Of Frying Pans and Fires
"You don't want to jump out of the frying pan into the fire." That saying means don't go from one bad choice to another just as bad or worse. People jump from the frying pan of believing there is no body or blood of Jesus in Communion and therefore they only eat and drink Jesus by faith into the fire of believing they can receive the benefits of Communion without faith.
Some people believe that Jesus real body and blood are only in heaven now. They can't be on that altar or in your mouth. These speak of Jesus being spiritually present, or present to faith, and deny that Jesus is physically present or present at all to unbelief. The unbeliever who might secretly come to the altar doesn't receive Jesus there because He lacks the faith that rises to heaven to feed on Jesus.
That's the frying pan. The fire is believing that by the outward act of taking communion a person receives grace whether or not they believe it. People regularly jump between these two errors. This is how the jump takes place. The person comes to believe the simple truth that the actual body and blood of Christ are present in Holy Communion. The Bible says the flesh and blood of Christ are life giving. Therefore, since I eat His body and drink His blood, I live. Doesn't Jesus say, "Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life?" And so they jump into the error of thinking that no matter if someone believes or not they receive life from Communion because they do eat the body and blood of Christ.
The problem with this is that not all who commune live forever. All do receive the body and blood of Christ but not all live. In I Cor. 11 Paul speaks of people eating and drinking Communion to their condemnation. In I Cor. 10 Paul compares us to the Old Testament Church saying, "All ate the same spiritual food and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from Christ. Nevertheless with most of them God was not pleased and they fell in the wilderness." In 1 Cor. 5 Paul commands that the man living in sexual sins be excommunicated in an attempt to save his soul. Luther thought Judas was communed at the first Lord's Supper, but that didn't save him from going to hell. Finally we confess in the Formula of Concord that without true faith the "oral eating in the Supper, is not only not salutary, but harmful and damning."
The frying pan is thinking that faith gives Communion its power. The fire is thinking Communion doesn't require faith at all. The position that is neither frying pan nor fire is that faith is required to receive the benefits of the Body and Blood of Jesus but faith doesn't make His Body and Blood present.
Jesus says in John 6:47, in the middle of this chapter about eating and drinking His flesh and blood, "Whoever believes has eternal life." You don't believe and no matter how often you commune you don't have eternal life. Jesus teaches the same thing in the Words of Institution by saying, "Do this in remembrance of Me." You come to this altar not believing what Jesus says is here or why Jesus says you come and you receive the Body and Blood of Jesus for judgment. Jesus teaches the same about the Sacrament of Baptism. "He who believes and is baptized will be saved. He who doesn't believe will be damned." You can't hide an unbelieving life under the waters of Baptism or the Body and Blood of Christ. Even as many circumcised members in the Old Testament Church went to hell in the wilderness having eaten the Passover Lamb, so many baptized members of the New Testament Church go to hell having eaten the body and blood of Christ.
Watch out! You're jumping out of the fire of thinking it doesn't matter if you believe when you receive Commune, but you're jumping back into the frying pan of thinking that Jesus is only present in communion if you believe Him to be. The cure for fire is not the frying pan of believing that faith makes Jesus present and powerful. The cure is to go back to what Jesus says about His work and faith's proper role.
The text opens with Jesus saying, "This bread is My flesh, which I will give for the life of the world." Jesus says this to those grumbling at eating His body and drinking His blood. Jesus says this to those who don't believe in Him. Jesus says, "I give My flesh for the life of the world." Before anyone believed in Him while we were still ungodly enemies of Him says Romans, Jesus took our place under God's law. Jesus took our obligations and our punishments. Hear those oughts', betters', shoulds' and musts' in your ears. Hear Jesus shouting, "It is finished." See the suffering, the sicknesses, the afflictions that should come upon you in time and into eternity to pay for your sins coming upon Jesus instead. See the bloody, gory, tortured Jesus shouting from the cross, "It is finished."
There on the cross the law that accuses you has been silenced. There on the cross the law that demands your punishment has been satisfied. And how do we know that's really how it is for God? Because to the Son's shout, "It is finished," the Father said, "Amen." That's what Easter is. The Father raising the Son is Him saying "Amen Son, You did keep the law in their place. Amen Son, You did pay their debt of sin." Hear this; Easter is God the Father promising, "I don't see the sins of the world anymore. I see this wicked, fallen world covered by the holy body and blood of My Son."
Only faith can receive a promise, but faith can only receive a promise that God first makes. If God didn't promise to forgive sins for the sake of Jesus' suffering and death, all the believing in the world wouldn't make that true. If Jesus didn't promise to give you His Body and Blood for forgiveness in Communion, all the believing in the world wouldn't make that true. It's the object, the thing that faith believes in that is all important, not the faith itself. That's why Jesus emphasized the littleness of faith not its bigness. He compared faith to a mustard seed not a coconut because just a little faith receives all the promises, all the forgiveness that God first puts there.
Here are 3 truths to keep your straight: Faith can't make the Body and Blood of Jesus present in Communion. Unbelief can't receive the Body and Blood of Jesus present in Communion for salvation. Only faith can receive the Body and Blood of Jesus present in Communion for forgiveness, for life, for salvation.
The frying pan and fire are always going to be with you. How do you avoid them? By opening your mouth. What I mean is that you will avoid the frying pan of thinking faith causes Christ's presence or power in Communion and the fire of thinking faith is not necessary to receive Communion for forgiveness only by a right understanding of faith. Faith is only rightly understood as a means of receiving what God promises, what God gives.
Faith is an open mouth. Faith is not a power that can make something true or present that is not. Faith is not your work that God sees and is pleased with you for doing. Faith happens in you, but it's a miracle God works not something you do. And faith is not a decision you make. People who decide to believe something are no more believers than people who decide to suffer are sufferers. Both believing and suffering are things that something outside of you causes in you. If you make yourself suffer, you're a masochist not a sufferer. If you make yourself believe, you're a dupe not a believer.
Faith opens its mouths and receives what God gives. The only proper object of faith is what God gives. God does not give forgiveness, life or salvation no matter what but in Christ, in connection with Christ. The Bible does not say that all the promises of God are yes and amen. The Bible says, "All the promises of God are yes and amen in Christ." You stray from Christ; you stray from God's promises. You try to put a claim on God's promises apart from Christ, and you get not life, not forgiveness, not salvation, but death, condemnation, and judgment.
The only proper object of faith is Christ, and the only safe object of faith is Christ. Follow the words of Christ. "Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on Me will live because of Me." Try to get life from God because you believe hard enough and you will get fried. Try to get life from the Father because you did the outward thing of eating and drinking the body and blood of His Son and you will get judgment instead. Try to get life from God apart from what He promises and gives in Christ, and you will be burned up.
God almighty is a nuclear power plant. Christ is the power transformer outside your home. The electrical line coming from the power plant has way too much power to be useful to you. It would fry your wires and burn up your home. The transformer outside your home takes all that power and transforms it into an amount you can use.
There is no life apart from God, but life directly from God would not only fry us sinners but be death and damnation. Christ is all the fullness of the Godhead. All the life of God is in Him, and by His holy life and innocent death, Christ made this life useful for sinful, fallen people. The holy, life of God judges, scorches and burns sinners like us. But in Christ God invites sinners to draw near to believe, eat and drink. So now the one who feeds on Christ has life. Faith opens its mouth to feed on Christ wherever He is found whether that is in Words, in Water, in Bread and Wine. Faith doesn't put Christ in the Words, the Water, the Bread or Wine but only faith receives Him there for the sinner's benefit. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Pentecost XIII (20060903); John 6: 51-58