August 3, 2015 by jmar198013
In last week’s Gospel lesson, we watched Jesus feed a crowd of 5,000 with some bread and fish out of a kid’s lunchbox. We were dazzled and delighted along with them. Jesus gave them a glimpse into the abundant life God’s kingdom offers. But the crowds had their own ideas about what a kingdom should look like. John reported that they were about to come and force Jesus to be their king (John 6.15). Their agenda involved anointing Jesus their guerrilla Messiah. He would lead a poor people’s resistance army; and they would crush the Roman oppressors, liberate Palestine, and take back Judea for God. Okay, seems like some wires got crossed, doesn’t it? That’s not what Jesus was aiming at. He didn’t mean for his feeding miracle to be the start of a Jewish peasant revolt. If you’ve ever read through the Gospel of John, you may have noticed that he liked to call Jesus’ miracles signs. What is the purpose of a sign? A sign points to something beyond itself. A sign communicates something you might not otherwise know. A sign is a message. When Jesus fed 5,000 people from a boy’s brown bag lunch, what he was saying was: God is on your side. God will make sure you have enough. Trust in God’s abundance. Live by the gifts he provides. But that’s not what the crowd heard. Somehow or other, their take-away was, God is on our side. Let’s go pick a fight with Rome! The poor crowd, bless their hearts, had blinders on. Their vision was too narrow. They saw Jesus as a way to tip the system in their favor. What they didn’t understand is, when God is on your side, there’s no need to manipulate the system. Well, Jesus hated their plan so much, he just walked away. Actually, he walked away across the waves of the Galilee Sea in the middle of a thunderstorm. Dragging a boat full of his terrified disciples with him. That’s how bad he wanted to get away from the crowd that just elected him their king. Anyway, you know what happens when you feed a stray cat? It comes back the next day looking for more. And that’s where our Gospel lesson for today picks up: When the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they got into the boats and came to Capernaum looking for Jesus. When they found him on the other side of the lake, they asked him, “Rabbi, when did you get here?”
You know, Rabbi, when did you get here?, is not an innocent question. I imagine they asked it rather sheepishly. Oh, hi teacher. Fancy meeting you here. What are the odds, huh? Jesus doesn’t feed into it. He doesn’t answer their question about when or how he got to the other side of the lake. He doesn’t talk about himself. He makes an observation about them: I assure you that you are looking for me not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate all the food you wanted. I assure you in the original language is, Amen, amen. The King James famously translated it as, Verily I say unto you. You ever had your parent call you by your first, middle, and last name? You know you’re about to get reamed out. That’s basically what Jesus just did to this crowd. Jesus gave them a reality check. Real talk, y’all. You just want some more food. Right or wrong? Now, look—let’s not be too judgy with these people. If you’ve ever been poor and hungry, you know better than most that just because you ate today doesn’t mean you’ll eat tomorrow. I’m sure Jesus knew that himself—from personal experience. He knew being poor is hard work. But Jesus also knew he wouldn’t be around forever. He didn’t have time to play games. So he cut to the chase. Do not work for the food that perishes, he tells them; but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal (NRSV). Don’t work for the food with the sell-by date on it; work for the food that doesn’t spoil. Work for the food that God has sealed tight for eternity. Now, there’s something I want us to get straight right now. Jesus didn’t lure a crowd with free dinner so that he could sell them a spiritual meal. He didn’t entice the people with a program to meet their “felt needs” and then preach to them. There is no bait and switch in his approach. Jesus didn’t see the crowd as projects or prospects. He saw them as people. With real human needs. Like food. But the food he had given them the day before was also pointing to larger truths: God is generous. You can depend on God’s gifts to sustain you. That’s the message Jesus wanted them to understand. He was trying to nourish their trust in the Father who gives all good gifts. When they tried to make Jesus king, they proved they hadn’t understood the message of the miracle. People who have learned to live by gifts know that our lives are secured and sustained by grace. Not because we have the power to shape national or international politics. Not because we have learned to tip the system in our favor. Now the crowd expresses some cautious interest: What must we do in order to accomplish what God requires? How do we work for this eternal-life food? Jesus tells them: This is what God requires, that you believe in him whom God sent. Obviously Jesus is talking about himself. What does it mean to believe in someone? Doesn’t it mean to trust them? To stand by them even when things are scary? To invest your life and your time and your emotions and resources in them because you know what they’re doing is worthwhile? I love how Eugene Peterson rendered this verse in The Message: Throw your lot in with the One that God has sent. Jesus was asking for commitment.
