Believing Flesh

Exorcism at the Synagogue in Capernaum – 11th Century Fresco


Pentecost +14
Rev. Doug Floyd
John 6

For the last several weeks, our Gospel readings have been from John 6. Today I want to pause over that entire chapter and listen.  As John 6 opens, thousands of people follow Jesus up a mountain because he has been healing the sick. The Passover is at hand, and Jesus transforms the mountain into a great feast, taking only fives loaves and two fishes, offering thanks, and feeding the hungry crowds with an abundance of food to spare. The miracles stir the people. Soon they are clamoring to make him king. It appears He may be swept into a revolutionary fervor as thousands of people are about to make him king by force.

Before the glorious revolution can take place, Jesus slips away in the middle of the night. The disciples take a boat headed to Capernaum, and Jesus joins them walking on the water. By the next day, the crowds start pouring into the city in search of him. At some point, Jesus and the crowds end up in a synagogue. They discuss the Torah readings for the day.

As Jesus speaks, these once vibrant followers who were ready to make him king begin to grumble. They don’t understand what he is saying and what they do understand, they don’t like. Many of these disciples declare, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?”

They cannot see what Jesus is talking about and they begin to leave. He responds that “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all.” They are responding in the flesh, but what does that actually mean?

Is the flesh pitted against the Spirit? Pierre Teilhard de Chardin once said, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience.” His idea caught on and I’ve even seen it on bumper stickers. I fear that a phrase like this has caused some people to pit the body against the spirit.

If misunderstood, Scripture can sound like the body is a hindrance to the Spirit. For example, Romans 8:8 says, “Those who are in flesh cannot please God.” Galatians 3:3, “Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” Or even Galatians 5:24, “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires”

At the same time, the Gospel of John speaks of Jesus as the Word Made Flesh. Even in today’s passage, Jesus says in verse 51: And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

We need a fuller picture of the flesh. It is not necessarily bad. It refers to the human body, including the mind, the will, and the emotions. The our physical body including our mind, our will, and our emotions is amazing. It is the supreme glory of God’s creation. We were created to reveal the glory of God in the midst of the world.

I am amazed to watch what people can do. Think of the glory of singing, it is a physical creation of the body and yet, it is heavenly. The glorious sound of some voices can move us to tears. The melodies of Mozart have touched so many hearts across the ages, and I’ve heard several theologians confess that Mozart’s music is the great apologetic for the existence of God.

Think of the astounding physical feats that many people have achieved from climbing great mountains. Think of the late Jack LaLanne who celebrated his 70th birthday by swimming for two and a half hours with 70 boats strapped to his body.

We might think of the glory of Michelangelo. Humans are builders, making everything from cars to cathedrals. It seems our creative capacity is unlimited. Every particular human is a wonder in and of himself or herself.

Scripture gives us a picture of humans created for loving communion with God and one another. Our flesh, our bodies including the mind, will, and emotions, are not independent.

We were created to live in bonds of trust with God and one another. As children of God, we were created to trust him to sustain, to teach us, to guide us, to leads us more deeply into his fullness and the fullness of love. Sadly, humans turned away from God’s love.

The story of sin might simply be told as the story of turning away from that bond of communion toward the illusion of self-reliance. Somehow we can trust ourselves over the wisdom of God. This independence breaks relation with God as our Father but is also breaks the communion of love with people.

In Scripture, sometimes flesh is referring to this tendency to live independent and even opposed to the goodness of God. In this sense, the flesh cannot please God. It opposes the spirit. It seduces us. Lead us into sin. Causes us to disbelieve.

In today’s passage, Jesus says, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all.” He is speaking of how the body including the mind, the will, and the emotions can turn away from God and is often blind and deaf to God’s glory and grace.

We can construct all sorts of deceptions and distractions with our minds. We need only think of WW2 and Germany and the most intellectual nation in the world, using its brilliance for destruction. Intelligence cannot save us.

We can deceive ourselves by what we feel. How many times have we been jealous or hurt or offended and turned away from love? Emotions can lie to us and leads us astray.

We can trust on the power of our will. The story of Babel is the story of human abilities turned over and against the grace of God.

We can follow the base pursuits of the body: gluttony, sexual deviancy, quest for power and money. Our culture seems given over to hedonistic drives the dehumanize and often lead to all forms of slavery and oppression.

Turned away from God, the flesh creates it’s own god. Louis Dupre wrote of the 20th century, “Culture itself has become the real religion of our time, and it has absorbed all other religion as a subordinate part of itself. It even offers some of the emotional benefits of religion, without exacting the high price faith demands. We have all become atheists, not in the hostile, antireligious sense of an earlier age, but in the sense that God no longer matters absolutely in our closed world, if God matters at all.”

Jesus comes to free us of that independence. He enters into our story, the human story, to break the power of evil and to restore the communion of love between each of us and God our Father. In John 6, he is confronting the illusion of these would be disciples who want to make him king. The offense is a grace that will provoke his own disciples and us to trust him more fully.

As Jesus speaks, he exposes the hearts of those following him. He reveals that they are seeking his power and not him.

They want their image of the King or Messiah but not the real Messiah who stands before them, speaks the true Word and will fulfill the purposes of God, not man.

In grumbling, they use their limited knowledge in passing judgment on Jesus. Little do they realize that Jesus is the True Word who passing judgment on them even as they turn away from him.

In verse 53 Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” (Jn 6:53). This is a hard saying the crowds and even for his disciples. They cannot understand that Jesus is pointing to the cross, and that His life is being poured out for the life of the world.

The grumbling crowds turn and walk away. They don’t believe. Disappointed.

Jesus looks at his own twelve disciples. He knows many of them are confused as well. He asks, “Do you want to go away as well?” (Jn 6:67).

Simon Peter answers him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” (Jn 6:68–69).

Peter and the disciples also do not understand all the Jesus has said, but they believe in Him and His Words. They trust.

The disciples will keep misunderstanding until the resurrection, but they trust in Him. They are learning to hear His Word. The Book of Acts continues to reveal the disciples questioning and learning and tracing new situations with new questions, but always trusting in the Spirit to guide them into all truth.

Misunderstanding and even offense are not why people quit following Jesus. It is because they do not believe. They do not trust him.

In verse 29, Jesus says, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” (Jn 6:29). The life of discipleship is a life of learning to trust, a life of turning and returning to His grace; a life of submitting our mind, our emotions, our wills, our bodies to Him in faith.

We listen to Him speaking to us by His Spirit in the Scripture, in the worship of God’s people, in the proclamation of His Gospel. We turn to Him in prayer and offer our plans, our doubts, our struggle, our fears, our jealousies, and our failures. 

We also find strength in His body given for us and His blood shed for us. We come to the table of the Lord and He feeds us with His life.

We seek to obey His call each day. Yes we are weak. We misunderstand. We grow weary. But He faithful to sustain us and lead us into the fullness of His glory.

Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow!

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