[This was shared during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church, Centerville, Ohio, yesterday.]
In today’s gospel lesson, John 6:22-35, we encounter the single most difficult truth to accept or understand about being a follower of Jesus Christ, a disciple.
It’s the one thing about being a Christian that has, through the centuries, most often tripped up people of all backgrounds and experiences, sending them down all sorts of rabbit holes and blind alleys to death and life without God.
It’s the thing about Christianity that most scandalizes the world...and many in the Church today.
This one thing is, as Martin Luther liked to remind people, is the thing, the truth, “on which the Church stands or falls.”
And, as I say, this truth so difficult for people to accept is the most important thing you and I can ever know, accept, or accede to, the most important thing you can hear about from this or any other pulpit.
Let’s set the stage. Over the last few Sundays, we’ve considered Mark’s telling of Jesus feeding the 5000 and its immediate aftermath. Mark tells us about Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection with a journalist’s economy. Mark, like a modern newsperson, produces a “first draft of history,” with the idea of getting the story of Jesus out to first-century churches, his first audience, as quickly and accurately as possible.
The other gospel writers take their time, approaching the story of Jesus in different ways. Matthew has been described as “the scribe of the Kingdom.” Luke is a historian obsessed with prayer. John is an artist, a poet, a scholar, a theologian, steeped both in the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek philosophers.
All of the gospel writers tell us the truth that can set us free. But Matthew, Luke, and John often tell us things that Mark leaves out. In today’s lesson, John tells us more than Mark does about what happened the day after Jesus fed a throng of thousands from a few pieces of bread and some fish.
Earlier in John, chapter 6, John says that after Jesus had done this miracle, the crowd wanted to make Jesus a king. But the crowd wanted Jesus to be an earthly sort of king, the kind of king who was ruled by the whims and desires of people, who followed the latest Gallup Poll or the sentiments of his "base."
People still approach Jesus in this way. They’ll “follow” Him or “believe in” Him, so long as Jesus conforms to their expectations, as long as He acts more like a good luck charm for their wishes rather than the Lord of their lives Who commands us to take up our crosses and follow. In recent years, we’ve seen entire Christian denominations, conservative and liberal, turn from following Jesus when they didn’t like what He had to say about sin, grace, or salvation.
Because He never bowed to popular sentiment but only to the will of God the Father, Jesus withdrew from the crowd (John 6:15).
You remember what happened next. Jesus went to a quiet place while the apostles climbed into a boat. A storm kicked up on the lake. Jesus walked across the lake, calmed the storm, then rode to the other shore with the twelve. Although they knew nothing about all of this, the crowd wasn’t done with Jesus yet. Realizing that Jesus must have gone to the other side of the lake, they boarded boats that had just come to shore from Tiberias and headed off for Capernaum in order to catch up to Jesus. (John 6:24)
Look at what happens next, beginning in verse 25: “When they found him on the other side of the lake, they asked him, ‘Rabbi, when did you get here?’ Jesus answered, ‘Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill…’” (John 6:25-26)
The Bible repeatedly affirms that God knows what’s going on inside of us, what’s in our hearts. David says in Psalm 139:1: “You have searched me, Lord, and you know me.” Here in these verses from our gospel lesson, we get further confirmation that Jesus isn’t only a real human being, He also is really God. He sees through the motives of the crowd who have chased Him down to Capernaum. He knows their hearts.
“Very truly I tell you,” Jesus says, “you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill.”
“You want to use Me for your own purposes,” Jesus is telling them. “But the miracle of the loaves and fishes should have been a sign pointing you to the fact that I’m the God of all creation you’ve been claiming to believe in all your lives. Instead, you want to march to your tune. You want to use Me, not worship Me.”
But, rather than pouring scorn on the crowd, Jesus tells them: “Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.’” (John 6:27)
Food that’s eaten will only give us energy for a little while. Food that’s not eaten might be tossed down a disposal or rot somewhere (like in our refrigerator crispers because we forget it's there). Whatever the case, food doesn’t last forever. So, Jesus tells the crowd, it’s silly to expend the kind of effort they’ve expended in following Him across the lake just to get more food that will either rot or go away.
What we really need is the “food that endures to eternal life.”
When Jesus says this, the crowd is curious, like the woman at the well to whom Jesus mentioned “living water.” Verse 28: “Then they asked him, ‘What must we do to do the works God requires?’ Jesus answered, ‘The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.’” (If you have your Bibles with you, you might want to underline John 6:29.)
That, friends, is the single most difficult truth to accept or understand about being a follower of Jesus Christ. To receive the food that endures to eternal life, the living bread from heaven, the living water, life with God that never gives out and never ends, there’s nothing we can or have to do.
- We don’t have to strain to be good people, although when we have the food that never gives out, we will want to be good people.
- We don’t have to memorize fifty Bible verse, though when you recognize that the Bible is God’s living Word, you will want to know it better.
- We don’t have to intone magic words.
Our work is simply and only to believe in the One sent by God, to trust in Jesus, the crucified and risen Lord.
As Jesus famously told Nicodemus (say it with me): “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)
In other words, we are justified--our right to exist in the sight of God despite our sins--is secured simply and only and exclusively by God's grace through our faith--our belief--in Jesus Christ!
When we believe in Jesus, God makes us new. God makes us His. “...if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Corinthians 5:17) It’s as simple as that!
But, we may say, wanting to complicate things as we human beings always seem to do, there must be more to Christian discipleship than that?
No, Jesus says our one and only work is no work at all; it’s simply to believe in Him.
But, we may object, aren’t we supposed to serve, aren’t we supposed to do good works, to pray?
If you keep turning from sin and trustingly believing in Jesus, you will serve, you will do good works, you will pray. In fact, your whole life and all of your priorities will be turned upside down.
You’ll run from your sins and run into the arms of Jesus.
That’s because the more you turn to Jesus, the more you will believe in Jesus. And the more you believe in Jesus, the more Jesus will rub off on you.
A high school friend of ours told me several years after I had come to faith in Christ, “You’ve changed, Mark. You seem more centered, focused.” I appreciated his words, but I hadn't thought about any of that before.
People will tell Christians who keep trusting in Jesus things like this all the time:
"You’re more loving."
"You seem to have more peace in your life."
"You’re a better listener."
"You seem more able to handle the tough stuff.”
As you walk in trust with Jesus and people say things like that to you, you likely won’t know what to say, unaware of the changes that have come to you because you’ve fallen into Jesus’ orbit...simply because you believe in Him.
As we keep trusting in Jesus Who justifies us, He also sanctifies us. That is, He will transform us from the inside out. He will make us holy. He will set us aside for God’s purposes and we will live with greater confidence.
Paul describes what happens to those who believe in Jesus in 2 Corinthians 3:18: “...we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”
And it’s all rooted in simply believing in Jesus, the most important truth any of us can ever know or grasp hold of.
Do you find it hard to believe?
Turn to Jesus and tell Him about it. (He knows already anyway. Just be honest with Him.) Jesus is anxious to turn our availability into faith in Him, the faith we need to live in Him. He will help us believe.
And, as the Bible reminds us, “Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame." (Romans 10:11)
[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]