Life-Giving Flesh

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In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

This is a hard saying. Who can listen to it? Who can accept it? Who can believe or understand it? If you’ve never thought or said something similar when you hear some of Jesus’ words, you might not be paying close enough attention. Jesus says hard things. He says things that are difficult—if not impossible for us in ourselves—to believe. The things that are hard for the people in John 6 are things like this, “I am the living bread that comes down out of heaven from God to give life to the world.” The people whom He fed with multiplied bread and fish want Him to give them a sign to prove He is who He says He is. They say, “The sign Moses gave us to prove he came from God was that he gave us manna in the wilderness.” Jesus says, “It wasn’t Moses who gave you bread from heaven, but God.” But as good as that gift was, as miraculous as it was that God blanketed the wilderness with bread that satisfied Israel every day—literally, daily bread—as good as that gift was, Jesus says, “Your ancestors ate manna in the wilderness and they died.” That bread, finally, was only good for them as long as they were living. Its goodness for their lives ceased as soon as their bodies were in the ground. The benefits of that bread were no longer worth anything once their bodies were no longer living. But Jesus says that there is another bread. There is a bread that doesn’t require a living body to make use of it; all the food we eat every day is used by our bodies to keep our lives going. This bread, Jesus says, does all the work. This bread is itself living, and gives life. If you eat this bread, Jesus says, then you will have eternal life. Whoever eats this bread, Jesus will raise him up on the last day. This living bread lasts beyond death, and even if you die, you will live again. And Jesus says that this bread is Him. He is the living bread, and His flesh is the bread that gives life to the world.

The people say, How can this man give us His flesh to eat? As if all they can imagine is eating a piece of Him, or that He’ll open up a vein and they will drink His blood. Like Nicodemus, who misunderstood Jesus and said, What, I have to crawl back inside my mother and be born again? So the crowds misunderstand Jesus when He says to eat His flesh and drink His blood. But Jesus doesn’t make it any easier for them. He makes it worse, not better. Harder, not easier. He takes that aluminum saying—hard enough—and forges it into hardened steel: Unless you eat My flesh and drink My blood, you have no life in you. Not only am I living bread from heaven, I’m the only living bread there is. Not only do I give life, I’m the only life there is. They say, This is a hard saying, and they begin to go away from Jesus. John calls them disciples, but they cease to be disciples at this word. It’s too hard. It’s a bridge too far. Jesus has crossed the line. They are scandalized: that is, they stumble and fall away from Jesus. They go in search of something easier to swallow, more palatable; something that goes down easier. They go looking for something to soothe their itching ears. They will not follow Jesus all the way, in order to find out how He can give them His flesh and blood. So Jesus turns to His disciples: will you go away also? Jesus doesn’t make it any easier for them. They, too, are Jews who must be thinking along the lines of the crowds. Will you go away also? And Peter, who speaks for the Apostles as he often does, says, “Lord, to whom should we go? Where else is there? You have the words of eternal life. And we have believed and have come to know that you are the Christ, the Anointed One for whom we have been waiting, the Holy One of God.” The disciples don’t understand any more at this point than the crowds. All they know is that whatever difficulties and doubts they have, whatever unanswered questions, whatever hesitation—as hard as Jesus’ words are for them, they know that there is no life anywhere else.

These words are not any easier for us today. We may have had longer to get used to them, but they are still hard words. For the crowds listening to Jesus, they were hard words because they took them too materialistically; they were thinking of pieces of Jesus’ flesh and blood that could be diminished if they drank from it. Our problem is the opposite. We don’t take Jesus’ words too materialistically, we take them to spiritualistically. Isn’t this what we often do with Jesus’ words? Spiritualize them? When we think about the things of God, we put all that stuff into the “spiritual” realm, as opposed to the “physical” realm. We think spiritual things are invisible, things we can’t touch, or taste, or experience with our senses. Physical things we can touch, see, taste. Spiritual things are sort of floating out there in the ether, distant from us in heaven; while physical things are here and now, hard and fast. We might even go so far as to say that spiritual things are good and physical things are bad. And if God is spirit, invisible and distant, then when we think of God we have to imagine what He might be like. We say things like, “God would never do that.” Or “God would certainly do this.” We say what we think God must be like or not like; that is, we make up our own gods, in our own images.

But Jesus refuses to let us spiritualize His words. He refuses to let us spiritualize God. His words are all about water, flesh and blood, words, bread, eating: about as physical as you can get. He refuses to let our imagination tell us what God is like, and separate our thoughts about God’s goodness, or mercy, or love, from His very flesh and blood. God reveals Himself, and He does it in Christ. There is a gap between flesh and spirit, but it’s not the gap we normally think: that spirit and flesh are opposed to each other. The gap is not between spirit and flesh themselves, but between our flesh and God. As Jesus said to Nicodemus, “Flesh gives birth to flesh.” We know that. Human parents give birth to human children, made of flesh. And Jesus says, “Flesh avails, or profits, nothing.” True. Our flesh will get us nowhere. Our flesh can only end as the flesh of the Israelites who ate manna in the wilderness. That’s the only place flesh can go—in this creation, at least. But Jesus also says, “The Spirit gives birth to spirit.” You can’t be children of God by being born the way all flesh is born. You must be born from above, from God. And He gives that birth by water and the Spirit. The flesh profits nothing, but the Spirit is the life-giver. Not spirit, generally, but the Spirit, the Holy Spirit. And the Holy Spirit is bound together with the Father and the Son, as Jesus makes clear when He uses the same word for life-giver of the Father and the Son in chapter 5 (5:21). God—Father, Son, Spirit—is the life-giver, not our own flesh. And that trinitarian work is bound to the flesh of Jesus: living bread that comes down from heaven to give life to the world. Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. Our flesh profits nothing, but Jesus’ flesh profits everything! Just eating flesh and drinking blood would not get us eternal life; but eating Jesus’ flesh and blood, because it is spiritual and life-giving, does indeed give us eternal life. How is this man able to give us His flesh to eat? Jesus answers the question, but you have to go with Him all the way to the end of the story. Where is it that the crowds refused to follow Him? To the cross. And what happens at the cross? When Jesus dies, He hands over the Spirit. It doesn’t say “His spirit,” as in just dying, though He certainly does that. It says, “The Spirit.” The same Spirit that John saw at Jesus’ baptism, descending in the form of a dove and remaining on Jesus in His flesh. That’s the Spirit whom Jesus delivers over at the cross. And then when the soldier pierces Jesus’ side, what happens? Blood and water come flowing out. John himself points us to the cross when he writes in his first letter that there are three witnesses to the fact that Jesus is the one who has come from God: water and the blood and the Spirit (1 John 5:5ff.) These three bear witness that Jesus is the one in whom we conquer the world, because He is the Son of God. How can we eat flesh and blood in any way other than a cannibalistic way? Because Jesus died and rose from the dead. His life flows as a free gift from His death on the cross, and He has overcome the world.

These words are still difficult for us, bound up as we are in our own flesh. But in a world that is full of hard things; in lives that are difficult; in the midst of things we have trouble understanding, we need hard words. We need hard and fast words that are physical and concrete, words that are not spiritualized where we have to go searching and wondering and imagining after them. Words, and flesh, and blood, and real life. Jesus binds us to His words, to His flesh, because He has come down to give us life. As difficult as some of them may seem, as many second thoughts as we may have about following and listening to this Jesus, we hear the words of St. Peter: Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life; Your words are Spirit and life. There is no where else to go. You are the holy one of God, life itself.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.

— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 8/18/15

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