What counts? A tennis serve that hits the net doesn't count. A missed field goal doesn't count. A ball caught in the end zone counts. A tennis serve on the line does too. After five Sundays in John 6 what counts?
Jesus says, "The flesh counts for nothing." The flesh can't understand the things of God. Your best thoughts, my best reasoning, our highest research isn't going to be able to make sense of God becoming man in the womb of a virgin, God punishing the sins of the world in the Body and Blood of His own dear Son, or Him rising from the dead and giving us that same Body and Blood to eat and drink for forgiveness.
The flesh counts for nothing. What it concludes can happen, must happen, should happen means squat. The fact your flesh doesn't feel saved, can't see how it can rise from the dead, and can't get its head around such things as redemption and resurrection counts for nothing. So when His disciples grumble about redemption and resurrection happening through believing in His Flesh and Blood this doesn't startle Jesus, bother Jesus, discourage Jesus. And as Jesus has the habit of doing in such situations He makes the matter harder for them. "Does this offend you," Jesus asked? "Then try this on for size. What if you see the Son of Man ascend to where He was before?" Jesus had just finished putting everything on His Flesh and Blood that stood before them. How could they eat and drink Him either spiritually by faith or by mouth in Communion once He ascended bodily into heaven?
The flesh counts for nothing. If you're looking for some help from your intellect, logic, common sense or your uncommon wisdom, forget it. When Peter confessed that Jesus was the Christ the Son of the living God, Jesus said, "Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father in heaven." You won't get the faith Jesus teaches and preaches, you won't care about it, won't use it, won't live from and to it "unless it is given to you from God the Father."
See how my translation differs from the insert? The insert says, "No one can come to Me unless the Father has enabled Him." Enabled implies that you have some of what you need and you just need to be empowered; your flesh is going in the right direction; it just needs a push. Nope; the flesh, your flesh, counts for nothing. It can do nothing; choose nothing; know nothing, believe nothing. That's why Jesus doesn't say you need enabling but, "No one can come to Me unless it is given to him from the Father."
The flesh counts for nothing. Zwingli, a 16th century father of the Reformed faith, said that Jesus meant, "My flesh counts for nothing." He used these words of Jesus as proof that Jesus doesn't give us His flesh or blood to eat and drink in Communion. But this directly contradicts what Jesus says in John 6.
Remember how much we made of verse 51 which appeared in two Gospel readings? Jesus says, "This bread is My Flesh, which I will give in place of, instead of the life of the world." Contrary to Jesus' flesh counting for nothing, He says it counts in place of the life of the world. Isaiah said the same thing 800 years before Jesus. He said, "By His stripes we are healed." By the blows, the lashes, the nail wounds that wounded, hurt, and bled Jesus' Flesh we are healed, made well, made whole. See Jesus being slapped, spat on, ridiculed, whipped, and crucified in the flesh and see each blow taking off one scab, one scar, one pimple, one blemish from each and every sinner in the world. Jesus flesh counts for the world.
Far from saying, "My flesh counts for nothing," Jesus actually said, "My Flesh is true food." Our flesh counts for nothing toward life. Even the perfect flesh of Adam and Eve couldn't live apart from eating food, and they couldn't live forever apart from the Tree of Life. And Jesus says in John 6 not only is His Flesh true food but it is the life of the world. Because His Flesh counts for forgiveness, life, and resurrection, no sinner can live apart from it.
Our flesh counts for nothing; Jesus' Flesh counts for everything. But Zwingli was on to something in one sense. Jesus was bringing His disciples, not the Twelve who are distinguished from this group but others who believed on Him, face to face with the reality of what He was saying. If Jesus were a mere man, only flesh and blood, then ascending into heaven would end everything. When Elijah was taken up into heaven, Elisha mourned because Elijah was the chariots of Israel and its horsemen. Elijah couldn't help the people of God once he ascended.
If Jesus is just another man, when He goes to heaven who can eat and drink Him on earth? Zwingli, Calvin, and our Reformed brothers and sisters in Christ answer. You can't really eat and drink His Body and Blood at this altar because His Body and Blood are only located in heaven now, but you can eat and drink Him by your faith ascending into heaven after Him. But if Jesus' flesh and blood has no other properties, qualities, powers than yours and mine, then what is the point of eating and drinking them at all? Then they do count for nothing. They are no more powerful than the ascended body and blood of Elijah.
