Bigger than the Red Sea
We’re talking a big divide here. One bigger than then what a happened at the Red Sea between the OT Church and Egypt. This text brings us to stand with one leg in the Church and one in Egypt. Like at a dock, when you have one leg on the dock and one in the boat. Eventually, you have to go one way or the other. If not, it’s into the water. And this divide is much bigger than between dock and boat; it’s between belief and unbelief, between hell and heaven; it bigger than the Red Sea.
The divide starts with the Word. The text opens with, “Many of the disciples therefore, after hearing Him said, ‘Hard is this Word; who able it to listen?’” These disciples speak based on what we’ve been hearing in John 6. Among them is this exchange from last week: “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. Whoever gnaws My flesh and drinks My blood remains in Me, and I in them.” This Word is hard, rough, offensive, intolerable. It’s the Greek skl?ros, our English gets arteriosclerosis from this: hardening of the arteries. And their question is rhetorical. No one is able to hear this.
So say those on the Egyptian side of the Red Sea. So say those residing in the Land of Unbelief. Jesus says that His Words, the very Words He had just spoken to them and were still ringing in their ears, are Spirt and Life. Unbelief says they are at best hard, at worst offensive, and no one is able to listen to them. This is the members of Sanhedrin covering their ears and rushing at Stephen to stone him. Faith by that Spirit says, “Amen” to the flesh and blood Jesus having the Words of eternal life. Get it: one side says they’re impossible, offensive words; the other side says they’re the words of eternal life and only Jesus has them.
You’re on one side or the other. You’re either in the Land of Unbelief with the Egyptians or you’re standing in the Promised Land with the Church. When you open your Bible, when you hear the Bible, you either hear the discordant strains of an orchestra tuning up or the harmonies of heaven. You either hear the repelling “evil hiss” like Johnny did from the Devil’s fiddle or you hear the inviting melodies of a heavenly harp. How can this be? The same Words, al la “Hotel California” could be heaven or could be hell, damnation or salvation, life or death. As it is with the incarnate Word made flesh, Jesus, so it is with the inscripturated, written Word and even the in-breaded Word, Holy Communion. All 3 can be taken either to salvation or condemnation. In all 3 you meet Jesus either as Savior or Judge.
The divide in our text starts with Jesus’ Word. How you take, treat, listen to Jesus’ Word is how you do His Person. Whatever your attitude to the written Word so will be your attitude to the Word made flesh. You see this clearly in the text. “From this time many of His disciples turned back and no longer followed Him.” You think the divide was big when it came to His Words? It only grew when it came to His Person. Jesus goes here. At their saying that Jesus’ Words were impossibly hard to listen to Jesus replies, “Does this offend you?” This is that Greek Word transliterated skandaliz?. Our word scandalize comes from this and so the Greek is often translated ‘scandalize’ or ‘offend’, but it means to be a deathtrap, or to spring a death trap. Jesus asks: “Our My Words about chewing My flesh and drinking My Blood being the only way to eternal life killing you?”
Then Jesus only makes it worse. He asks if these words offend you: “What if you see the Son of Man ascend to where He was before? The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing.” Augustin said there would be no problem if Jesus had said, “What if you see the Son of God ascending to where He was before?” But Jesus said, ‘Son of Man’ (ACC, NT, Iva, 245). Pay attention here. Get this and you’ll rightly hear Jesus saying “the flesh counts for nothing” and not hear it as the Reformed do: as testimony that Jesus’ flesh can’t be in Communion. Go back to John 3. John’s Gospel alludes to Holy Baptism in John 3 where Jesus teaches the unbelieving Nicodemus. And it alludes to Holy Communion in Jesus’ teaching to unbelieving followers in John 6. Both chapters say the Son of Man is in heaven. John 3 says He’s in heaven even as He’s talking to Nick: Listen to what Jesus says there, “No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven.” In John 6 Jesus says the Son of Man is going to go bodily back to where He was before.
