A carnival is a traveling amusement show. Carnival in New Orleans is the name for the period beginning with Epiphany and ending on Mardi Gras, the day before Ash Wednesday. What does this have to do with our text? Carnival means "farewell to the flesh." Is this what Jesus advocates when He says, "the flesh counts for nothing?"
People who deny that Jesus is present in Communion use these words to teach that Jesus didn't want anyone really to eat His flesh in Communion. They say Jesus meant, "My flesh counts for nothing." Jesus is saying farewell to His own flesh here. It's going to heaven and won't be on earth any more. His flesh isn't important. His words are. His Words are Spirit and life, not His flesh.
A large part of Christianity thinks Jesus' flesh counts for nothing. They speak of the Spirit doing this and the Spirit doing that. Or they speak of Jesus since His ascension into heaven as only being active in this world by His Spirit. Jesus did need His flesh for awhile, but Once He died and rose in the flesh, He stored it away in heaven until His visible return. Jesus' flesh counted for something once but not anymore.
Well if Jesus meant "My flesh counts for nothing" when He said, "The flesh counts for nothing," then He contradicts what He said 7 sentences before: "I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is My flesh.Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Manyou have no life in you. Whoever feeds on My fleshhas eternal life and I will raise him up on the last day. For My flesh is true food."
Sounds to me like Jesus' flesh counts for something. Sound to me like Jesus' flesh counts for life, for everlasting life, and for the resurrection of the dead. Sounds to me like all other kinds of food have to take a back seat to His flesh which is true food. Sounds to me like Jesus is going out of His way to make His hearers hunger for His flesh. Jesus sure thinks His flesh counts for something, indeed, everything.
God the Son became incarnate, literally in-fleshed, in the womb of the Virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit. Once that happened, wherever God the Son begotten of the Father before all worlds is, there you find the Son of Mary. The in-fleshing of God the Son is not a spiritual possession by God the Son of a human body; it's not a temporary thing. It's a permanent miracle. After the incarnation the Man Jesus is no less God than the Father.
When Jesus showed Himself to be true God by rising and triumphantly ascending into heaven, He went out of His way to show His disciples that He still had the same flesh. He had them touch Him, handle Him, push their fingers into the nail holes. While He ascended, He raised His hands to show them those nail prints in the flesh ascended into heaven. Jesus' flesh is now in heaven and Jesus' flesh is wherever His Spirit is. When Jesus says, "I am with you always," He doesn't just mean His Spirit is but His body is packed away in heaven. No, all of Jesus, flesh and Spirit, God and Man, is with us.
Okay so when Jesus says "the flesh counts for nothing," He doesn't mean His flesh counts for nothing, but does He mean our flesh counts for nothing? If you think so, then you're right in-line with the eastern religious thought that has invaded Western Christianity. Eastern religions like Hinduism and Buddhism believe the flesh is to be risen above, ignored, treated roughly. The spiritual soul is good; the material flesh is bad.
If Jesus really meant this flesh counts for nothing, why did He become in-fleshed, why did He redeem flesh, why did He resurrect His flesh and will resurrect all flesh? Why create a new earth at the end of this one if the flesh counts for nothing? What of the becoming one flesh in marriage that Paul speaks of? What of the family that comes from this one flesh? What of the society that follows? Does all this really count for nothing? If this flesh counts for nothing than the skeptics are right; all this is meaningless.
Jesus' point is not that this flesh counts for nothing, but that the flesh without God counts for nothing. Flesh without the Spirit Jesus gives by His Word and Sacraments will amount to nothing. Ultimately no matter how happy your marriage, how big your family, how joyous your society, death will defeat your flesh. Without the Holy Spirit your flesh only lives out a little day as it dances on the surf of life for a short while. Your flesh goes from newborn pink, to ashen grey, to the ashes of death in what seems like a blink of the eye. All of us live this reality. And for that reason, we are inclined to give into the Eastern error that this flesh counts for nothing.
But if that were the case, then there would be no point in Jesus taking on flesh to redeem this flesh from the decay and death that await it. But He did, but your flesh can never get its arms, heart, or head around this wonderful truth. Jesus spoke to the crowds about the necessity of eating His flesh, but they heard these words with no more than their own flesh. They scorned the Spirit and the Life that Jesus gave with His Words of promise. Without the Spirit, without the new life created by the Spirit, these eyes of flesh see no more than a carpenter from Nazareth and these ears of flesh hear no more than the crazy talk of eating a human being.
Do you recall what Jesus said after Peter confessed that He was the Christ, the Son of the living God? Jesus said, "Flesh and blood did not reveal this to you but My Father in heaven." The truth of Christianity, the wonder of Christianity, the revealed mystery of Christianity is not known from what flesh can reason, know, or apprehend. It comes from the Spirit and the Life of the Father that He gives through the Son. It's true. The flesh without God does count for nothing. But in order to see the real miracle of Christianity, turn the words around. "God without the flesh counts nothing for us."
This is the real treasure of the Christian faith. If God hadn't taken on flesh in a virgin's womb, He would have remained aloof, apart, totally other. The best we would've gotten is what Moses on Sinai got, the backside of God. The most we could've seen is a blinding light and a consuming fire. Apart from God taking on flesh in Jesus, where is the hand of God to protect you when you're attacked? Apart from God having flesh in Jesus where is the tongue of God to speak words of comfort to you when you're afraid? Apart from God in-fleshing Himself, where are the ears of God to hear your prayer, the feet of God to come running to your rescue, the arms of God to hold you up?
A God without flesh counts for nothing to you. The lines around you eyes, the aches in your joints, the graying of your hair, and the fears you feel in your gut all testify to you that your flesh needs redeeming. How do you redeem human flesh? God commanded that human flesh do certain things or face eternal and temporal judgment in the flesh. If someone is going to be your sub in a sport's event, they must physically take your place. In order for God to count human flesh as having kept His commandments, a person of flesh would have to do it in our place. In order for God to count human flesh as having paid it's debt of sin, a person of flesh would have to be our substitute.
What but flesh could keep the Law in place of flesh? What but flesh could pay the temporal and eternal debt owed by flesh for breaking the Law? Ah, but who but God could perfectly keep the Law of God? Who but God could satisfy God's wrath against those who break His Law? It takes a God who is Man to do both. A God without flesh couldn't sub for us. A flesh without God would be just another human; He wouldn't be holy or powerful enough to redeem us.
We need the God who is Man, Jesus Christ, because only in Him is God for us. God is everywhere. There is no place you go that is truly godless. God fills heaven and earth. God is even in hell says the Psalmist. But God is only for you, for human flesh, where God in flesh is. God does lots of things in the world. He bakes farms and ranches with unrelenting heat. He sends drowning rains and killer quakes. He takes life here and there in an apparently random and meaningless way. You will never understand that God. That God is totally other. Look at that God and you will be blinded by confusion and aflame with rage. His judgments are unsearchable and His paths are beyond tracing out.
God is for you in the flesh of Jesus born of Mary. Let God be God outside of Jesus. God is your God in Jesus. When the heavy waters roll around you, seek refuge in the flesh of the God who clothes you in the still waters of Baptism. When you feel under the just judgment of God almighty for your many sins, don't run to your excuses or your promises to do better. Run to the God in flesh who speaks forgiveness into your ears of flesh in Absolution. When your life is ebbing in your flesh don't go to the God who kills and makes alive in such mysterious ways. Flee to the God of flesh who feeds your body and blood with His Body and Blood in Communion.
Carnival! Farewell to the flesh. Farewell to a flesh without God and to a God without flesh! Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Pentecost XIV (20060910); John 6: 60-69