We are in the season of Epiphany – epiphany meaning, God’s revelation of God’s self to the world.
John 2:1-11tells the story of Jesus’ first miracle according to John: turning water into wine in Cana. I unpack this under three headings:
Gifting. In this story, Jesus seems, perhaps, uncertain about his gifts. But his mother, Mary, is much more certain. She prompts Jesus to do something about the wedding banquet running out of wine. And even though Jesus is reluctant to get involved, she tells the servants to “do whatever he tells you”. She has confidence in Jesus, she recognised his gifting, and she prompts him to exercise his gifts.
Common good. You’d think Jesus’ first miracle would be spectacular. A extraordinary miracle would help establish his brand as the Messiah. But instead, his first miracle, while exceptional (he made around 600l of choice wine), was rather everyday and ordinary – common. He addressed the rather domestic needs of a couple who had just got married. I really love Jesus for this miracle for the common good – it reminds us that he is interested in and willing to intervene in our daily lives.
God’s revelation. John concludes this passage in v11 by saying, “What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.” God’s glory is revealed through this miracle – the epiphany! And as a result of that, his disciples believed in him.
As Jesus exercised his gifting, for the common good, God was revealed and people believed.
1 Corinthians 12:1-11tells us about the gifts of the Spirit, and is part of a larger chapter about the church – the body of Christ – being made up of many parts, each of which is vitally important to the whole. I unpack this under the same three headings:
Gifting. Paul tells us that Holy Spirit gives a gift or gifts to every believer. Every Christian receives one or more gifts, Gifts of the Spirit, according to the good judgement of Holy Spirit. Whether we recognise our gifts or not, whether we recognise them as gifts of the Spirit or just natural talents, we have gifts from Holy Spirit. People often don’t recognise their gifts – often others recognise them first, like Mary did with Jesus. In those cases, we may need to prompt someone else to recognise their gift.
Common good. Paul tells us that the gifts are given not for personal use and benefit, but for building up the common good. Here ‘common’ refers not to the ordinary, but to the ‘collective’. The gifts are for the benefit of the community of believers, and indeed for the world. They are not intended to benefit us, but rather to help us benefit others. The only way we can contribute to the common or collective good is to exercise the gifts we have.
God’s revelation. As we exercise the Gifts of the Spirit, God is revealed and people can come to believe in God. Our exercising of our gifts reveals the character and values of God, and shows people who God is and what interests and concerns God, and that reveals God and can draw people to God. We, as the collective – the church – need to reveal God, and we do this best when we exercise the gifts God the Spirit has given us.
And so, when we recognise, accept and exercise our gifts, we contribute to the good of the collective, and God is revealed to the world and people may come to believe.
Jeremiah the prophet wrote and spoke during a time that included the exile of the Jewish people in Babylon, which started around 597 BC and lasted about 60 years. During that time, Jewish people were not badly treated in Babylon, but keenly felt how dislocated they were from the world they knew, from the city of Jerusalem and from the temple there. Babylon may have been relatively safe, but it was not home and left them feeling alienated, fragmented and cut off from their faith and fellowship. On the other hand, a return to Jerusalem was a fearsome thought. It was a long way away, many enemies were there who wished them harm, and because of the destruction of temple and the city walls, they felt ambivalent about what might await them.
Does any of this seem familiar for us living under Covid? Many feel exiled to their homes, which are safe (though truly only relatively safe) and familiar. The world out there seems dangerous and threatening. Church, on the other hand, may feel like another dangerous place, fraught with risk, even though, at our church, church is probably safer than home, shops and workplaces.
The result of the avoidance of church and becoming reclusive at home is that we feel dislocated from our faith community and (in many cases) from God. For Christians, like for people of other faith groups, gathering together with the people of faith in worship of God is vital to our well-being and health. We are made for fellowship. We are made for corporate worship. Church is not a luxury, but a necessity.
Jeremiah 30 and 31are part a sequence that focuses on the restoration of Israel.