Luther turned Zwingli's belief on its head. While Zwingli taught Jesus meant to say, "My flesh counts for nothing," Luther said the truth was "God without flesh counts for nothing."
Ponder this for moment; mediate on this today; treasure this as you go through your week: "God without flesh counts for nothing." The world's so called "great" religions all have a god without flesh; in fact it's abhorrent to them to think otherwise. Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and American Civil Religion with it's Supreme Being all have a god without flesh. And such a god as this counts for nothing.
How could that be? Couldn't a fleshless god govern the universe, direct human events, feed and cloth creation? Sure he could. But such a fleshless god wouldn't always be for us. Apart from the Flesh of Jesus God is a consuming fire, an unapproachable light, a mass of contradictions. I get that last one from Ezekiel's' description of the God's glory. He sees God atop four living creatures. At one and the same time, "Each one of them went straight forward without turning as they went." God in His glory is Three in 1 which is a mystery. God apart from the flesh of Jesus does many powerful things only some of which we can take comfort in. He brings gentle rains but floods too; He makes the earth fruitful but quakes it too; He makes alive but kills too.
God without our flesh is far away, unknowable, and downright scary. When He came to Mount Sinai the people begged Him not to speak to them or they would die. So God used the flesh of Moses to speak to them, and Moses told them to look for another after him. "The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers. It is to Him you shall listen."
We can hear a God who has flesh. Apart from Him, the voice of God is the thunder of a waterfall, the roar of a crowd, the blast of a trumpet. But we need a God with flesh for another reason. We are beings of flesh. It is to all flesh that God gave His 10 Commandments with all their promises for keeping them and all their curses for not. You know what you've done with those Commandments in your flesh. You know how miserably you've kept them, and how they condemn you constantly. You know that they condemn not just what you do but what you are. You know that your flesh deserves none of the promises of the Law but everyone of its curses.
A god without flesh is no help. We need a person with flesh to do what we can't do. The Commandments have to be kept by flesh or all flesh perishes. The curses of the Commandments have to be carried out against flesh or God is shown to be a liar. So God takes on flesh through a virgin's womb. He's born under the Law to redeem those under the Law. He goes through life and to death a perfect Man of Flesh. But the Law said cursed is the person who doesn't abide in all the Laws. We abided in none, so Jesus in the flesh confessed to our sins, all of them, the ones we cannot name and blush to name, and God the Father punished Him as one guilty of heinous, shameful sins ought to be. He punished Him in the flesh. The Flesh of Jesus felt the sting of God's wrath; the flesh of Jesus endured the eternal fires of hell, and the guilty conscience that plagues you day to day.
God without flesh could not keep the Law or be punished in place of your flesh. Apart from the God with Flesh, the Law written on your heart can only lead you to constant despair or burn you until you're numb to the pain. You, however, have a God of flesh in Jesus. He satisfied both the requirements and the punishments of the law written in your heart of flesh.
But what He did, what He won, still needs to get to your heart of flesh. How does He do that? Notice how much those with fleshless gods make of prayer? Islam with it's elaborate prayer rituals; Judaism with it's fervent prayers at the wailing wall; Hinduism with it's prayer wheels rolling off hundreds of prayers; Buddhism with its prayer flags sending prayers forth constantly; American Civil Religion never failing to say it's praying for the grieving and suffering. This is because prayer is the chief way their fleshless god deals with them.
For us prayer is how we communicate with the God who dwells in light unapproachable as a consuming fire. We go to Him in the name of the God with flesh, Jesus, but He comes to us, deals with us through things that our flesh can feel, hear, see, taste, and smell. Baptismal water is wet on our flesh and brings the rebirth Jesus won to it. The Flesh of Jesus breathed absolution into Words that vibrate our eardrums of flesh. And Jesus gives our flesh and blood His Flesh and Blood in Communion.
What counts? Our flesh counts for nothing. A god without flesh does too. The Flesh of Jesus counts for everything, everyday, in everyway because it is the Flesh of God. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost (20090906); John 6: 60-69