Words. They don’t seem like much. Sound waves pushing on air molecules that bounce off each other like billiard balls and eventually find their way into ears and bounce off eardrums to make sounds. The right word at the right time can bring great comfort. 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 Jesus, who is the very Word of God in human flesh. Words that are Spirit and Life. Words of eternal life. Hard words.
Jesus had just finished delivering his words in 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 began to murmur and grumble at these words. Jesus said that the bread that he would give for the life of the world was his own 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.
Now it was the disciples’ turn to complain. “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. Bread, flesh, blood, eat, drink. Simple, one-syllable words. Nothing hard about them. Hard in the sense that it is an unyielding, demanding, scandalous word. It resists any attempt on our part to make it soft and sweet and spiritual and sentimental. With this hard word Jesus brings us to the faith point. Either take Him at His word and live forever, or reject this “hard word” and die.
There are no other options. This may not be the most “marketable” Jesus, but He’s the only Jesus you’ve got. The only One who hung on the cross for us as our flesh and blood Savior. The only One 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 is also a rejectable wird. Jesus forces His word on no one. 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 talk of flesh and blood, of sacrifice, was simply too much. Not what they bargained for. Best go messiah shopping somewhere else. Judas, one of the chosen Twelve betrayed him.
The Father forces His Son 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. But if after all that, you still prefer death to life, hell to heaven, soft words to the hard truth, God will give you that too. But don’t blame Him for it; it wasn’t His idea.
Look at OT Israel. 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 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. He chose them; they didn’t choose Him. And as the people stood at the threshold of the promised land, Joshua exhorted the people of Israel to serve the Lord who had chosen them. But if serving the Lord who chose and saved them was not their cup of religious tea, then they were free to choose from the menu of false gods, whether the gods of Egypt they left or the local gods of the Amorites. Notice their choice. It’s not choose YHWH or some other god. God isn’t one choice among many, like 57 flavors of ice cream. If you reject the only true God, then your choice is among the idols.
If not the one true God who chose you, then choose your idol. If not Jesus the Christ who died for your salvation, then you may choose the god of your damnation.
“No one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.” Not “enabled” but “granted.” Given. Granted. Being a baptized believer is not the outcome of enabled choices. You don’t decide to follow Jesus, you are given to follow Jesus. 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 you are at the glorious gift-receiving end of all that God has to give.
“The Spirit gives life, the flesh is of no avail.” Our flesh can’t save us. Jesus’ flesh can, but not ours. Ours is dead. St. Paul says that nothing good dwells in his flesh. It’s set against the Spirit of God. It does the things that damn us: sexual immorality, impurity, debauchery, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred discord, jealously fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissension, orgies, etc. That’s a hard word to hear. We think we can shape this old flesh up, and do a little spiritual nip and tuck and present it to God, and He’s supposed to be thrilled at the makeover. Wrong.
“The Spirit gives life.” He’s the Lord and Giver of life. He’s the Breath of life that breathed life into Adam’s clay and our own. And here Jesus says, “My words, the words I have spoken to you, these hard words you find unbearable to your ears, are Spirit and they are life.” Do you want the Holy Spirit? Then hear Jesus’ words – they are Spirit. Do you want to live? Then hear Jesus’ words – they are life.
With His words He created everything, sustains everything, upholds everything. With His words, He heals the sick, raises the dead, causes the deaf to hear, the mute to speak, the blind to see. Jesus speaks a word, and a sick child is instantly healed 27 miles away. Jesus tells a paralyzed man, “Get up and go home,” and he does.
He says to you, “You sins are forgiven,” and they are. He baptizes you with water and His words and you are reborn. He feeds you His body and His blood with the words, “given and shed for you, for your forgiveness.” Hard words? You bet they’re hard. They resist any of our puny attempts to analyze or rationalize. They are to be heard and trusted from the lips of the One who died and rose for you.
Capernaum was a turning point. Many disciples packed their bags and left. They no longer followed Jesus. His words were too hard for them to hear, too much for their ears to bear. And does Jesus go chasing after them saying, “Please come back, you misunderstood me. Let me say it another way”? No. He turns to His Twelve, and He asks them, “You too? Are you going to leave too?”
It’s every preacher’s nightmare, you know, short of the nightmare of waking up on Sunday morning thinking it’s Saturday. The sermon that chases them away, the sermon they can’t bear to hear. The sermon that brings phone calls and letters on Monday morning. We pull our punches for fear of that, soften those hard words of Law and Gospel. Sweeten them. Tame them. Domesticate them. We do our hearers a great disservice when we do that. We don’t need religious mush in our ears, we need hard words that are Spirit and life.
Simon Peter makes the great confession. “Lord, where else are we going to go? Lord, to whom shall we go? You and you alone have the words of eternal life.” I appreciate the fact that these words of Peter are the generic alleluia verse that accompanies the reading of the Gospel. “Alleluia, Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” We know that sometimes we don’t like what we hear, that it seems as anything but “good news” to our ears. Sometimes it’s almost ironic to say, “This is the Gospel of the Lord” when it hardly sounded like “good news.”
But that’s faith talking. Faith delights to hear even the “hard words.” Especially the hard words. Those are solid and sure words, as sure as Jesus is crucified and risen from the dead. You can take those words to the grave with you, and with those words, Jesus will raise you up on the Last Day. You can take those words of forgiveness, and use them against your sin. You can take those words of promise in Baptism and in the Lord’s Supper and trust them for all they’re worth. They are Spirit and life from the mouth of Jesus into your ears.
Hard words? Yes. Rock solid words – from Jesus to you, to save you.
In the Name of Jesus,