Words are powerful. They don’t seem like much when you stop and think about them. Sound waves pushing on air molecules that bounce off each other like billiard balls and eventually find their way into ear holes and bounce off eardrums. Or shapes and squiggles in the form of letters on a printed page. But the right word at the right time can bring great comfort to someone in distress. The wrong word at the wrong time can deliver distress. With our words we make promises, we marry, we encourage, we hurt, we build up, we tear down, we destroy.
Words are what our Gospel text is about this morning. Words from the mouth of the One who is the very Word of God in human flesh. Words that are Spirit and Life. Words of eternal life. Jesus’ words.
Jesus had just finished delivering his words n the synagogue in Capernaum. He said he was the Bread of Life, living Bread come down from heaven, sent by the Father for the life of the world. And the people who heard him in the synagogue began to murmur at his words. “How can he say that when we know his mother and father?” Jesus said that the bread that he would give for the life of the world was his flesh. And the people again grumbled at his words. “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” Jesus said his flesh is real food and his blood is real drink, and whoever eats of him, believing in him, will live forever.
And now it was the disciples’ turn to murmur. “This is a hard word,” they said, “who can hear it?” Not “hard” in the sense of difficult to understand. Jesus’ words were simple enough to understand. Bread, flesh, blood, eat, drink. Simple, one-syllable words. Nothing hard about them. But strung together into a complete sentence they form a “hard word” – “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, he abides in me and I in him, and I will raise him up on the Last Day.”
It is a “hard word” in the sense that it is unyielding, offensive, scandalous. Jesus bids his followers to do the impossible and the unthinkable, to eat His flesh and to drink his blood. That is a word that is as hard as a billiard ball, as hard as a grain of seed that bounces off the pavement of hard-hearted unbelief. It is a stubbornly resistant word. It resists any attempt on our part to make it soft and sweet and spiritual and sentimental. With this hard word Jesus has brought his hearers to the faith point. It is either take Him at his scandalously “hard word” and eat his flesh and drink his blood as the Bread of Life, trusting that by it you have eternal life, or reject this “hard word” and so reject Jesus and die.
There are no alternatives. There is no alternative to the Son of God who bids us to hear this “hard word” and to eat His flesh and drink His blood which He gave on the cross for the life of the world. He may not be the most “marketable” Jesus, according to our ideas of marketing, especially when He speaks with such a “hard word,” but He is the only Jesus who hung on the cross for us as our flesh and blood Savior. He is the only Jesus who is Son of God and Son of man, who came down from heaven to be crucified and who rose from the dead to be glorified.
This hard word of Jesus is also reject able word. Many of his disciples withdrew after the Bread of Life sermon and no longer followed him. The miracles were fun and the teaching was great. But this eating flesh and drinking blood talk was just too much. Best go Messiah shopping somewhere else. Judas, one of the Twelve betrayed him.
God forces Jesus on no one. He force feeds no one with the Bread of Life. God doesn’t save at gunpoint. In love He sent Jesus Christ to die and to rise for the life of the world. And He invites the entire world and everyone in it to die and rise with Jesus. He offers, delivers, and applies Jesus’ death and resurrection absolutely free through the “hard word” of the Gospel. He even works in us repentance and faith, breaking down our hard-hearted unbelief and giving us the ears to hear this “hard word” and to believe it. And if after all that, we still prefer hell to the Bread of Life, God will give us hell. But don’t blame Him. Hell wasn’t his idea.
So it was with the people of Israel at the time of Joshua. God had chosen them in father Abraham and claimed them as his own people in Egypt. He brought them out of slavery. He protected and fed them on their journey in the wilderness. He drove out before them all the nations that occupied their land. He gave them a land of their own. He was their God. They were His people. His people did not choose God. God chose them. And as the people stood at the threshold of that land, Joshua exhorted the people of Israel to serve with fear and faithfulness the Lord who had chosen them. But God forced no one to be His people. But serving the Lord who saved them was not their cup of tea, then they were free to choose which false gods they would serve, whether the gods of the Egyptians or the local gods of the Amorites. Everyone must have some god to serve, whether the God who has saved you, or one of your own choosing.
