The Epistle and Gospel appointed for this Sunday teach us about the wide gulf between God's grace, and the weakness and hopelessness of man's highest aspirations apart from that grace. The Epistle is a blend of doctrine and St. Paul's autobiographical reminiscences that demonstrate the truth of that doctrine. The occasion for the writing of the Epistle was a heresy that is described in the 15th chapter of the Book of Acts. "And certain men which came down from Judaea taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved." This so troubled the Church that the first Council was called, the proto-Council of Jerusalem. This new and troubling doctrine contradicted what all the Apostles had taught ever since the day that St. Peter entered the house of Cornelius, and Gentiles had become part of the Church.
This heresy is called the Judaizer heresy, and it has very much in common with a later heresy of the fourth century. Pelagius in the fourth century taught that man does not need the grace of God to become righteous, but can achieve perfection by the power of the flesh. What the Judaizers did not understand, and what later the Pelagians did not understand, is expressed perfectly by St. Paul in another Epistle, the Epistle to the Church in Rome: "For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh."1 The Law cannot save us, because the flesh is weak. The Law, rather, serves the purpose of diagnosing our genuine condition, that we are subject to sin and death, and that we need the Savior. In this context Paul opens the whole Epistle by contrasting the limited and weak state of man against the unlimited power and wisdom of God.
The Gospel tells of a miracle that Jesus used for the purpose of teaching that he alone is the food and drink of eternal life, that he imparts grace and salvation as we partake of him, the true Bread from heaven. He not only wrought our salvation: He himself is our salvation.
The only way to understand the Epistle is to know your Old Testament. The story from Genesis about Hagar, and her son, is the story about two sons of Abraham, Ishmael and Isaac. Both of them are the sons of Abraham, but Paul tells us that one, Ishmael, was born after the flesh, the other, Isaac, after spirit. St. Paul considers his own life, and presents himself as an example of both of these, inasmuch as before his conversion he was very much the son of Abraham, but only after the flesh. Look at these words that were read today from the text we have heard: "But as then he that was born after the flesh persecuted him that was born after the Spirit, even so it is now." In the overall context of the Epistle, this follows the autobiographical confession of St. Paul near its beginning, where he wrote:
"For ye have heard of my conversation in time past in the Jews' religion, how that beyond measure I persecuted the church of God, and wasted it: And profited in the Jews' religion above many my equals in mine own nation, being more exceedingly zealous of the traditions of my fathers." 2
And, this gives an autobiographical flavor to what comes near the end of this Epistle:
"As many as desire to make a fair shew in the flesh, they constrain you to be circumcised; only lest they should suffer persecution for the cross of Christ. For neither they themselves who are circumcised keep the law; but desire to have you circumcised, that they may glory in your flesh. But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creature." 3
And, so also an earlier passage:
"Even as Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness. Know ye therefore that they which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham." 4
Saul of Tarsus had been that son of Abraham born only after the flesh, for he had yet to become a full son of Abraham by faith in the Messiah. Born after the flesh a son of Abraham, but not a son with the faith of Abraham, he persecuted the Church, those who were born after the spirit, those born according to the promise which was by faith. In those days he imagined that he was keeping the Law: "Imagined" I say, because he described his own self-deception in no uncertain terms, in yet another of his Epistles, and then describes the light of truth that shined on him:
"Though I might also have confidence in the flesh. If any other man thinketh that he hath whereof he might trust in the flesh, I more: Circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, an Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee; Concerning zeal, persecuting the church; touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless. But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ. Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ, And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith."5
What Saul learned, on the day that Jesus Christ appeared to him, was that his greatest crowning act of righteousness, persecuting the Church, was a filthy rag,6 the sin of persecuting the Messiah himself. "Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?" But he also learned that righteousness is accounted to us only through faith. This was not simply any faith. The old question of faith and works can be very misleading if we see these as mere principles. What matters is not some thing called faith versus some thing called works, but specifically faith in Jesus Christ himself. Only that faith can save us, because only Jesus Christ can do what the Law, the good, holy and death-dealing Law that condemns us all, cannot do. What the Law cannot do is not because it is weak, but because we are weak due to the Fall of man into sin and death.
Saul, on the road to Damascus, lying in the dust of death, now revealed by his own most righteous act to be a miserable offender in desperate need of God's mercy, rises to become Saint Paul the Apostle. No longer clouded by the self-deception of having some righteousness of his own, but having the righteousness of faith in the Messiah, Jesus, he is forgiven, justified, and called to true service in the Kingdom of God.
So, when St. Paul contrasts faith in Jesus Christ against the works of the Law, he speaks from his own life. When he speaks of the good works to which Christians are called (in full agreement with St. James), he speaks even of these as part of the life of faith, something that charity itself, by the Holy Spirit, produces in us because of our faith; not something that we can manufacture by our own strength. So, he wrote to the Church in Ephesus:
"For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them."7
St. Paul had been the son of the bondwoman, and he so cast out the son of the bondwoman from his own heart and life, that he became the son of the free woman; that is, in place of Saul was Paul; he was born again, born of the spirit,8 a child of Abraham by faith. Now he receives persecution rather than dishing it out. And, that share of persecution was part of knowing Christ, fellowship with his sufferings in light of the hope of the resurrection.
