Sermon offered August 5, 2012
Near the end of the Gospel according to John – the gospel that today’s reading comes from – John writes: All “these things are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” This gives us the reason that John had in writing his whole gospel story – and it perfectly summarizes the message of the reading we just heard. The Good News of today’s gospel is that through believing that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God – through believing that Jesus was sent by God – through believing in Jesus, the Bread of Life – through faith in Jesus – we have life in abundance, both now, today – and in the age to come.
One of the ways John gets this message across to us is by telling stories about miracles – and these miracles that reveal something about God or about who Jesus is – John calls these miracle stories SIGNS – they’re signs of God’s grace. Today’s gospel reading grows out of one of these Signs: the miracle of the feeding of the 5000. We heard that story in the gospel reading last week.
The scene for this week’s gospel reading sets up in much the same way as last week’s: The crowd is looking for Jesus; they’re following him. Do you remember the gospel and the sermon last week. Fr. Ted started out by asking you why the people were following Jesus. Do you remember why? Yes! He was miraculously healing sick people and they were looking for more miracles – more miraculous healing – more signs of God’s grace. And how did Jesus respond to them? With compassion. He fed them. And in so doing – another miracle, another sign. He fed 5000 people with just 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish.
Today’s story follows immediately after the feeding of the 5000 and after Jesus walks on the water, another sign in last week’s lesson. In this week’s story the crowd has figured out that Jesus somehow crossed the lake without their knowing about it – and they’ve followed him there. I want to ask you the same question this week: Why are the people following Jesus this time? Jesus knows why they’re following him – they’re looking for more food – they’re looking for dinner. They had seen the miracle feeding; they had eaten their fill of bread and fish and were delightfully satisfied; and they want more. This time they’re not concerned about looking for the sign, the sign of God’s presence, the sign of God’s grace in all this. Instead they’re concerned about where their next meal is coming from.
And how does Jesus respond to them this time? Not with compassion but with revelation. He takes this opportunity as a teaching moment. Jesus perceives that they’re not seeing the deeper meaning underlying that miraculous dinner – they’re not getting the spiritual meaning – they’re just seeking the miracle, not the sign of God who is Hidden in it. Jesus tries to get them to see that he’s offering bread that sustains, that nourishes for eternity – he’s offering them spiritual food.
In the gospel reading today is that Jesus engages the crowd in conversation – in a pattern of questions and answers that involves: misunderstanding and double meanings and metaphors. Jesus uses these indirect ways of answering questions to open the discussion to deeper meaning – to the mystery of the Bread of Life. In the conversation, the people ask Jesus basically three questions:
The first thing they want to know is: when did Jesus come to the other side of the lake – By implication they’re asking how Jesus got across the lake because they know that he didn’t go in the boat with the other disciples. Rather than try to explain to them about the walking on water incident (which they would not have understood) Jesus’ response deals with their inability to see signs. According to Jesus, the crowd merely wants the past to be repeated by having him hand out more physical bread. But Jesus challenges them to open to a deeper, spiritual way of seeing. When it comes to food, he suggests that they should work for food that endures for eternal life – the food that the Son of Man will give them.
But the crowd misunderstands – they totally fail to comprehend what Jesus is talking about. And this leads to their second question. Work: They want to know what they can do to do the works of God. They think that the works of God are something that can be accomplished by human effort. Jesus’ response is about believing rather than working – it’s about being rather than doing. Jesus tells them straight away that their “work of God” is to believe, to actively have faith – that the great work that God asks of them is to have faith in the one that God sent. That is – to believe in Jesus.
And this prompts the crowd’s third question for Jesus: “What sign are you going to do – so that we can see it and believe in you – what proof will you give us?” Now this request for yet another sign after all they’ve seen – miraculous healings, miraculous feeding – this request may seem to push the limit –and actually it is evidence of their unbelief.
But Jesus continues to engage them on the comparison of Jesus’ miracle involving bread — — and the bread – the manna – that God provided the Israelites in the wilderness. Which miracle was greater? Jesus points out that God is the one who gives them heavenly bread, the bread that gives life and, Jesus says, it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. This answer seems to begin to break open a way to a new vision – a new understanding – because now instead of coming back with another question, the people make a request: “Sir, give us this bread always . . .” This opens the way to the revelation of today’s gospel reading. Jesus says:
“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
Jesus said “I am the Bread of Life”: that’s the metaphor of sorts. And what that actually means, will be different for each of us. That’s because knowing who Jesus is – is about relationship – and each of us has our own relationship with Jesus. The question of who Jesus is will be revealed to us as we live and grow in a relationship with Him. We grow in relationship as our faith grows stronger. To believe in Jesus is to be in a relationship with Jesus. Consider for a moment – what does that mean for us in our daily life?
Moving on to our life together as a parish family here at St. Nathaniel’s. At St. Nathaniel’s what might a miracle – even, perhaps a sign from God – what would that look like? From what I’ve seen over the past week or so, a miracle might be an air conditioning system that begins to function well – that gets fixed without breaking the bank! Or . . . it might be a miracle if thirty or forty kids show up next Sunday to have their backpacks blessed – and they all end up coming back and joining up to inflate the size of our Sunday School class.
And another hoped for miracle?
Tom, our sexton, was telling me about an ongoing conversation he had with Rev. Pat – about how he would win the lottery and give the money to St. Nathaniel’s – and about how that would be the end of St. Nathaniel’s tight budgetary problems . . . (And Tom would become St. Tom, patron saint of “church’s in financial trouble” – or some such thing.)
Suppose we pick that up now and begin praying that Tom will win the lottery . . . And then suppose Tom does win the lottery . . . and it provides the money to pay off our loans, spruce up our already lovely church building a bit more . . . and we’d have plenty left over to build up the vital ministries we already have going . . . We might take that as a miracle, maybe even a sign from God – don’t you think?
But I wonder: Would these miracles – whether in the form of a smooth functioning air conditioner or a large youth group or plenteous financial resources – would that be the end of our challenges, the challenges of carrying out God’s work – the work of belief and faith – the work that God expects of us? Would that put an end to the challenges of how we live together as Christians — challenges in relationships with each other? And especially when it comes to money, I wonder if financial challenges sometimes tend to obscure the true goals of the church. Does materialistic need tend to stand in the way of vision for the future?
You know the saying: Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans. I think Christian discipleship is what we do while we’re in the process of trying to solve our materialistic problems. Discipleship is what we do, how we live, how we relate to each other while we’re trying to build our membership – while we’re trying to balance the budget. Christianity is all about relationship: relationship with ourselves, knowing ourselves; relationship with God through Jesus Christ; and relationship with each other in Christian community. It’s about seeing and honoring the presence of Christ in each other.
And as for signs – signs being those miracles that reveal who Jesus is – signs are something like sacraments. (You know the Prayer Book definition of a sacrament? An outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.)
When the crowd asks Jesus what they must do to perform the works of God, he makes it clear: “This is the work of God: have faith in the one God has sent.” And the crowd asks Jesus for a sign – so that they might believe.
When we celebrate the Eucharist today, our task is to believe that our God, in Jesus, is our spiritual food and drink – our task is see the sign. The liturgy is not just a meal that we make up, something that depends on our own virtue or expertise. It is a gift of God – and our response to His gift is to receive it, to be nourished by it, to believe it. This is not necessarily an easy task – our faith. But this is the work God expects of us. . . .