“No one can come to me unless it is given him by the Father.” The word “given” has been abominably rendered “enabled” in the NIV text. (The enablers seem to have gotten into the business of translation.) “To enable” implies that we do something and that God enables us to do it. “To give” says that God gives and we receive. Being a Christian is not the outcome of right choices or enabled actions. You didn’t decide to come to Jesus, nor were you enabled. You were given to come to Him when He came to you in your Baptism and when He comes to you in His Word of Absolution and in the Holy Sacrament. It’s all a gift, and we are at the glorious gift-receiving end of all that God has to give. Get things gift right and you will get them Gospel right.
“The Spirit gives life, the flesh is of no avail.” The flesh that Jesus is referring to here is our flesh not his flesh. His flesh is the Bread of Life come down from heaven for the life of the world. Our flesh, on the other hand, is dead in sin, turned away from God and His word. Our flesh cannot save us. St. Paul reminds us that our flesh is set against the Spirit, that the works of the flesh are plain to anyone: sexual immorality, impurity, debauchery, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred discord, jealously fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissension, orgies, etc. That’s why Jesus says the flesh counts for nothing, because our flesh is rotten to the core. All the flesh can do is die, which is precisely what it’s doing, just in case you haven’t noticed. Oh, we might be able to spruce the old flesh up a bit and keep things in reasonable shape for a while, but in the end we go the way of all flesh and we die.
Now death is not God’s last word to us, nor is it the worst thing that can happen to us. Death is God’s second to the last word to us, and a necessary word to our sinful flesh. His last word is that “hard word,” that resistant and resistible Word named Jesus Christ, God’s Word in the flesh. Jesus is the Word who speaks the Word. “The words I have spoken to you are Spirit and they are life.” Where Jesus’ words are, there the Holy Spirit is. Where the Spirit is, there is life, for He is, as we confess in the Nicene creed, the “Lord and Giver of life.”
The Holy Spirit is inseparable from Jesus’ words. Any spirit that comes apart from Jesus’ words is not the Holy Spirit, and any words that come without the Spirit are not Jesus’ words. Luther and the Lutheran Confessions are adamant on this point. “Whatever is attributed to the Spirit apart from such Word and Sacrament is of the devil.” What a comfort that is for us! It means that we may never be left in doubt as to whether the Spirit is present and active among us. We don’t need people rolling in the aisles or speaking in tongues or having some sort of religious ecstasies. We don’t even need to feel uplifted or even feel any particular way. All we need are for Jesus’ words to be preached and heard. And where Jesus’ words are proclaimed and heard, there we can be sure that the Holy Spirit is present and active giving life.
These words of Jesus come to us in the ordinary way of words, formed in mouths through lips, tongue and teeth, carried by sound waves via air molecules banging together, into ear holes and bouncing off of eardrums. And yet these very same words are Spirit-filled, living, and life-giving words. These are no ordinary words. They do what they say and they say what they do. With His word Jesus changes water into wine. With His word he heals a sick child some twenty seven miles away. With his word tells a paralytic to “rise, take up your pallet, and walk,” and the man does. And now we understand the vision of St. John in the Revelation, where a glorified Jesus appears with a sharp, two-edged sword coming out of his mouth. Jesus is the Word made Flesh who speaks words that are alive with the life-giving Spirit.
Jesus’ words that are Spirit and life have been spoken to us. Jesus’ words were spoken to us personally by name at our Baptism. They are spoken to us corporately in the the Absolution before the service, and individually in private Confession. And they do there what they say. They forgive sins. Jesus’ words are spoken to us in the Holy Supper where he says to us, “Take, eat, this is my body,” “Take, drink, this is my blood.” “For you.” “For the forgiveness of your sins.”
Jesus’ words are the only reason to be here this morning. They are the only reason Holy Trinity exists as a congregation. They are the only reason the church exists. The church is a creature of the living words of Jesus. She was called into existence by His word, “follow me,” and the church continues to feed and grow on Jesus’ words. Each of us was given life by the Spirit working through His words. Jesus’ words are faith creating and faith feeding words.
