When reason all but triumphed in the church in the 1700s, there was a great emphasis on practical Christianity. A Christmas Day sermon from that era dealt with why farm animals should be kept inside during the winter. See, that's practical. Today practical Christianity is back with a vengeance. Churches advertise their pastor's preaching as useful, relevant, practical. If you don't get anything out of the sermon, if it doesn't make a difference in your life, if it doesn't help you live the Christian life, what practical good is it? The text before us is about practical Christianity.
Remember the context we've been in for 3 weeks and still have 2 more to go: the feeding of the 5,000. The Jews in the text had been fed by Jesus, and so had followed Him back across the Sea of Galilee. There Jesus told them they were wrong to seek Him for physical bread when He was the Bread of heaven on earth. The Jews heard this and absolutely rejected it, and they were very practical about rejecting Jesus.
The Jews had a procession of would-be messiahs come through their lives. The Book of Acts mentions some of them. They all made big claims for themselves. They all claimed to be acting on behalf of God. They all claimed to be sent from God to deliver His people. Jesus claiming that He had come down from heaven was nothing knew to them. They'd been here and heard that before.
Using very practical reasoning, the Jews said, they knew where Jesus came from. They knew He was the son of Joseph and once again this is probably a dig at Mary's suspicious pregnancy. They knew Jesus' father and mother and they were no different than them. Jesus came from Nazareth not heaven. He had moved 2 years ago from tiny Nazareth about 20 miles away to where they were in Capernaum. They all knew this. The only practical response to Jesus was your origins are no better than ours and they may even be beneath ours.
You know where these people are tripping up, don't you? Where the Reformed of all ages do. There is no practical way for an earthly body like Jesus obviously has to be capable of heavenly things. There is no practical way for the earthly Jesus to be heavenly bread. That's how they reasoned, and that's how the Reformed reason today. There is no practical way for the physical waters in that Baptismal font to give you the Holy Spirit. There is no practical way for the words proceeding from my mouth that you hear with physical ears really to forgive your sins here and now. And there's no practical way that the Body and Blood of Jesus can be in the Bread and Wine on that altar and in your mouth.
It's all a matter of physics, reason, and logic. Jesus looks and acts human. He doesn't glow with heavenly light. Likewise, Baptism, Absolution, and Communion look like human things. They don't pulse with divine energy. That settles it. What looks like it's from the earth, what acts like it's from the earth, is from the earth. That's the only practical answer, isn't it?
The Jews were practical in their rejection of Jesus, but Jesus was just as practical about being rejected. And be clear about this: Jesus knew that by rejecting Him as the Bread of life from heaven, they were consigning themselves to everlasting hell. But look with what calm Jesus takes their rejection. See how practical He is about it.
The crowd grumbles that Jesus can't be from heaven because they know where He is from. Jesus answered, "No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws Him." Jesus doesn't wonder that they don't embrace Him as the Bread of life. No one can do that unless the Father not draws him but literally drags him. The word translated draws is the word for dragging a dead weight. Dragging a ship or a net full of fish ashore. You hear draws and you're thinking entices, lures, like the smell of baking cookies or grilling steaks. No, it's drag. In order to come to Jesus for salvation, for feeding, for filling, you've got to be dragged by the Father. Those not coming haven't been dragged, says Jesus.
Jesus doesn't stop with the simple truth that only the ones dragged by the Father come to the Son. He goes on to explain it in a very practical way. Only those who listen to the Father and learn from the Father come to Jesus, the Son. The Jews don't really listen and when they do listen they don't learn, so it's not surprising to Jesus that they aren't coming to Him.
The Father speaks in His Word not in what you think the Word says or in what the Word means to you. If you don't listen to the Father when He speaks in His Word, you may come to a lot of spiritual, philosophical, intellectual conclusions but you will never come to Jesus. But just listening is not enough. Learning is required. Luther often lamented how people could listen to the Word for a year and be no different at the end of the year then they were at the beginning. Those of you who are clock punchers at listening to the Word, i.e., you put in your time listening but you really don't care if you learn, you will come to be known as a regular church member but you won't really come to Jesus.
