Our text is filled with paradoxes. The English word "paradox" transliterates the Greek word "paradoxes". The Greek word is a compound word meaning literally "think beside." The Bible glories in paradoxes: things that on first blush seem contradictory but on closer examination are complimentary. However, human reason stumbles over them. Those who live by the letter of the Law rather than by the Spirit of the Gospel all but choke on paradoxes.
The first paradox presented in this text comes out of the mouths of those stumbling over it. The Jews were grumbling, "Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can He now say, 'I came down from heaven?'" Yes, how can He say that? They all knew where Jesus was from. They knew the household He came from. He had a mother and a father, so they thought, like everyone else. He came from them not heaven.
It's true; Jesus did come from Mary. He was born just like you and I were in trauma, in drama, in labor and pain. Yet, He did come down from heaven. He was not planted in the womb by any human father but by a heavenly Father, by the power of the Most High. Here before them was a Man who was God. A flesh and blood Man whose flesh and blood were holy, life giving, yet ordinary. His flesh and blood could heal, feed, and raise from the dead, yet it could be cut, bleed, and die.
God wraps heavenly things in the most ordinary, earthly packages, and therefore, they're easily despised. He wrapped His eternal Son in flesh and blood that came from a mortal woman, and then, get this, His Son wraps His holy Flesh and Blood in ordinary Bread and Wine. He wraps the Water of Life in ordinary water. He wraps His Word in the flesh and blood of sinful men we call pastors. What paradoxes! God wraps things He wishes honored and held sacred in things we easily despise. If He commanded us to pour gold dust on our kids we could more easily believe it was "life giving." If actual, wings coming out of their backs, halo wearing angels preached to us, we could more easily hold preaching sacred. If we ate caviar and drank rare wine, we could more easily believe they were Jesus' Body and Blood. And if Jesus didn't look so ordinary and so much like His mother, the Jews could've more easily believed He came down from heaven.
The paradoxes get more pronounced the farther into this text we go. Jesus puts before the Jews Body-Bread. A real human Body that is the Bread of Life. First we are confronted with a heavenly Being in an earthly Body; now we're told that His Body is Bread. Luther spoke this same way about Holy Communion. He called the consecrated Bread, Body-Bread. It's the Body of Christ, yet it's still Bread. Whatever happens to that thin, white wafer happens to the Body of Christ. So when the pastor holds the Bread, He holds the Body of Christ. When the pastor distributes the Bread, He distributes the Body of Christ. When the communicant eats, chews, and swallows Bread, he or she eats, chews, and swallows the Body of Christ not in a coarse, gross way but in a real, essential, supernatural way.
Holy Communion has such wonderful benefits: forgives sins, gives life here and now and eternal salvation later not because it is Bread but because it is the Body of Jesus and the Body of Jesus is the Bread of Life. Jesus goes on to explain to these Jews stumbling over paradoxes why His Body is the Bread of Life. He says, "This Bread is My Flesh, which I will give for the life of the world."
Jesus is going to lay down His life literally in the place of the life of the world. Like in the Old Testament sacrifices, which all these Jews were familiar with, the sins of the world were placed on His head. As the high priest on the Day of Atonement placed his hands on the head of the scapegoat and confessed the sins of Israel, so Jesus had stood in the Jordan River confessing all the sins of the world in order to have John baptize Him along with all the other sinners. As the second goat on the Day of Atonement was killed and his blood poured into the mercy seat on the top of the Ark of the Covenant to cover the 10 Commandments that were inside so the holy God dwelling in the cloud above could no longer see them, so Jesus' blood would be poured out to cover the sins of the world.
The Jews were familiar with the sacrificial system. They knew you didn't get God's forgiveness unless you ate of the animal that had been sacrificed bearing your sins. Jesus will be put to death for the world's sins. They were to eat of Him, be forgiven and so live, but what were they suppose to do? Go over and start nibbling on Jesus? One day Jesus would be present for them to eat with their mouths, but that wouldn't be till Jesus instituted the Meal where He gives His Body as Bread and His Blood as Wine. That's why He says to them now, "He who believes has everlasting life." When a person believes that Jesus is the Bread of Life sent down from heaven to bear their sins, free their souls, and feed them for eternity, he or she is dining on Jesus. That's available to all of you; Jesus is here for all of you to partake of by faith. He's here to fill your emptiness with His presence, to cleanse your sins with His forgiveness, to give you life for your deadness.