There is the ever-present temptation in our day to set aside the “hard words” of Jesus, to soften those that don’t fit our idea of what a respectable Savior should say, to smooth over what doesn’t fit our presuppositions and presumptions. In particular these words recorded by St. John, which point so clearly to both the Word and Jesus’ flesh and blood, have been bent and twisted to suit one agenda or the other. We might be tempted to compromise Jesus’ “hard word” in the interest of popularity and marketability. The current trend, following the ways of the political polls, seems to be to determine what people want to hear and then deliver it. “You name the needs, and we’ll make the creeds.” Or some try and do a “chinese-menu” job on Jesus. Two from column Matthew, one from column Mark. We’ll keep the miracles and parables, but you can keep John 6 and all this talk about eating his flesh and drinking his blood. In contemporary church life that translates into keep the sermon short, snappy and “relevent” for today, don’t spend too much time with the Lord’s Supper, and don’t ever forget the coffee and doughnuts. The trouble here is that creeds shaped to the needs of the flesh are not necessarily Spirit, nor are they life. And half a Jesus is not all the Jesus that we have been given.
Now some of disciples pulled away from him and no longer wanted to go with him. When the words got hard, the unbelievers go shopping. The membership was declining. His followers were thinning. All because of one sermon. It’s a preacher’s worst nightmare. As the Roman Catholic priest in the movie Mass Appeal put it, “having the offering after the sermon makes it kind of a Nielson rating on preaching.” But Jesus didn’t go running after them saying, “Please come back, you must have misunderstood. Is there another way I could have said it?” They had understood his words perfectly. They just didn’t want to hear those words anymore.
Instead Jesus turned to his closest disciples, the Twelve, his apostles-in-training who had followed him from the beginning, and he looked them right in the eye and said, “What about you? You’re not planning to leave too, are you?”
Simon Peter responded as one in whom Jesus’ spirited, life-giving words had had their way. “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” The words of Jesus that are Spirit and life bring eternal life. Not infallibly or irresistibly. Judas was one of the Twelve, and he betrayed Jesus. Not even a seminary education and an MDiv to match guarantees a ticket to heaven. Only Jesus Christ crucified can do that and he does it by putting his words into us week after week, Sunday after Sunday.
We bring our sin. Jesus brings His words. We call that worship. His words may not be the most entertaining or uplifting words. They will not satisfy the flesh’s constant craving to be entertained, amused, uplifted and intrigued. “New and improved” is not a label you can hang on Jesus. But remember, when it comes to death and resurrection, Jesus is the hands down expert in the field. No one does death and resurrection like Jesus. In fact, no one else does death and resurrection. And no one else has the words of eternal life.
We are here not to be entertained, amused, or even emotionally uplifted. If that is why you came, you will likely leave as disappointed as the disciples who left Jesus in disgust. We are here to die and rise with Jesus. To die to our sin and to our selves and to be raised up out of our sin and death to eternal life by the forgiveness of sins. That’s the only item on the agenda, and no one calls the shots here but the Lord. Jesus’ words are at work here doing what they say. Forgiving sin and bestowing life and the life-giving Spirit. They are the words of eternal life. They are the words of the Holy One of God who died for you, and He will never lie to you or deceive you with his words.
Jesus’ words are surely a “hard word.” As hard as stale bread to unbelief, yet the Bread of Life to faith. In the end the hard word turns out to be the only solid word we have. It is rock solid to the end, as firm as Christ the solid Rock that was split for our salvation. His words will carry us through the chaos and disorder and doubt and sin of our lives, when everything else seems to be falling apart and every attempt to save our selves has failed. His words will take us to the grave and through the grave to the resurrection. His words will raise us from the dead. That’s what they do. They are Spirit and life. They bring eternal life.
Where else can we go? Jesus alone has the flesh and blood that gives real food for eternal life. And alone has the words. Word and Bread, flesh and blood. Sounds like Word and Sacrament. What goes on in the liturgy every Sunday. Here, today. For you.
In the Name of Jesus,