Now, let’s talk about this food that endures for eternal life. One of the mistakes Christians often make when we come across phrases like this is we assume Jesus was introducing a new concept when he spoke of eternal life. Like Jews were very this-worldly oriented, but Jesus was very otherworldly oriented. That’s not how it was at all. Jesus wasn’t laying a new spiritual concept of an afterlife on his materialistic neighbors. Most Jewish people of the time believed in a life after this one. The Sadducees, who didn’t, were in the minority. So both Jesus and most of his Jewish peers were very interested in this life; the life to come; and how the two are connected. Eternal life was a live discussion within first century Judaism. One reason the Jewish people started buying into the idea of a life after this one is that they fundamentally believed that God is just and his universe bends toward justice. But they’d also seen decent people get the shaft while wicked people prospered. So they asked the same question their ancestor Abraham had once asked: Will the judge of all the earth not act justly? (Gen. 18.25) Now, that question assumes the fundamental justice of God. If righteous people are suffering now while the wicked prosper, there must be something after this life, this age. A place and time where justice is finally done. Otherwise, God is actually on the side of the cruel, the violent, and the corrupt. So most of Jesus’ Jewish peers rightly longed for what they called eternal life—a life after this one where everything was set right. This hope was expressed in Dan. 12.2, where it is revealed to the prophet that: Many of those who sleep in the dusty ground will wake up—some to eternal life, others to shame and eternal disgrace. They called this age ofter our present age olam haba: the world to come. And one central theme of the world to come was the end of hunger. In Isaiah 25, the prophet saw a vision of a great feast: The LORD of heavenly forces will prepare for all peoples a rich feast, a feast of choice wines, of select foods rich in flavor, of choice wines well refined. He will swallow up . . . the veil that is veiling all peoples, the shroud enshrouding all nations. He will swallow up death forever. The LORD God will wipe tears from every face (Isa. 25.6-8a). So the crowd following Jesus already hoped for a day when God would do justice, and no one would ever be hungry again. They believed in—and longed for—resurrection, eternal life, and the great feast God would host. But they also needed food now. I imagine that when they heard Jesus talk about the food that endures for eternal life, they heard something like that old song folks used to sing in the mill villages and mining towns: You will eat / by and by / in that glorious land in the sky / So work and pray / and live on hay / you’ll get by in the sky when you die.
I suspect that the crowd in John 6 was full of people who had been baited and switched throughout their lives. Who had been promised one thing and given another. Who had the floor yanked out from under their feet by the fine print. People who had been hoodwinked and bamboozled. That can tend to make you suspicious. Defensive. Even cynical. It can also empower you to speak up for yourself and your community. I think that’s what the people were doing when they replied: What miraculous sign will you do that we can see and believe you? Our ancestors ate manna in the wilderness. See, what I hear in that question is people who have a difficult time trusting. Jesus fed them all yesterday. Is he flaking on them now? It wouldn’t be the first time someone had flaked on them. I hear world-wise people who’ve been burned before advocating for themselves. On the one hand, you can judge the crowd for being blind and lacking faith. Hey bozos, he just fed 5,000 of you off a can of sardines and a pack of crackers! You already saw the miraculous sign you’re asking for—and tasted it! He already gave you manna in the wilderness! I’m not saying you’d be wrong to say that. I am suggesting that this isn’t the first conclusion you should jump to. I mean, that’s not where Jesus went immediately, was it? And he never was one to mince words, was he? What Jesus did was give them a history lesson: I assure you—once again, Amen, amen; real talk, y’all—it wasn’t Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For forty years, Israel ate manna in the wilderness. It was a tried and true sign from God that he was on their side, and they could trust his gifts for their survival. Now, Jesus has told them to work for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal. Jesus is telling them that God has authorized him to nurture and nourish them from now until eternity. So throw your lot in with the One that God has sent. Their reasonable reply is: Why should we trust you? Like I said, I suspect these were people who’d been taken for a ride before. And here’s Jesus. He shows up out of nowhere. People have heard rumors that he’s just a cabinet maker from the nowhere town of Nazareth. Maybe they’ve also heard that he is the child of an unwed teenage mother. No one knows who his real father is. They probably also know that he’s on the radar of the local rulers. He’s not safe. Why should they risk the little security they have on him? Why should we trust you?, they ask. Show us something else. Moses fed our ancestors for forty years in the wilderness. We know God was with him. You’ve only fed us once. We need more. I tell you what—they may have lacked faith. But they weren’t stupid. Poor people don’t survive long if they’re stupid. I think Jesus knew that. That’s why he shut them down quick when they played games with him. But when it came to these practical questions from skeptical people, he gave them the gift of abundant patience. He took their questions seriously, and didn’t dismiss them. Maybe we could learn something from that.
