This sermon was preached at Shepherd of the Bay Lutheran Church in Ellison Bay, Wisconsin on Sunday, August 5. It was based on the gospel lesson for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, John 6:24-35
The great Methodist preacher and pastoral theologian, Will Willimon wrote, “The gospel of John is a veritable symphony of incomprehensibility.” Perhaps a shocking statement for someone — never mind a bishop of the church — to say about a part of Holy Scriptures. What Willimon was getting at however, is not that it’s impossible to understand the gospel of John — though I think there are parts that continue to be difficult — but that everywhere we turn, we find people who just don’t get it.
Take this morning’s story, for instance. We’re coming right on the heels of the miracle that we reflected on last week, when Jesus turned a poor boy’s traveling lunch into a meal for thousands. The crowds were so impressed that they wanted to make Jesus king. At which time, Jesus, having a different idea about his ministry, escapes the crowds and heads to the other side of the lake. The crowds get up the next morning and see that Jesus isn’t there anymore so they go across the lake looking for him. Finding him where they did not expect to find him, they ask right off, “When did you come over here?” It becomes pretty clear pretty quickly that they are seeking Jesus, not for that thing that is at the heart of his work, but because they got a free lunch yesterday and hope for the same thing today. They didn’t get it.
Jesus immediately challenges them. “What are you seeking?” That’s quite a question, isn’t it? What are you seeking? The same question he asks Andrew and Peter in the opening chapter of the Gospel. What are you seeking? Then follows a sometimes confusing and puzzling back and forth that will last virtually this whole chapter, a conversation that sometimes almost seems like Jesus is speaking in riddles. Bottom line, the people didn’t get it. The crowds are after Jesus to fill their stomachs, not to find that which would fulfill their lives. The great 4th century Greek preacher, John Chrysostom wrote, “it is not the miracle of the loaves that has struck you with wonder, but the being filled.”
Jesus challenges them again. “You aren’t following me because of the signs, but because you ate your fill.” In response to his challenges, they fire off a rapid succession pushback. “What works must we perform?” falling back on their religion. “What sign will you do for us?” asking for verification despite the miracle they witnessed the day before. “Our fathers ate manna in the wilderness,” they say, standing on their own tradition, suggesting not so subtly that Jesus ought to do an update of the wilderness provision.
They just didn’t get it. Which I think is what Bishop Willimon was getting at in his comment about John’s symphony of incomprehensibility. Throughout the gospel — and certainly throughout this long discourse on bread — Jesus is revealing something about himself and about God. He is trying to show people what God is like and that he is here as God among them to bring a word of grace and truth. And they didn’t get it. Remember the first chapter of John. “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not comprehend it.” Or “he came to his own and his own did not receive him.” And it’s not just the crowds; even those closest to him — his own disciples — did not get it. This is John’s persistent theme, that the truth of Jesus’ person and his work goes right past people as they pursue their own vision of what God is like and their own ideas about how to satisfy their deepest longings.
And I’m guessing that the words apply to us as well.
We have longings about important things that are at the heart of human existence. We long to matter, to be loved, to know we are worthwhile, to know that our brief time on this planet matters. The problem is that we, too, seek to satisfy those yearnings with pretty, shiny things that we ultimately discover are empty. We know that life doesn’t consist of things, yet its hard to resist the cultural norm of success, that the accumulation of material things and economic abundance is the sign of a successful life. Or that a life full of volunteering is the measure of being a good person. Or that children and grandchildren and a loving meaningful family means that our life has been worthwhile. It’s not that those things don’t bring satisfaction. They do. But they don’t satisfy the yearning that is at the heart of our lives. For centuries theologians have been following the sentiments of Blaise Pascal, suggesting that there is in each of us a God-shaped hole, and only God can fill that longing.
In the church, too, we often miss what’s at the heart of our life together. We invite people into the church so that we can get new members, more money in the offering plate, and more people to help out with fellowship hour on Sunday morning. We want youth and families in the pews on Sunday morning so that the future of the church is assured. We are often more interested in clever marketing than the simple gift of what we have to offer.
What we have to offer is Jesus. What we have to offer is faith in the Son of God who gave his life so that we might have life with God. He is the One lifted up so that all who believe in him might have eternal life. The crowds wanted a sign. We already have a sign. The sign is in the shape of a cross, the sign of a divine life given so that we might have divine life. The sign is the sign of the cross on our foreheads and on our hearts, the sign that we have named and claimed by God himself. The sign is the Word of life proclaimed yet again in this Sunday assembly, the bread and wine, the people of God here gathered around God’s gifts.
God is here doing God’s work. What is that work, you ask? It is the work of calling us to faith in the Crucified One. Jesus said, “This is the work of God, that you believe in the One whom he sent.” Isn’t that odd? That while we are called to a life of service, first comes the simple gift of faith, of believing and trusting that God is who God says he is and does what God says God will do. Luther was fond of reminding his hearers that the thing which brings God the most delight is our simple trust in God, our faith. Faith is more than clarity about facts and belief in a set of propositions. Faith is an encounter with a person, with the One who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. He invites us not only to think about him, but to feed on him, ingest him. Without him, we starve to death. You see, the truth here is not something we “get.” It’s something we are given. We get this life in the Son of God not as an achievement, but as a gift.
So, we come to the eucharistic table bringing nothing but our open hands. For millenia, this has been posture of receiving the bread; not to grab, but to receive. The emptiness of our open hands is a sign that we have nothing to offer that would be in any way a transaction; and sometimes our empty hands are even a sign of our empty hearts. There in our empty hands is placed a piece of bread. And there in our hands is the One who said, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never hunger.” There in our open hands, we receive just what we need, even if we don’t know exactly what that is.
So, let’s eat.