Rev. Dr. David D. M. King
The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
Do you notice how the crowd and Jesus seem to be talking past each other? Jesus never seems to give a direct answer to any of the questions they ask him. The crowd always seems to misunderstand what Jesus is saying. Βut that’s not surprising since Jesus is using all kinds of double-meanings and word plays. It’s almost as if they are having two different conversations but just happen to be in the same place at the same time.
The crowd is hungry. They have seen the kind of power that this Jesus has, and they want more of it. They want to be fed all the time by Jesus. If he can miraculously feed five thousand people, then he could do that all the time. All they need to do is follow him and he’ll keep on feeding them. And if he can feed people, he can probably also grant them other things. They’ve found themselves their own wonder-working genie who seems to have the power to grant them any wish. All they have to do is stay with him and they won’t have a care left in the world; he will give them whatever they want. They are searching for Jesus because they want him to fill the hole in their lives, and they want him to fill it with tangible, material things.
Jesus, on the other hand is trying to lead the people to himself. That’s what all of the miracles are about, it’s so that they’ll see who he is. In fact, they are not miracles at all, but signs, signs that identify Jesus as the eternally begotten Son of God. We know, because John tells us in Chapter One, what the crowd does not know: that Jesus is the Word made Flesh, the One through whom all things were made, the eternal source of all knowledge. Jesus is trying to get them to see this, trying to get them to understand and come to him, because through him, they can see God.
But they don’t understand him. They are more interested in the material benefits they think come from following Jesus than in who Jesus really is, or what he has to offer, or where he is leading them.
And we are so often like that crowd, aren’t we? We recognize that we are hungry, that we are thirsty. There is something missing in our lives. We aren’t fully happy. We are searching and seeking for something that will fill us, that will make us whole. We are looking for that missing piece that will satisfy our desires.
And so much of the time we too look for that satisfaction in material things. It’s what the advertisers tell us to do. If you’re not happy, it must be that there is some item that you need that you don’t have. If I just had… then I would be happy. We try to fill the hollow space with all kinds of things. With money, clothes, cars, trips, food, sex, alcohol, drugs, gadgets, dishes, computers, music, activities, grades, television… you can finish the list. Like the old luxury car commercial says, “It’s not more than you need, just more than you’re used to.”
Sometimes we ask God to give us these things that are bound to make us happy. Like the old song, “O Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz…” God, if you just let me have… then I’ll be happy, and I might even really believe in you. We want the goodies that God can offer us, preferably with the least amount of effort possible. What is the minimum I can do and still have God bless me? Come on God, I’ve said that I believe in you… now give me what I deserve.
Yes, we would do just about anything to fill those holes in our lives… except of course, actually face God. God is constantly calling us to be in relationship, but we so often turn away. God is calling simply for our availability, but so often God only gets our busy signal. Not right now, God. Is it because we are afraid to face God? Are we afraid of what that kind of a relationship might mean? What would happen if God actually got ahold of our lives? What would we have to change? What… would we have to give up?
Jesus implores the crowd to work for food that endures and not food that perishes. And the crowd responds with a good follow-up question: What do we need to do in order to work the works of God? They want to know what this “working for food that endures” thing looks like. How can they get by without working for real, tangible food? What is Jesus talking about?
And Jesus responds in his way, “This is the work of God: that you might believe in the one whom God has sent.” This is the work of God. That phrase can be interpreted in two ways. It’s the same in both Greek and English. Work of God can either mean work we do for God or work that God does for us. We usually assume that it means the work we do for God. Why? Well, that’s the question that the crowd asked: how can we do the work of God? But as I mentioned at the beginning, Jesus is not very fond of answering people’s questions directly, and I would suggest that this is no exception. The crowd asks what work they need to do and Jesus responds that God is the one who does the work. This is the work of God, this is the work God does for you, that you might believe in the one whom God sent. God makes that faith possible. God is the one who opens the door by sheer grace. God is making a way for us.
And what happens when we have faith and trust in the one whom God has sent? Jesus tells us, “The one holding on to me and coming with me will surely never be hungry and the one believing and trusting in me will surely never ever be thirsty.” Jesus promises us satisfaction if we believe in him. Jesus himself will fill that longing desire deep within, that hole that cannot be filled by any amount of wealth or power or prestige. It is that relationship with God that we can find in Jesus that is what will make us whole.
But doesn’t that bring us right back to where we started? If we just tag along behind Jesus then he will fulfill our every need. Doesn’t this leave us with the same kind of wish-granting-genie Jesus that we had at the beginning, only this time we get spiritual goodies instead of temporal ones, eternal life, perhaps. Say yes to Jesus and you get a free ticket to heaven? We can just escape from the world and look forward to the pearly gates. No need to think about the hungry or the poor or the marginalized in society. What they really need to do forget about their problems and look forward to heaven too… after all, we shouldn’t work for food that perishes.
I think that would be to misunderstand the nature of the Jesus who calls us. It’s right there in today’s text. “The bread of God is this: the one who continuously comes down out of heaven and continuously gives life to the entire universe.” We don’t worship a God who is only concerned with heavenly things We don’t believe in a Jesus who is disengaged from the world. We trust in a Christ who is continuously coming down out of heaven—not just once in a manger at Bethlehem, but still today. We follow a Jesus who is continuously giving life to the entire universe. Jesus’s work didn’t end on a wooden cross, but it continues today. Jesus is alive and actively working in the world to give life. All things were created through him, and he is still active in creation.
This brings us back to those words of Jesus: This is the work of God: that you might believe in the one whom God sent. That word believe. In Greek it is πιστεύω. You’ll almost always see it translated believe, and it does mean to believe, but that’s really only half of the meaning. The problem is that we don’t have an English word for the other half of the meaning. The closest thing would be an action form of the word “faith.” To faith. I was faithing. It’s not just some sterile, intellectual acceptance that happens in the mind, it is an active living out of that faith in the world. Eugene Peterson translates it as “aligning yourself with” or “throwing your lot in with” Christ. It’s a deep soul commitment. “This is the work of God: that you might be faithing in the one whom God sent.”
That is the kind of spiritual food, the kind of bread from heaven that truly satisfies our deep hunger and thirst: a faith that leads us into relationship with God through Jesus and leads us out into the world, just as Christ is in relationship with God and is “continually coming down out of heaven and giving life to the universe.” It is not a one-or-the-other faith. Often we want to choose. Either we want to spend all of our time separating ourselves from the world so we can be closer to God, or we want to go out and do all the good we can in the world without having to really look God in the face. Christ calls us to a faith that is both-and. It is precisely that close relationship with God that leads us to action in the world. Jesus himself is the Bread of Life, and whoever comes with him and faiths in him will surely never be hungry or thirsty.