Text: John 6:26-69; Isaiah 55:1-3a
Today we are looking at part of one of the longest accounts of Jesus’ miracles and teaching in the Gospels. It is contained in John 6, which begins with a miracle of bread in the “Feeding of the 5,000.” The narrative then follows Jesus (as does the crowd) to the other side of the sea, and picks back up with Jesus teaching about miraculous bread. Read together, John 6 shows the inter-relation between Jesus’ miraculous signs, the scripture, his teaching, and who he is. Said another way, all these things point to Jesus and at the end of the day (and chapter), that is what and who we must grapple with: Jesus himself.
There are a number of ways to work through this text. But with the whole chapter being 71 verses long, I’ll simply have to pick aspect of this rich story to focus upon. I am going to lift out several verses that point to Hebrew scriptures as we work through the text. Know that what preceded all this was a miracle: the multiplying of fish and bread to feed a hungry crowd of 5,000 men, plus women and children. Know that the crowd followed Jesus, wanting to see more miraculous signs and wanting to pronounce Jesus King according to the popular understanding of Messiah at the time. And then our text picks up right where the crowd finds Jesus in Capernaum on the other side of the sea.
“Do not work for food which perishes but for that which endures” (v.27)
Jesus begins with scripture almost right off the bat, though it’s not an exact quote. He first says to the crowd, “You seek me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled.” (v. 26) Then, he paraphrases Isaiah 55:2, which you heard as our Call to Worship:
“Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; hear, that your soul may live! (Isaiah 55:1-3a)
Though his words were a paraphrase – “do not work for the food which perishes” – they would have called this familiar passage to mind as an invitation to come to God and “eat and drink” of eternal things.
Said another way, he is signaling to the crowd that what he is offering is not more literal food, as in the previous days’ feeding. If anything, the “Feeding of the 5,000” was a miraculous sign pointing to something greater. This scripture from Isaiah is a direct invitation to “incline your ear, come to me, and hear, that your soul may live!” Jesus confirms that by going on to say that this enduring food is what “the Son of Man will give to you, for on Him the Father, God, has set His seal.” (v. 27)
The people evidently understand his point, because they respond using the language of Isaiah. If they are not to work or labor for earthly, finite things, they ask, “What shall we do, so that we may work the works of God?” (v. 28) And Jesus’ response here is significant. “This is the work of God,” he says, “that you believe in Him whom He has sent.” (v. 29)
Did you get that? There are all kinds of works we might engage in. There is running after earthly stuff, whether necessary like food and water or more superficial. There is doing “good works” like helping the poor and loving one’s neighbors. But when asked outright what is godly work of the Isaiah kind – that has eternal significance for the soul – Jesus says that it is to believe in the one God has sent. And clearly he means himself, for the people then ask him for proof.
“God gave them bread out of Heaven to eat” (v.31)
They ask, “What then do you do for a sign, so that we may see, and believe you? What work do you perform?” (v. 30) Now the crowd quotes scripture about the manna in the wilderness, saying, “As it is written, ‘He gave them bread out of heaven to eat.’” (Exodus 16:4) The people were expecting a Moses-figure and so they lifted up the great sign that accompanied Moses: the provision of food through manna.
In a perfect and living example of how Jesus did not come to abolish the Law and Prophets, but complete and fulfill them, Jesus does not challenge the scripture at all, but clarifies, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread out of heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread out of heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down out of heaven, and gives life to the world.” (v. 32)
And they want it! “Lord, always give us this bread.” (v. 34) Here’s the thing: they still wanted bread. Their expectations and desires might have graduated from literal bread (like the day before) to something miraculous, but they still were missing what Jesus was saying. He wasn’t claiming to be a new Moses, with signs like the Manna verifying who he was. He was claiming to BE the Manna, the eternal and life-giving food from God in Heaven: “I am the bread of life; he who comes to me will not hunger, and he who believes in me will never thirst.” (v. 35)
This is the truly huge statement in all of this. Jesus is greater than Moses; he is greater than the miracles in Moses’ time; those just point to God’s great eternal provision of soul-food… the sending of Jesus as the “Bread of Life.”
“I AM the Bread of Life” (v.35)
There are several significant takeaways from all this. I think each of us could locate ourselves somewhere in the crowd that day. It is so easy to think about (and pray to) God in terms of “what can God do for me?” Yet Jesus moves past that to the startling invitation to consider Jesus for who he is rather than what he can do for us.
Interestingly, a human religious tendency seems to mirror that same tension, resulting in religious expression that is primarily oriented on “what can I do for God?” Yet Jesus seemingly holds out more than that to a definition of godly work not as what I can do for God but of trusting the one and the way God has reached out to us.
The one approach is a kind of “backscratch theology” – trying (subconsciously or consciously) to trade favors with God. The other – who Jesus is and what God has and is doing already – sounds like Isaiah, sounds like grace: “Ho! Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat!”
Jesus says that the only way we can know God is for God to come to us. And the Good News, says Jesus, is that God has done just that. It’s another example of Jesus saying, “This is who I am; do you trust me?”
As Isaiah would say: “Incline your ear and come to him; listen, that your soul may live!” Amen.
To Whom Shall We Go? (v.68)
I included the verses from the end of this story because they are among the most significant. After Jesus has called people away from signs and secondary pursuits more and more intensely, many begin to turn away. Even his own followers and disciples start to question, “This is a difficult statement; who can listen to it?” (v.60) But Peter responds:
“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life. We have believed and have come to know that you are the Holy One of God.” (vv.68-69)
And that is the key question for you and me as we read and hear this text. It is easy to make Christianity into a lot of things that it is not – from the worthwhile (but not saving) experiences of mission trips, retreats, service projects, and church attendance, to the trivial like scripture-inscribed candy, coffee mugs, and convenience store trinkets. And in the midst of all of it – experiential, cultural, thoughtful, and trivial – Jesus insists, “Only through me; believe in me.” It’s still a claim to stumble over, still a scandal. It has been called the “scandal of particularity” – that there are not many ways to God, but a particular one, the One sent from Heaven, the Bread of Life, Jesus Christ, the Holy One of God.
So, the text raises this question of you and me: to whom shall you go? Will you grumble, and stumble, withdraw, and not walk with him anymore? Will you realize with Peter, stumbling block and all, that only Jesus has the words of eternal life? Will you believe in the one God has sent? Will you follow him?
This is the essence of the Christian faith. Even more importantly, this is life. Amen.