At a Vacation Catechetical School meeting we discussed how one word can be a theme. The 2003 movie "Holes" was mentioned. From the beginning, all the mystery, excitement, and potential of digging for buried treasure are there. This part of Jesus' sermon after the Feeding of the 5,000 is not about "holes" but "veils".
Veils conceal or reveal. The veiling of the crosses and crucifixes we do at Lent is meant to mute our joy by concealing the joy of our desiring. It dates to the 17th century, but then it was done only for the last 2 weeks of Lent called Passiontide (Newthelogogical/movement/2011/04). This practice of veiling crosses was called a "fasting of the eyes" (Mosebach, Hersey of Formlessness, 169-71).
However, veiling the cross started out being done to reveal it. Dating to 4th century Jerusalem (ODCC, 1431), on Good Friday a relic of the original cross was wrapped in cloths and stowed away for the year in the sacristy. On the following Good Friday it was brought into the church and unveiled in a solemn ritual. Churches which had no relic of the original cross to veil did so to their cross above the altar. "Here the purpose of veiling was not to withdraw the cross from sight: it was so their cross would be treated like the real Cross." Their cross was transformed from a devotional object to the real thing by means of a veil (Mosebach, Hersey of Formlessness, 169-71).
Revealing that more than meets the eye is here is the main purpose of veils in church. It's not intended to hide objects from view. Veiling says that the outward appearance tells you nothing about the things real nature. "In this context a liturgy that renounces all veiling has nothing to say" (Ibid., 172-3). The veiling of brides, clergymen in robes, and especially the Communion elements all testify that something beyond what the eye can see is present. And in this sermon on the Bread of Life Jesus is veiling Himself and His Work. In Him more than meets the eye is present: vicarious and universal atonement are.
Listen to Jesus' sweeping words that draw attention to His flesh and blood standing before them. "If ever anyone at all should eat out of this Bread of Life he will live into the ages." "The Bread which I Myself will give is the flesh of Me in place of the life of not just the world - but literally the cosmos." Jesus stands in the synagogue at Capernaum and says He Himself is the atoning sacrifice not just for them, the Jews, not just for the world, but the cosmos. He is the atoning sacrifice that will quench, put out, the wrath of God Almighty who seethes with white hot rage at the world's sins.
Do you see how He is veiling who He is and what He does? He speaks in graphic, startling language, so that they can't hear it and neither should you hear it as ordinary. Unless you're brought to where they are arguing about how can this man give us His flesh to eat, you aren't really listening. Last week Jesus words made them grumble at Him. Now His words have escalated the situation between them because they are so startingly, beyond the pale; no they're within a veil.
You know nothing in Scripture says those Communion elements must be veiled. In fact, not using veils would save us money and the ladies who care for them time and effort. I've never seen Communion elements veiled in Reformed, Baptist, or contemporary churches, even Lutheran ones. With Reformed and Baptist their doctrine says nothing more is here than meets the eye, bread and wine or more likely grape juice. Contemporary Missouri Synod churches still believe that more than bread and wine are here, but they're acting otherwise when they don't veil them. The veil here stops you from thinking that these are nothing more than ordinary bread and wine. Something glorious and divine is concealed here and the veil reveals it.
Jesus' graphic language here serves to veil. When the Jews are arguing sharply about "How can this man give us his flesh to eat," Jesus escalates and says, "Amen, amen I say to you, if ever you should not eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink the blood of Him, you have no life in you." As a kid, did you ever get sick right after eating something? It could be something good like cookies or candy, and the sickness a virus, but you associated your nausea with that food and were gun-shy of that food for years. This is the Jew and blood. God's Law repeatedly said don't eat meat with blood. No blood for you. The soul is in the blood. Don't drink it. And now Jesus says to those who are going bananas about eating His flesh that they must drink His blood too.
But like a diamond in a jeweler's case, hidden in ever bigger boxes, Jesus is thickening the veil, building anticipation. He says not only must you eat My flesh and drink My blood, but the one who literally munches the flesh of Me and drinks the blood of Me has life eternal and I will raise Him up on the last day. Last week we saw that who Jesus is and what He came to do was concealed to them by their "knowing" He is that son of Joseph by Mary. Here by saying He is the Son of Man and that His flesh is food and His blood is drink that gives life beyond death itself, He is saying something no man had ever said before, something no prophet had ever said before. And that tempts them, entices them, begs them: take another look at Me.