Get the point? What ordinary flesh and blood man could either thing be said of? And what ordinary man’s flesh and blood could be lifegiving, could be food and drink for salvation, could give eternal life, could be given in place of the life of the world? See how much the flesh of Jesus does profit? Verse 51 says it’s worth more than the life of the world. In verse 54 it gives eternal life. In verse 55, Jesus says His flesh is true food. But if you look at Jesus, listen to Jesus, with your flesh only, you see none of this, you hear only offensive things. Your flesh leaves you on the Egypt side of the Red Sea; you need the Spirit to crossover with the Church.
It’s always the human side of the things of our salvation, that leads to being stranded in the Land of Unbelief. You see this when the people of Jesus’ hometown admit that He has Words of grace but stumble over Him being Mary’s Son, a carpenter’s son, with ordinary brothers and sisters. As it is with incarnate Word so it is with the inscripturated. How can the words on this very earthly page be heavenly? How can this Word recorded by a sinful, fallen man be divine Words? Maybe if our Bible came to earth written on Golden Tablets like the Book of Mormon is said to have been, then we’d have a plausible reason for believing they’re God’s Words. But our Bible is translated by men, published by men, and sold by men. Likewise, the Sacraments: how can Water do such great things? How can Words spoken by a man on earth forgive sins before God in heaven? How can this Bread be Jesus’ Body and this Wine be His Blood when my senses say otherwise?
But guess what? Jesus expects that you will believe what His Words say Communion is: His Body and Blood given and shed for you for the forgiveness of Sins. He expects that you will believe Baptism is a washing of rebirth by the Spirit, and that His Words spoken by a man do send away your sins. He expects that you will believe His Word written, preached, or read are Spirit and Life. He expects you will believe that His flesh and blood born of Mary really did keep all of God’s Laws and really did die the damned death you deserve. He expects that when these divine Words strike your heart, Faith will leap into being. How can I say this? Because of Jesus Words to the 12: “You do not want to leave too, do you?” The Greek form here means Jesus expects the 12 to say, “No we don’t want to leave.”
How about you? There is no middle ground between belief and unbelief. You’re either in Egypt or the Promised Land. And Jesus is not surprised that so many stay in Egypt. The only ones who can come to Him have to be given to Him. He said this already in 6:37, “ All those the Father gives Me will come to Me, and whoever comes to Me I will never drive away.” Then to the people who are complaining that His Words about His flesh and blood being lifegiving, forgiving, saving are hard if not offensive, He says, “This is why I told you that no one can come to Me unless the Father has enabled them.” Mistranslating this way you can’t see the relationship with verse 37 and being given by the Father. Listen to a more accurate translation: “This is why I told you that no one can come to Me unless it is given to him by My Father” (EHV).
As Scooby Doo says, “Ruh Roh” we’re in deep weeds, perhaps given the Red Sea analogy, we’re in deep water now, in danger of drowning. How do you know if it’s been given you by the Father to believe on Jesus Christ for salvation? How do you know if it’s been given to you to cross the Red Sea with the Church rather than stay damned in Egypt? Be careful here. Jesus is saying what Paul later does: The preaching of cross is only foolishness to them that perish, but it’s the power of God to them that are saved (I Cor. 1:18). Or Jesus is reaffirming Paul’s statement in Rom. 1:16: Although the Gospel is shameful to the fallen world, it is nevertheless the power of God unto salvation. However, without the Spirit, the Gospel that God took on flesh and blood to assume mankind’s obligation to obey His own laws and die in their place as the one guilty, can only be foolishness, shameful, hard, and a deathtrap. Without the Spirit the Bible is just another religious book; and Baptism is plain water; absolution is just me sharing what I want done with your sins not what God wills done, and Bread is Bread and Wine is Wine. Without the Spirit no one crosses from Egypt to the Promised Land. And Jesus wants to give His Spirit to all of you.
How do I know this? He says so 1 Tim 2:4. He “wants all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” He says so in 2 Peter 3:9. He is “not willing for any to perish, but for all to come to repentance.” Or how about this over-the-top promise in Lk. 11:13, “If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit…!" I assure you that it has been given to you by the Father to come with Jesus across the Red Sea. Paul says in Acts 13:46 those who reject the Word spoken to them are the ones who consider themselves unworthy of eternal life. The rejection, the divide starts with men never with God. With God, it’s as the Parable says, “There’s still room” (Lk. 14:22). Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost (20210829); John 6:60-69