Apart from being dragged by the Father, listening and learning of the Father, Jesus is just a man; Baptism is just water; Absolution is just words; Communion is just Bread and Wine, and this sermon can only make you grumble with those in the text. But see how casual Jesus is about the crowds grumbling and rejection. Where's the surprise? Where's the hand wringing? Where's the plan to try a new approach or method? Why didn't Jesus get more practical to win more of them?
Practically speaking is it smart to talk of eating Jesus to people who had all sorts of restrictions on what they could eat? Next week you'll hear worse. Jesus will speak of drinking His blood to those God Himself gave an absolute prohibition against all blood. That's not practical at all, is it? In fact, can you think of a more impractical way to speak of coming to Jesus, of believing in Jesus, of receiving the benefits of Jesus than to speak of eating and drinking Him?
But that's what Jesus does all through John 6. Why? Because there is nothing practical about Christianity. It takes an out and out miracle, on the order of a resurrection from the dead, for anyone to believe Christ. It takes the Father dragging you against your will. It takes listening to His Word when it makes no sense and it takes learning His Word when you have a hundred more practical things to do on Sunday morning. There is nothing practical about Christianity. Practical things belong to the Law. The Law is very practical. You do this and you sin. This sin calls for your punishment now in time and forever in eternity.
You see there is no practical way to gloss over your sins. There is no practical way to make up for them, to undo them, or ignore them. It's a very big deal when a sinful man says what God says is not true. When God in flesh and blood says, "I've come from heaven," and a sinful mortal doesn't listen, learn or believe it, that's a big deal. When God calls Baptism a washing of regeneration and sinful man says it can't regenerate anyone, that's a big deal. When God says Absolution forgives sins, and man says it can't do that, that's a big deal. When God says, "This Bread is My Body and this Wine is My Blood," and sinful man says, "O no it's not," that's a huge deal.
Whether these are you sins or you have others, there's no practical way for God to let them pass. He promised that any breach of His Commandments, every denying of His Word would be punished till His wrath was satisfied. You know you can be taken to court for not keeping your word, your promise. Break your marriage vows, break your lease, break your promise to repay money and you're going to court. You wouldn't believe how much trouble you, a man, can get in for not keeping your word. How much bigger it would be for God not to keep His.
So practically speaking God the Father can't just pretend you didn't sin. That would be breaking His Word. His Word had to be kept both the Word that demanded complete obedience and the one that called for complete punishment for disobedience. So God did the very impractical thing of sending His only beloved Son into the world as a human being. He took on flesh and blood in the womb of the Virgin Mary. He was born under all the do's and don'ts of God's holy Law. And Jesus kept them all. He listened to every Word that came from His Father's mouth, and He learned from those Words.
See what a fine Man Jesus is; what a perfect Man Jesus is. He kept all of God's Laws and the Father was pleased. But there was still the practical matter of paying for the laws of God we broke, of paying for every time we refuse to hear or learn from God's Word. Again God does the impractical; He punishes His innocent Son so He could forgive us guilty sons and daughters. It wasn't fair, reasonable, or practical and yet God did it.
So redemption, salvation, is a done deal. God worked it out through the Person and Work of His Son, Jesus. No what practical way is there for God to deliver this salvation to the flesh and blood sinners who need it? To sinners in death how do you deliver life? To sinners in their sins how do you deliver forgiveness? Here stands a flesh and blood Jesus before flesh and blood sinners and says, "I am the living Bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever."
That is practical, isn't it? Flesh and blood sinners need a flesh and blood Savior. People who've dirtied their body and soul by sinning need a washing of water that cleanses body and soul. People whose conscience can constantly make them guilty in body and soul with words of accusation need a Word of forgiveness sounding in their ears and heart. People who feel sin and death at work in their body and soul don't just need a Savior they can believe in but one they can eat and drink with their body.
Practical Christianity is not you getting something out of it, but Christ getting His forgiveness, His Life, His Salvation into you. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Pentecost XII (20060827); John 6: 41-51