will feed us sacramentally as He gives us His body to eat and His blood to drink, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins, eternal life, and salvation. The promise He gives to all who believe in Him, whether we are martyrs for Him or whether we enjoy a peaceful release from this vale of tears, or even if the Lord shall come again before we die. By the Spirit of God we thank Him for these gifts He gives through Word and Sacraments, and we thank Him for the gift of faith He gave those who have gone before us in the faith:
For all Thy saints, O Lord, Who strove in Thee to live,
Who followed Thee, obeyed, adored, Our grateful hymn receive.
For all Thy saints, O Lord, Who strove in Thee to die,
Who counted Thee their great Reward, Accept our thankful cry.
They all in life and death, With Thee, their Lord, in view,
Learned from Thy Holy Spirit's breath To suffer and to do.
For this Thy Name we bless And humbly pray that we
May follow them in holiness And live and die in Thee. [TLH 468]
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
SOLI DEO GLORIA
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