These folks know what you do. They know that the problem was in their flesh and blood. That death was at work them. They were doomed to die. Every passing year, every graying hair, every new ache or old pain told them their flesh and blood were not life-giving but were giving out, winding down, dying. And there was nothing they could do about it with their flesh and blood; moreover, their sinful flesh and blood deserved this judgment. "Die, die, die" preached God's holy Law, and their flesh and blood answered "Yes, yes, it shall be so."
Then with a veil of words Jesus makes them trip over His flesh and blood. They're from heaven not from earth. They're not tainted by original sin which is passed from generation to generation. His flesh and blood are not under the sentence of death like ours are. The cause of death is sin. Jesus has no sin in the flesh and blood He received through the Virgin Mary and not any from doing, saying, or thinking wrong. And He is going to give this holy flesh and blood in place of the life of the cosmos. We are always rightly moved by stories of one person giving their life to save another. Even though it wasn't our life they saved, we feel a sense of wonder mixed with gratitude for the person and his act. Well, you are the person Jesus lived a holy life in place of and died a gruesome, painful, damned death on behalf of.
Jesus' bold, over the top promises that veil His flesh and blood with majesty and power are meant to illicit the response: why not me? Why can't this be for me? Why can't His life be in place of mine? Why can't I eat His flesh and drink His blood and not die but rather live forever? I have no answer to my sinfulness that hangs around my neck like a weight, no answer to the death that haunts me like a ghost, no answer to the Devil that hounds me like a roaring lion. I have no answer at all in my flesh and blood. Jesus says He has answers for me in His flesh and blood. Why not me?
The veiling leads to desiring. Jesus says not as the insert translates that His flesh and blood are "real" food and "real" drink but true food and true drink. In a sense all other food and drink are false. The don't/can't address the true problem of our flesh and blood that we feel in every beat of our heart, in every thought of our head, in every word of our tongue. Apart from eating and drinking that which is truly food and drink you die forever and then some. So this eating and drinking is absolutely necessary. Apart from this eating and drinking Jesus plainly says "you have no life in you", and you won't be raised to life on the Last Day. The only eating and drinking of Jesus that is absolutely necessary for salvation is not the oral eating and drinking that happens in Communion. No, it's the spiritual eating and drinking that happens by faith.
This is 6 months before Jesus institutes the Lord's Supper. I'm sure at that time some of the apostles' eyes flew open as the veil was pulled all the way off of not only who Jesus is and what He came to do, but how they could fully partake of Him. But here in the synagogue of Capernaum Jesus is not calling them to Holy Communion but to His flesh and blood as the means by which their flesh and blood can be forgiven, raised, and so live forever.
Manducatio est credere is an ancient saying meaning "'to eat is to believe'" (Buls, B, After Pentecost, 27). Using "eating" food or for that matter "drinking" liquid to illustrate faith highlights the passive nature of believing. Just as your eating something doesn't cause it to be there and indeed just as you can't eat what is really not there, so your believing that Jesus' gave up His holy body and blood in place of yours doesn't cause that to be true and all the believing in the world wouldn't make it true if it didn't actually happen. Also, just as no one can eat for you, so no one can believe for you. The fact that food and drink are provided in abundance for all the people in a place doesn't do anything for you if you don't eat and drink. So, the fact that Jesus gave His flesh and blood in place of the entire cosmos, doesn't do a thing for you if you don't believe it was for you.
In that movie "Holes" there are scenes where there are holes all over. They beckon you. In our society very few things are veiled because very few things are thought of as being more than meet the eyes. As the abundance of holes draws attention, so the scarcity of veils does in our age. The fact that here the whole space is veiled by stained glass windows, people are veiled by robes, and veiled elements are at the center of it all calls you, beckons you, begs you to consider that something out of this world is in this world. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost (20180819); John 6: 51-59