✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
“The wages of sin is death.” I think most understand that passage of Scripture to be referring to physical death. “Because of our sin, we must die; our bodies are destined to wear out and pass away.” And that is true. Were it not for mankind’s rebellion against God beginning in the Garden of Eden, there would be no such thing as death. Don’t forget that. God did not create us to die but to live in His presence forever, in the flesh. The fact that the world is so screwed up and full of death now is not God’s fault; it’s our own. In the beginning, animals did not eat one another; Adam and Eve did not eat the animals. Food was provided freely by God to all living things from the fruit of the trees and the various plants He had created. All creatures were thoroughly satisfied with God’s provision. But then through sin, death entered into the world. Creation fell under the curse of man’s rebellion. Life become only temporary. The ground produced weeds and thistles. Animal turned against animal. Man turned against man. Man became in many ways like an animal. He would have to toil and sweat for His food. Work would no longer be a pleasurable activity but burdensome labor. God’s sentence was “Dust you are, and to dust you shall return.”
And yet it might appear to some that what God said would happen didn’t. The Lord had said, “In the day you eat of it, you shall surely die.” But Adam and Eve were still alive and kicking for many decades after they ate, even if life had become much more difficult. So what’s going on here?
Death from the eternal perspective has to do with a lot more than just the body giving out and the heart stopping and the brain no longer functioning. Death ultimately has to do with being separated from God, being cut off from His presence and His goodness. That’s why hell is rightly called eternal death. For it is the place where God and His grace are absent, and there is only ultimate nothingness and evil and pain. Hell is the place where those who want to live independently from God get what they asked for.
So while physical death is indeed the consequence of sin, death ultimately is spiritual. In the day that they ate, Adam and Eve did die. They were only hollow shells of what they once were, as all of mankind still is. Ephesians 2 reminds us all people are by nature dead in sin.
And I think we know that, at least subconsciously. When the Epistle reading says that “the wages of sin is death,” we know it doesn’t only mean that death is going to be coming to us someday in the future, but that we’re already experiencing it. We can feel in our bodies that we’re dying, in various troubles and sickness and aging. And we experience it in our spirits, too. Every sin is destructive and brings a little bit of death with it. For instance, laziness brings boredom with God’s creation and an unhappiness with the blessings God provides, always having to seek out some new pleasure or thrill. Lust and sexual immorality diminish people and ruin families and sear consciences. Overindulging in food or drink produces health problems and a sluggish spirit. Impatience leads to anger. Gossiping leads to conflict and broken friendships. Greed poisons good relationships. Pride blinds us to our faults and the needs of our neighbor. Our sins are killing us. They’re emptying us of life and hollowing us out–like the empty stomachs of the 4000 in today’s Gospel. Indeed, the wages of sin is death, even before we die.
However, that’s only the first half of the verse. The last half trumps the first half when it declares, “The gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord!” Notice the difference in terminology there. The first half talks about wages, the second half talks about a gift. The first part talks about what we have earned, the second part talks about what God has freely given without our earning it. Our working has led to death, but God’s working leads to life through His Son.
In today’s Gospel we see a wonderful picture of how God worked to save us from death and bring us back into His life. For there we see Jesus in the wilderness with the multitudes. Man’s sin had turned the world from the abundance of Paradise into a bleak and harsh place, and so Jesus entered into that bleakness and harshness as a true man in order that He might undo the curse and restore humanity and all of creation. The Son of God took on your human body and soul and put Himself smack dab into the middle of this fallen, desert world in order to rescue you and raise you up.
Jesus said, “I have compassion on the multitudes.” That word, “compassion,” in Greek has to do with the deepest possible empathy and feeling. So fully does Jesus empathize with you and feel for you that He went so far as to make your problems His problem. He knows what you’re going through, whatever it is. In His great mercy Jesus came into the world to suffer with you and to suffer for you in order to take your suffering away forever. He made Himself a part of the mud and the blood in order to redeem you and revive the fallen creation in which you live.
You can begin to see that taking place already in this miracle of the feeding of the 4000. The curse on Adam had been, “In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread.” But here the second Adam, Jesus, reverses the curse and produces bread in abundance apart from any sweaty or tiring labor. In this moment He restores the bounty of the Garden of Eden, where food is received in overflowing measure from the gracious hand of God. Here you see God the Son beginning to break the curse of decay and death and overcome the fall into sin. You see a small glimpse of how it was in the beginning and how it will be even more so in the new creation of the age to come.
Jesus would complete His work of undoing the fall and breaking the power of the curse of death at the pinnacle of His ministry, on the cross. There Jesus turned the curse into a blessing for you. The wages of sin is death; and so Jesus took those wages you had coming and died your death for you. Sin’s deathly curse was broken and undone in the body of Christ the crucified. And therefore, because of Jesus’ sacrifice, the gift of life now flows to you and to all who believe in Him. For if sin has been undone, so also are the wages of sin undone. Death and hell have been taken away from you through the cross. All that remains for you now is life, full and free, through Jesus’ resurrection.
That’s why it’s so important to pay attention to the fact that it was on the third day that this miracle was performed in the Gospel. It is a tradition in the church to fast beginning on Good Friday in observance of our Lord’s holy death and burial. But then the fast is broken after three days on Easter to partake of the feast of the living and resurrected Christ. Even so, week by week we fast in spirit with Jesus, bearing His cross in our daily vocations. But then the fast is broken on the third day, that is, in divine service, as we feast on the living Bread from heaven. Just as Jesus led these people on a three day journey into the wilderness, so also Jesus leads you on a journey into the wilderness, into your daily callings in this desert world, so that you may learn to hunger for His Word and His righteousness, so that you may see your desperate need for His help and deliverance, and so that you may be filled with His life here on the third day.
Jesus took the seven loaves and gave thanks, broke them, and gave them to His disciples to set before the people. In the same way still today, Jesus speaks His words of thanks and consecration and His ministers distribute the blessed Sacrament of the Altar. The seven loaves were multiplied to feed and fully satisfy 4000 people. In the same way still today, Jesus uses seemingly insufficient bread, the bread of the curse, to multiply His grace and bless and fully satisfy the church with His very life-giving body. Jesus said, “I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world.”
When all had eaten there was more left over than when they started. Seven small loaves became seven large baskets. So it is that the Lord’s love and compassion cannot be exhausted; it never runs out. There is no sin of yours so great that His multiplying mercy cannot overcome it. In fact, it’s really just arrogance if you think there’s some sin of yours that can’t be forgiven, as if your sin is stronger than Jesus. That’s just conceit. No, not only does Jesus overcome it, He makes things better than before. The seven loaves stand for the seven days of creation. The seven large baskets stand for the even greater creation to come at Christ’s return. Not only is the Lord restoring you to the deathless perfection of Eden, He is exalting you to a status and a state even greater and better than Adam and Eve. The place being prepared for you in heaven surpasses even the Paradise of Eden. For all things are fulfilled and brought to their pinnacle in Christ.
So now, even though we see the signs of death in us and around us, we are also given to see the signs of Christ’s life in us and around us as well. For even as sin has its fruit in death, so forgiveness has its fruit in life, and in the fruit of the Spirit–love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Though man ate of the tree that brought death, there is now the tree of life, the cross, from which he may eat and never die, never to be separated from God and His goodness again.
So then, just like the 4000, we also are given a glimpse of Paradise here in this place. As you receive the bread of life, you are being given a taste of heaven. For heaven is where Christ is; and Christ is here for you. “The poor shall eat and be satisfied.” “Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the man who trusts in Him.”
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