Chapter 30 opens with God’s promise that God will bring God’s people back and restore their home:
“The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will bring my people Israel and Judah back from captivity and restore them to the land I gave their ancestors to possess,” says the Lord. (30:3)
Although they confront incurable illnesses, God will restore their health:
This is what the Lord says: ”Your wound is incurable, your injury beyond healing. There is no one to plead your cause, no remedy for your sore, no healing for you. … But I will restore you to health and heal your wounds,” declares the Lord. (30:12 & 17)
God will restore and cultivate a community of faith:
“I will restore the fortunes of Jacob’s tents and have compassion on his dwellings; the city will be rebuilt on her ruins ,and the palace will stand in its proper place. From them will come songs of thanksgiving and the sound of rejoicing. I will add to their numbers, and they will not be decreased; I will bring them honor, and they will not be disdained.” (30:18-19)
God will make them a people of God:
“So you will be my people, and I will be your God.” (30:22)
God affirms that God’s love for God’s people is eternal and steadfast. Even in the midst of adversity, even in exile or death, God’s love is certain:
“I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness.” (31:3)
God will gather the people of God, including those who are vulnerable, and restore them:
“See, I will bring them from the land of the north and gather them from the ends of the earth. Among them will be the blind and the lame, expectant mothers and women in labour; a great throng will return. They will come with weeping; they will pray as I bring them back. I will lead them beside streams of water on a level path where they will not stumble, because I am Israel’s father, and Ephraim is my firstborn son.” (31:8-9)
God will be the good shepherd, just as Jesus described himself as the Good Shepherd:
“He who scattered Israel will gather them and will watch over his flock like a shepherd.” (31:10)
There will be a bounty – an abundance, an excess of good things. And sorrow will be a thing of the past:
“They will come and shout for joy on the heights of Zion; they will rejoice in the bounty of the Lord—the grain, the new wine and the olive oil, the young of the flocks and herds. They will be like a well-watered garden, and they will sorrow no more.” (31:12)
And there will be a reversal of fortune, in which challenge and suffering will transform into abundance and joy:
“Then young women will dance and be glad, young men and old as well. I will turn their mourning into gladness; I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow. I will satisfy the priests with abundance, and my people will be filled with my bounty,” declares the Lord. (31:13-14)
Many of us have been living in exile – an exile imposed by Covid and the necessary lockdowns. For a time, this was necessary, to protect and preserve human life. But it has come at a cost. And that cost includes the loss of belonging to a community of faith. And with that loss easily comes a loss of faith itself – God seems remote.
But this way of living, while necessary at a time and still necessary in some cases now, is not the Way of Life. There is a time to be restored to our Jerusalem, to our temple, to our community, to our home. It is time – now at the start of January 2022 – to resume our gathering with the people of faith – in person where possible, and online where not. Far too many people have drifted away from church entirely and given up meeting. We need to gather again. We need to become again a people of God, and experience God’s healing, God’s shepherding, God’s love, God’s bounty, God’s presence.
Let us commit in this year 2022 to gather in Christ’s name and in fellowship with one another.
Last week we learned some Advent yoga – reaching back and seizing hold of the promises God made and fulfilled in Christ, which God has fulfilled, which feeds our faith; and reaching forward and grasping at the promises God has made that still will be fulfilled in Christ, which gives us hope. Today we focus forwards towards the hope of things yet to come. Central among this is Jesus’ second coming.
Our readings today (Malachi 3:1-4; Luke 1:68-79; Philippians 1:3-11 and Luke 3:1-6) all speak about the anticipation of Christ’s coming, including his second coming. Malachi (and Jesus) speaks about the second coming as being sudden, unexpected, which gives us a fright. We don’t know when to expect him. Malachi also says, when the Lord comes, the messenger we long for, the Son of Man, who will be able to stand? It will be daunting. (Though Jesus prays in Luke 21:36 that at the end times “you may be able to stand before the Son of Man”.)
Malachi, John the Baptist, Jesus and Paul all tell us we need to prepare for the coming of Christ. We must be ready. We must repent of our sins and receive God’s forgiveness, then we are made right God, and ready to receive Christ. Malachi speaks about purification – metal purified by fire and clothing cleansed with launderer’s soap.
