Our life as Christians is a continuous circuit to and from this holy altar. We come to eat Living Bread, offer our sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving, and then we go home. Both parts of this journey are important. (Ps. 121:8)
If you want to eat the Bread of Life, if you want to live forever, then you must come to the altar. Not to an imaginary altar that exists in words only, but to the one before your eyes today because it is the mercy seat of God.
In Christian piety the altar represents several different things.
First it represents the manger in which he who "became man" to save his people from their sins, was laid. A manger was not the cute little cradle that people imagine, but it was a feeding trough for cattle even as the altar is for us. In this case the various cloths that adorn this Table of Life serve to remind us of the human flesh our Lord assumed; and of the swaddling clothes in which the babe of Bethlehem was dressed for our cause.
The altar also points to the empty tomb because the flesh and blood of Jesus that we receive from this heavenly board is not the Lord's dead corpse, but his resurrected, glorified spiritual body. That is why, just like the bread and fish in today's gospel lesson, it can feed countless people but never be exhausted. Now the linens and paraments remind us of the grave clothes in which the Lord of life was wrapped; but which he neatly shed by the Spirit who raised him from the dead.
But if there is one reality above all others that the altar symbolizes it is the blessed cross because the altar is first of all a place of sacrifice. This is why, though altars can be constructed of various materials, one made of wood preaches the clearest message. Though it has no tongue, and knows no language, it bespeaks and truly gives us Christ crucified who was sacrificed on the altar of the cross for in order to delete the sins of the world. Your sins, whose wages is nothing but unrest, uncertainty, discontent, endless complications, troubles, sorrow, misery and death: now and forever. "The day you eat of it," the Lord says to Adam, "you will surely die," and die he did, as do we because of our relation to him.
But the day you eat this Living Bread, this very glorified flesh and blood of Jesus given your from this altar, you will live. The cancer of your sin is put into remission, and health and salvation are yours now and forever. It is to this very altar that Jesus invites us when he says: "Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me."
For too long Lutherans, influenced by pietism and sloppy sentiment, have spiritualized this altar away. Religion then became a matter of the heart that could be practiced anywhere, and in any fashion one chose. But you can't receive the Bread of Life at the Panera Bread Company on a Sunday morning; but only here.
Notice that in today's Gospel lesson the people went where Jesus was, even if that meant following him into the Palestinian desert which was a dangerous place, unfit for human habitation, and that could not support human life. There they sat in rapt attention forgetting where they were, and forgetting even to eat, as Jesus fed them with the Bread of Heaven.
In the same way if we want Jesus; if we want to have our sins washed away; if we want to gain heavenly knowledge, wisdom, patience and consolation in the face of our sins, and in the face of intrepid evil then we must meet Jesus here, where he wants to be met, at the high and holy altar of God.
But this miraculous feeding of the 4,000 doesn't only teach us about the Lord's Feast, but also about holy baptism by which we gain admittance to the altar.
St. Mark notes that the people "dwelled" with him for three days. "Dwelled" is the language of God's House, the place where holy God and sinful man meet in peace. The Lord's audience perceived that when they were in Jesus' presence they were in God's very house; communing with the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit; even as we are this day, in this place, where our Lord is located by his own word of promise: this is my Body, this is my Blood.
Further, whenever we encounter "three days" in Scripture we should automatically think: the Lord's burial and resurrection. Not only the glorious event itself. But also of our own baptism because St. Paul teaches us that we are entombed with Christ, and raised to new and eternal life with him.
"Great is the baptism you received. It is a ransom to captives; a remission of offenses; a death of sin; a new-birth of the soul; a garment of light; a holy indissoluble seal; a chariot to heaven; the delight of Paradise; a welcome into the kingdom and the gift of adoption!" (St. Cyril of Jerusalem 354 A.D.)
Also, when Jesus notes that they might faint on the "way" he isn't only talking about their return journey but the daily walk of Christian faith.
It's easy to faint, and the longer we go without this food the weaker we become. The more prone to all the temptations of the flesh. The more weary, tired, anxious and hopeless. And so Jesus says: come unto me all you that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. That is your invitation to the altar.
Finally St. Mark does not neglect this little fact, that when all was said and done, Jesus sent them home. We, too, for all the unspeakable blessings we receive here must finally return to our homes. To the vocation God has given each of us, because that is where we live out our Christian identity. The place where we shed impurity and lawlessness which leads only to more lawlessness. But where we yield our reason, our senses and all our members to righteousness leading to sanctification.
For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God, your baptism, is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.