Scripture Eph 4:1-16, John 6:24-35
I have a love/hate relationship with the Gospel of John. In many ways it is a place we see Jesus in new, divine ways. But when we encounter him in these divine ways, Jesus always ties us back to the physical and real world. He seems to be pushing us in directions in understanding who he is, who God is, who we are, and what it means to have faith in him. And that is where I love it. But sometimes Jesus’ sayings stop me in my tracks and I have to ask myself, “Jesus, what are you talking about?” William Willimon says about John, “Seen from one angle, the Gospel of John is a veritable symphony of incomprehension.” Some of his sayings we have heard so many times that I think we just gloss right over the top of them, they have become slogans of sorts. During his conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus says, “You must be born again!” I’d have been sitting there with old Nic, “Right. How does one go back into the womb?” When Jesus clears out the temple of the money changers, and is asked for a sign to verify his authority for doing such an act, he says, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” What kind of construction crew do you have hiding back in Nazareth? If I’d have overheard Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan women at the well about the water he has that will forever quench one’s thirst, I probably would have just shook my head and walked away, headed for the next well or oasis to fill my canteen again.
But when we stop and think about what he is saying, we can and should find Jesus disruptive to our regular way of thinking, seeing how God is breaking into the regular and mundane or our lives. And this is true when Jesus says he is the bread of life. The crowd that he is talking to hear Jesus on “bread,” and they immediately assume he is talking about dinner. And why not? This is the same crowd of thousands that on the day before he had taken five loaves and two fish and fed them, with so much left over that they all would have been satisfied again. They were so excited about being so well fed and that Jesus knew that the crowd would force him to become a king. That is why he left them and that is why they followed him.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus’ miracles and signs work in a two-fold, overlapping, inseparable way. The physical and the spiritual are intertwined. On a concrete, physical, observable level, his miracles set people free. We find Jesus curing the sick, casting out demons, restoring people to the community, and filling stomachs. But at another, still equally concrete and important level, his signs put God’s power and reign on display. His ministry among the people provides tangible and real ways that the Kingdom of God is indeed at hand.
But the problems arise when the people fail to see and experience the one within the other. When they don’t see and experience the Kingdom along with physical miracle, their relationship with Jesus will become manipulative and exploitive. When the crowd found Jesus, they asked him when he had arrived in Capernaum. Jesus cuts to the chase, knowing full well why they are there, “You are tracking me down because I fed you, not because you saw signs from God.” They want to use Jesus for the bread that filled them the day before, and miss out on the bread of Life that he also offers. They have had a sign, and they still do not believe in what he is offering. Jesus reminds them that Moses did not give the bread that came from heaven, it was God. God gave them the manna in the wilderness that would satisfy them for the day. That same God now gives them freely the bread that will satisfy them forever. The crowd asks Jesus for this bread, their minds still on a free loaf. But Jesus says that he is the bread of life who will satisfy their hungers and quench their thirst forever.
Jesus’ response to those who demand to know his whereabouts is to probe instead what they are really seeking. This is where he is pushing them in their understanding about who he is and what he can truly give them. He is basically asking them, “Why are you here? Why are you pursing me?” For this crowd, it was to fill their stomachs and make him king, and Jesus knew that. And throughout history, people have been answering that question in many different ways. People may have still declared him king publically, but their motivations were driven by other hungers. Benjamin Sparks shares the story from the 19th century missionaries to China and the people who would come to church, be converted, baptized, and remain active members as long as there was material food to be given by the generosity of the congregation. But, as soon as their situation improved and they were no longer in need of the food provided by the church, ‘poof,’ they were gone. Hence, the missionaries called them ‘rice Christians.’
As these ‘rice Christians’ pursued Jesus to fill their stomachs, others pursued him for what appears to be a more ‘righteous’ reason, to save their souls. Michael Danner shares the story of why he pursued Christ, and how he came to a realization that it wasn’t healthy: “I don’t remember a lot of what I was taught as a kid in church. However, I do remember being taught this: If I didn’t give my life to Jesus, I would spend eternity suffering in hell with the devil. If I did give my life to Jesus, I would spend eternity at an awesome party with God in heaven. So, I chose Jesus. As I think back to those days, I realize that I didn’t know a thing about Jesus. So what motivated me to pledge my life to him? Simply, I liked what Jesus could do for me. As I grew up and learned more about (un)healthy friendships, I began to be troubled. You see, I was taught that you don’t use people. In my family, “using people” was defined as a relationship that one entered into only for what the other could do for them. That was wrong. And yet, that was the relationship I was encouraged to have with Jesus. Become a friend of Jesus so that you can go to heaven when you die.”
So, why are you here? Why do you pursue Jesus? What are your motivations? Is coming to church the thing you “should” do on Sundays since that is what you have always done since you were a child? Is coming to worship, giving of your time and treasure just a way to mark on a to-do list of what you think God wants? Are you here to gather enough points so that when there is a crisis in your life you can say, “God, you owe me!”? Is Jesus just an agent with the right fire insurance policy? Do you pursue Jesus because you think this country is headed in the wrong direction and if we can just make things like they were, a more Christian America, everything will be ok? Are you here because this church had the best worship style that fit your taste after visiting more than you could count, like kicking the tires on all the cars on a used car lot? Does the Jesus you chase agree with you politically, so you are able to make your agenda his agenda?
Or, are you here to walk with the one who offers eternal satisfaction of our lives and souls in this life and the next? Friends, the bread of life is a person. And just like any other person, we experience him within a relationship. And it is within that relationship that we are transformed, fed, and nurtured by him. We follow him, becoming his disciples. We sit at his feet and learn from him what it means to love God and love neighbor. We no longer pursue him, hoping or demanding that he will satisfy our worldly needs and personal desires. Jesus is the bread of life not for how he fills our stomachs, but how he shapes us into his body, teaching and preparing us to give of ourselves in the same way he gives of himself for the world.
When the crowd finds Jesus in Capernaum, they ask him “when did you come here?” Basically, they are asking Jesus why he is there. They expected an answer based upon geography and time. But Jesus gives them a deeper answer, the true answer, an answer that makes them stop and hear something new, changing their understanding of who he is. He came from God, and he came to do the work of his Father, to give his life for the sake of the world, to pursue them and to pursue us, so that those who trust in him may receive the bread of life that is Jesus Christ. That’s why he’s here. Now, why are you here?