So how does it sound so far? Pretty boring, huh? "Yeah, yeah Jesus is the Bread of Life." Unless you know, feel, and taste death at work in you, it doesn't mean much. I see this all the time as a pastor. When people are dancing on the surf of life in their youth, in their prime, in their health, Jesus being the Bread of Life seems rather stale, dry and old. But let the waves of age, of disease, of death start to pound them, and then it's "Feed me Bread of Life till I want no more."
This brings us to another paradox. Jesus doesn't say as the Bread of Life He brings life after death. He says He brings life after life. He promises no death. He who is on His way to the cross and the most damnable, miserable death of all says to the Jews, "He who believes in Me has everlasting life." Everlasting means no interruption. Jesus promises a continuity of life that stretches from womb and right through the tomb. Think I'm exaggerating? Think it's too good to be true? That's because you're stumbling over this paradox too. Jesus plainly says, "Here is the Bread that comes down from heaven, which a man may eat and not die." Yet, we all know all die.
Everyone dies no matter how well they're fed. This goes for being well fed in terms of amount and in terms of vitamins, nutrition, minerals, and supplements. I don't care if a person eats the food of astronauts, takes every wonder drug there is on the market, and works out at a health club every day of the week, no one can promise them anything but death. Except Jesus. He promises no death to those who believe on Him, to those who eat Him. This is big news. This is a big promise that you can't get your head around. This is a paradox that you feel in your own aging body, your own wrinkled face, your own declining strength. These all preach to you of certain, sure death. If you're young the din of life might be drowning out the shouts of death, but in quieter moments you too hear your body preaching death.
To you whose body preaches death from the inside, I'm preaching life from the outside in Jesus the Bread of Life. I'm telling you that when your heart stops beating, your synapses stop firing, and your brain waves stop waving in Jesus you're going to go on dancing in the surf of life. I'm telling you that the decades you spend living are just the beginning. I'm saying with the hymn writer "It's not death for you to die." It may look smell, and feel like it from the outside but on the inside of death you'll be very much alive. Lazarus to everyone else stunk in the grave, but to Jesus Lazarus lived. All Jesus had to say was, "Come out." He didn't even have to say, "Arise."
There are weighty paradoxes in this text. Jesus whose "father" and mother we know, nevertheless came down from heaven. Jesus' Body is Bread. Jesus gives life after life. These are weighty, but there is a weightier one than even these. Jesus is not surprised that His hearers stumble over these paradoxes. In fact, at the end of this account, Jesus expects the 12 to have stumbled too. The paradox is that Jesus doesn't do what I do. He loves sinners more than I. He wants to save them far more than I. In a figure of speech I can say I've sweat blood for your soul, but Jesus did that in reality. However, Jesus does not agonize over people who stumble and turn away from salvation.
Follow the text closely. The text doesn't say that the Jews began to grumble at Him but about Him. They were disagreeing among themselves about the amazing statement that this ordinary looking Jesus came down from heaven. They were grumbling among themselves says Jesus. That means some of them were rejoicing in the paradox while others were stumbling over it, some were feeding on the Bread of Life even as others were choking on it. Then Jesus explains why. Well, He sort of explains why. There's a paradox here too, but we can't go into that now. Jesus responds to the grumbling going on among themselves by saying, "Stop it. No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him." A few verses later Jesus says that if a person doesn't listen and learn from the Father, it's no surprise that he doesn't come to Him.
If anyone at anytime glories, rejoices, dances to the music coming from the paradoxes of Christianity, it is and out and out miracle. But you don't see how much of a miracle because of the insert translation. It has Jesus saying, "No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him." "Draw" how polite, how enticing, but the word isn't "draw" but "drag." The word denotes dragging a dead weight. There's another Greek word meaning "draw," but it is never used of God attracting men to Himself.
That's how I've always felt. "Dragged" to these things without my doing anything to help and much to hurt. I've been dragged to bow before the wonders of a Man who is God come to give His Body for my sins and now gives His Body for my Bread. I've been dragged to the freeing fact that in this Body/Bread, in this God/Man there is life after life. I didn't help myself see these things. I didn't reason my way into seeing these things. I've been dragged to these paradoxes of grace against my will but not against His...Ah yet another paradox. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Pentecost XII (8-31-03); John 6: 41-51