Words of Eternal Life
Topic: Biblical Verse: John 6:51–6:69
The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
August 15, 2021
“Words of Eternal Life”
While my wife and I were visiting family in Iowa last month, one of my sisters handed me a plastic bag of old letters and correspondence. The attic of the big farmhouse where I grew up, which my grandfather built more than 100 years ago, is a storehouse of accumulated stuff from at least four generations of family members. Within this plastic bag were two letters from 1949, written from one of my uncles to another uncle. Every generation has a family member who serves as the de facto family historian, and that happens to be me. So my sister thought I’d like to see all of this. Interesting side note here: the 3-cent first class postage stamps on these letters from 1949 featured the 200th anniversary of our fair city of Alexandria, Virginia! I contacted a cousin of mine who lives in California to let him know about these letters, since it was his father who had written them, and to see if he’d like to have them. He said yes, so I sent these out to him. Words written more than seventy years ago which were essentially lost until they were rediscovered. We don’t tend to handwrite letters like previous generations did. Will all of our emails and text messages be preserved for future generations to see? We shall see. Will any of our words that we speak and write today be remembered in seventy years? It’s a sobering thought. All of the stuff of daily life – our striving and struggling, our joys and sorrows – will these somehow be remembered by those who come after us? As we consider the passing shortness of our own words, in the closing words of today’s Gospel lesson – our Scripture memory verse for this week – we hear of words that are timeless and eternal as Peter speaks to Jesus who is our Bread of Life: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:68-69). This serves as the theme for preaching today: “Words of Eternal Life.” May the Lord’s rich and abundant blessing rest upon the preaching, the hearing, and the living of his Word for Jesus’ sake.
Today’s Gospel lesson is the conclusion of Jesus’ teaching in John 6 about how he is the Bread of Life. This is the first of Jesus’ “I Am” sayings in John’s Gospel: “I am the Bread of Life” (John 6:48). The others are “I am the Light of the world” (John 8:12); “I am the door” (John 10:7); “I am the Good Shepherd” (John 10:11); “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25); “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:6); and “I am the Vine” (John 15:1, 5). By saying “I am,” Jesus makes clear that he is the very God who revealed himself to Moses in the burning bush: “I Am Who I Am” (Exodus 3:14). Here are words of eternal life! Jesus’ teaching about himself as the Bread of Life in John 6 all started with his multiplying five loaves of bread and two fish to feed the 5000 (John 6:1-14). The upshot from this is that the people wanted more; in fact, they wanted to make Jesus king (John 6:15). In his teaching which follows, Jesus directs them and us to that which truly satisfies. Food for the stomach doesn’t last forever, and after eating, you’ll soon be hungry again, as Jesus made clear: “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you” (John 6:27). So what are you hungry for?
Unlike Matthew, Mark, and Luke, John’s Gospel does not contain Jesus’ institution of the Lord’s Supper on the night in which he was betrayed. What John does record on the night of his betrayal is Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet (John 13). Scholars and theologians debate whether here in John 6 is Jesus’ institution of the Lord’s Supper. Jesus words in today’s Gospel point us to his gifts in the Sacrament of the Altar: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:53-54). As the first disciples heard all of this, it led to a sifting of Jesus’ followers. Jesus’ teaching, as well as his signs and miracles, had attracted many people. Some attached themselves loosely to Jesus, while others wholeheartedly gave themselves to following him. But now they are all at a critical crossroads as Jesus reveals himself as the Bread of Life who has come down from heaven to give life to the world. Will they take offense at Jesus words, pull back, and fall away? Or will they continue with Jesus as he sets his face to go to Jerusalem and all that awaits him there: rejection, suffering, and death? And what will we do? As Jesus asked his first disciples, so he asks us today: “Do you want to go away as well?” (John 6:67). And if we go away, where will we go?
It’s amazing what words we remember in life, isn’t it? Words which someone said to us, for good or for ill, can be recalled and heard in our mind just as vividly years – even decades – after they were first uttered. But eventually, those words and the recollection of them will be gone. So what remains? As Peter confessed, so we also confess: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:68-69). Jesus alone is the One who has the words of eternal life. When our own words fail us, when they are forgotten in the dustbin of history, the Word of the Lord endures forever. This is why we gather weekly around the Word – that written Word which makes known to us the living Word; the Word made flesh who came and dwelt among us (John 1:14); that Word of Life who laid down his life for us that we might have eternal life. This is Jesus, who feeds us today with his life-giving Word, not just for our ears, but also for our mouths as he comes to us in his holy Supper. Jesus, who is the Bread of Life, feeds us with his very Body and Blood, given and shed for us and for our salation on the tree of the cross.
Today we lift up the ministry of Lutheran World Relief (LWR). This organization was “founded by Lutherans in the United States at the end of World War II, grounded in Lutheran theology and building on decades of experience, Lutheran World Relief tackles global poverty by helping people adapt to the challenges that threaten their livelihoods and well-being” (About Lutheran World Relief | Lutheran World Relief (lwr.org). The vision of LWR is this: “Empowered by God’s unconditional love in Jesus Christ, we envision a world in which each person, every community and all generations live in justice, dignity and peace.” That mission has long been supported by our own congregation. Quilts, school bags, and new baby kits have been assembled and delivered over the past years with much support from Creative Fellowship. Through this love in action, people in need around the world are pointed to Jesus the Bread of Life.
“It was 1966 and Mercy Sr. Suzanne Toolan [still alive today at age 94] had been asked to write a song for an event in the San Francisco archdiocese. With the deadline looming, she worked on a song in an unoccupied room next to the infirmary in the Catholic girls’ high school where she taught. “I worked on it, and I tore it up. I thought, ‘This will not do,’ ” Toolan said. “And this little girl came out of the infirmary and said, ‘What was that? That was beautiful!’ I went right back and Scotch-taped it up…” [Toolan]…has wondered about its popularity. “It’s a hymn that really shouldn’t work for the congregation. It’s too low. It’s too high. I often ask myself: Why does it work so well, then? I think it’s the scripture. The scripture is so strong” (Nation: Girl's comment saved 'I Am the Bread of Life' song from trash bin (natcath.org). And now, “the hymn has been translated into 25 languages and performed in congregations around the world” (The Catholic Voice - an online publication of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Oakland (catholicvoiceoakland.org). And that is one of the marks of a really great hymn: it’s translated into multiple languages and sung across denominational lines. It becomes a song for the whole people of God. This is the background of the hymn we are about to sing, “I Am the Bread of Life.”
May Jesus our Bread of Life, who has the words of eternal life, keep us in faith with him and in love toward one another. Amen.