So Jesus reminds them that it wasn’t Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. It was God who fed our people in the wilderness, Jesus is saying. The gifts they lived by came through Moses, but they came from Father God. Moreover, Jesus implies that neither the manna their ancestors ate nor the meal he had given them the day before are the true bread from heaven. Think about it. Manna lasted only a day, then it spoiled. Manna was the food that perishes. Is that really the sign they wanted? Surely they had bigger dreams than that for the world and their own lives! O church—surely we have bigger dreams for our world and our lives than comfort, security, and control. Those are food that perishes, too. They will not sustain us for eternal life. They do not prepare us for the great feast to which God will invite all nations—the feast where God himself will dine on death. They do not direct our vision to a time when no one will ever go hungry again, and tears will be wiped from every face. They can, however, blind us to the reality of hungry neighbors crying out for justice now. But perhaps that’s another sermon. Anyway, Jesus has more to say about this heavenly bread: The bread of God is the one who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. The manna had fed Israel for forty years in the wilderness. Now Jesus is talking about bread from God that will nourish not only Israel, but the whole world. Who can blame the people for breathlessly begging, Sir, give us this bread all the time! In the original language, they actually said, Give us this bread now and forever! Something is clicking for these people. They finally understand that Jesus is offering them food that will sustain them now, and in the life to come. He is offering them an appetizer for the feast Isaiah had seen—right here and now! But to receive this bread, they must learn to welcome Jesus as God’s gift. As the one God sent. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal. What was the function of a seal in the ancient word? You closed up your letters with it. You put your brand on it. It proved that the message inside was from you. Jesus is God’s message, God’s sign, to people. And so Jesus lays it on the people straight: I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. I suspect that when the crowd heard this, they were sort of bummed. I mean, you can’t eat Jesus, right? Okay—that really is another sermon. Two weeks from today—same time, same channel. Stay tuned. I’ll just suggest for now that the people were starting to get impatient with Jesus. In their minds—and I think this is understandable—he’d gone from holding out on them to being just plain weird. I also suspect that some of us get bummed when we hear Jesus say that whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. After all, there are hungry Christians in the world. There are Christians who lack clean drinking water. Even some of the apostles—Paul talks about this is his letters—sometimes went hungry. Who is Jesus trying to kid? But maybe that misses his point. Maybe our cravings, our desires, our longings—the things we hunger and thirst for—are transformed when we come to Jesus. Maybe, like in the Beatitudes, we will be blessed to be hungry and thirsty for justice (Matt. 5.6). Maybe we’ll learn to say, along with Jesus earlier in John’s Gospel: I am fed by doing the will of the one who sent me (John 4.34). Maybe that will satisfy our transformed longings. Perhaps that is the food that endures for eternal life. Maybe that’s what Jesus called treasure in heaven in the Sermon on the Mount.
You might remember in our Old Testament reading this morning, God told Moses: I’m going to make bread rain down from the sky for you. The people will go out each day and gather just enough for that day. In this way, I’ll test them to see whether or not they follow my Instruction (Exod. 16.4). God wanted to know if Israel was able to live by gifts. Would they gather just enough for that day, or would they fail to trust God’s generosity? The manna was all about nurturing Israel to be a people who were able to live by gifts. Who were able to trust that what God gave them would nourish and sustain them. Church, we live by gifts, too. That’s always been central to what it means to be God’s people. It was true for Israel, and it’s true for us: we must learn to trust the gifts God gives us. Anything else is working for the food that perishes. Our reading from Ephesians today also confirms that the church lives by gifts. Paul wrote that: God has given his grace to each one of us measured out by the gift that is given by Christ (Eph. 4.7). Measured out doesn’t mean that some of us get a little grace and some of us get a lot. It’s more like your portion, your share. Like when a bowl of soup gets passed around the dinner table and everyone ladles what they need into their bowl. We each get our share of God’s gifts. But those gifts aren’t just for our own enjoyment. Paul goes on to say: His purpose was to equip God’s people for the work of serving and building up the body of Christ (Eph. 4.12). The gifts God gives to sustain us are meant for sharing. For nourishing and nurturing others. The church is in the world as a sign, a message, a gesture, of God’s generosity. We have been made receivers, gifts, and givers in Christ. A diverse people in the world, sharing the bread and wine God has given us through Jesus, is a sign to the world that Isaiah’s vision is being fulfilled: God is preparing a feast for all the nations. There, he will dine on death, and wipe tears from every eye. We are God’s gift to the world. A sign that God gives food that endures for eternal life in a world that is weary of working for food that doesn’t last.