The very next verse, directly following the selection we have heard today from the Gospel of John, says, "When Jesus therefore perceived that they would come and take him by force, to make him a king, he departed again into a mountain himself alone." Later, as recorded in the very same chapter, it was this that prompted Jesus to say to the crowds that sought for him, "Verily, verily, I say unto you, Ye seek me, not because ye saw the miracles, but because ye did eat of the loaves, and were filled." 9
The crowd was interested in having the problems of this world solved. The aspiration to have a king who would break the tyranny of a foreign empire, Rome, was understandable, as was the desire for a king who could employ his miraculous power to feed the nation. But, like those who later would teach salvation by the power of the flesh to keep the perfect and holy Law of God, the worldly focus of the crowd fell short of God's grace as he was revealing it through his Son.
This miracle revealed that Jesus Christ places in the hands of his Apostles miraculous food for all the people, and he does so in a desert place where no one can keep himself alive. Where there is no means of feeding, and where there is no power from human strength to bring forth bread from the earth, Jesus Christ provides all that is needed. He sustains life, feeding the bodies of the crowd to teach them that it is he who gives the only true bread, the food and drink of eternal life. For, we are in the desert place, unable to keep ourselves alive, unable to avoid the universal sentence for all human sin, namely, death. No matter how long we hang on in this desert, we do not have in ourselves the power to survive forever. Sooner or later, this applies to each one of us: "Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return."10
It is from this miracle that the Lord begins to teach them, to lift the vision of those who will see, and to speak the word to those who may hear:
"Then Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Moses gave you not that bread from heaven; but my Father giveth you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he which cometh down from heaven, and giveth life unto the world. Then said they unto him, Lord, evermore give us this bread. And Jesus said unto them, I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst."11
He went on:
"Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me hath everlasting life. I am that bread of life. Your fathers did eat manna in the wilderness, and are dead. This is the bread which cometh down from heaven, that a man may eat thereof, and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world. The Jews therefore strove among themselves, saying, How can this man give us his flesh to eat? Then Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him. As the living Father hath sent me, and I live by the Father: so he that eateth me, even he shall live by me. This is that bread which came down from heaven: not as your fathers did eat manna, and are dead: he that eateth of this bread shall live for ever."12
Not until "the night in which he was betrayed," when he broke the bread and took the cup, did they know how to eat his Body and drink his Blood. Those who continued to follow him trusted him enough to expect the revelation that would explain how to make sense of his words. "Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life," said Peter. On that night they were not disappointed.
Jesus Christ places into the hands of the ministers in his Church the means of eternal life, this Sacrament "generally necessary to salvation." But, remember that this sacrament is a means of grace only to those who believe in Jesus Christ. As St. Paul tells us in the 11th chapter of his First Epistle to the Church in Corinth, those who presume to eat and drink without faith, add sin to sin and incur judgment. They do not receive the grace of the sacrament. Therefore, our Book of Common Prayer only bids those who come with "hearty repentance and true faith." To approach the sacrament without "hearty repentance and true faith" is dangerous, profiting nothing, incurring judgment. Therefore, as we have heard, Jesus prefaced his teaching by saying, "Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me hath everlasting life. I am that bread of life."
When our Anglican Fathers wrote the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549, under the direction of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, they emphasized the need to eat and drink the sacrament rather than merely to attend Mass. They gave the service we are having this day a new and somewhat long name: "The Supper of the Lorde and the Holy Communion, commonly called the Masse." Since then, to emphasize the words of Christ ("take, eat...drink, ye all, of this...") Anglicans have called the Mass by this Biblical name, full of meaning: "Holy Communion." Unlike the word "Mass," that simply refers to being dismissed at the end of the service (having no spiritual or theological meaning), "Holy Communion" actually means something; and what it means is very important. It takes us to the words of Jesus Christ about himself, and how he gives himself that we may be partakers of him: "I AM the Bread of life." The Name of God, "I AM" is contained in these words. The grace of God is revealed in these words. He is our salvation.
When you approach the altar rail, know this is the gift of Christ to you, and you are feeding on him as he gives himself. Come forward with hearty repentance and true faith, or not at all; because, we are not trying to keep ourselves alive by the efforts of our own flesh, weak as it is through sin. We put our trust in Jesus Christ, and not without that faith that makes us children of Abraham, born after the spirit because we were buried and risen with Christ in baptism, partaking of him by that same faith as receive him in this sacrament today.
Even the best aspirations of mankind, of hopes for this world and confidence in our own ability, are nothing worth, compared to the grace of God revealed in his Son, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
And now, unto God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost, be ascribed as is most justly due, all might, majesty, dominon, power and glory, henceforth, world without end. Amen.
1. Rom. 8:3
3. Gal. 6:12-15
4. Gal. 3:6,7
5. Phil. 3:4-9
6. Isaiah 64:6
7. Eph. 2:8-10
8. John 3:1-17, Rom. 6:1f
9. verse 26
10 Gen 1:19
11. John 6:32-35
12. John 6:47-58