There will be a sifting, a separation. Malachi calls it a sifting – of flour from chaff and sand and stones. Jesus speaks about it as a separation of sheep and goats, of pruning away and discarding unproductive branches off a fruit tree.
But it is not all challenge and judgement. It is also about hope. HOPE! The hope that comes through Jesus Christ and the great work he has done for us. Zechariah, praying over his new-born son, John (the Baptist), uses words of hope like: salvation, mercy, rescue, forgiveness, peace, covenant, righteousness, tender mercy, sunshine, rising sun. And Paul, writing to the Philippians, speaks of love that may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight.
Let us prepare for Christ’s return. And let us hope for what he will accomplish in and around us. Let us articulate and pray for what we hope for – our lives, our world as a better place, as redeemed and sanctified. Let us pray with hope for the world we desire God to make real for us.
Advent is a between-times season – between Christ’s first coming (with all the prophecies before that in the First Testament) and Christ’s second coming (with all the prophecies for that in both First and Second Testaments). In Advent, we look forward to celebrating Christ’s first coming and also anticipate his second coming – which could be today or in a thousand years.
One part of us looks back in time and grabs hold of all the prophesies that were given about Jesus’ first coming, knowing that these were fulfilled. These fulfilled prophesies strengthen our faith to know that God is good on God’s word – what God says will be, will indeed be. And that nourishes and vitalises our faith. So, we have to read back into the past and clasp those promises made and fulfilled by God, because they nourish and enrich our faith in God.
And another part of us looks forward in time and reaches out to the fulfilment of the prophesies concerning Jesus’ second coming, with the hope that they will be fulfilled. Our hope is not blind, nor futile. Because we have the evidence of previously fulfilled prophesies. Thus our faith flames our hopes.
During this between-times, we are encouraged by Christ to “stand up and lift up your heads” (Luke 21:28). And so, in this very short homily, I act out (in a kind of ‘Advent yoga’) this reaching back and grasping the fulfilled promises of God, and stepping forward and reaching out towards the yet-to-be-fulfilled promises of God. And I get the congregation to stand up and join me in this.
Today we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King. It is the last Sunday of the church calendar. Next Sunday, we start a new church year, beginning with Advent, as we prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ into the world. But the Feast of Christ the King is the culmination of everything we have done over the past year, and climaxes with a celebration of Jesus Christ as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
In both the first and second testaments, there are passages that describe Jesus as King and God the Father as King: Moses can see only the back of God, not God’s face in Exodus 33, Daniel see one like the Son of Man in Daniel 7, and Isaiah sees God (but does not describe God; only the seraphim) in Isaiah 6. In all cases, God is powerful, magnificent and awesome, beyond words. They went out of their minds at their experience of the greatness of God. We get similar hints of this in the second testament with Christ: Peter, James and John see Jesus transfigure before them, and are overwhelmed by Christ in his glory (Matthew 17, Mark 9 & Luke 9). Hebrews 1 tells us Jesus is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of God’s being. And Revelation 1 describes John’s vision of Christ, including blazing eyes, feet like burning bronze and a double edged sword coming out of his mouth! John tells us that he feel at Jesus’ feet as though dead!
Our limited human minds cannot begin to comprehend or even see the full glory and magnificence of God as King.
And yet, in both testaments, God reveals God’s self most fully, not in such demonstrations of power, as much as in God’s love and concern for and solidarity with those who are vulnerable.
For example, both Psalms 146 and 147 present the magnificence of God, e.g., “He is the Maker of heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them”; “The Lord reigns forever”; “Great is our Lord and mighty in power; his understanding has no limit” and “He hurls down his hail like pebbles. Who can withstand his icy blast?”
But interwoven with these references to the power of God the King, we get verses like the following: “He upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets prisoners free, the Lord gives sight to the blind, the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down. The Lord watches over the foreigner and sustains the fatherless and the widow” in Psalm 146, while in Psalm 147: “The Lord gathers the exiles of Israel. He heals the broken-hearted and binds up their wounds. The Lord sustains the humble.”
The power and awesomeness of God is most fully revealed in God’s tender-heartedness, his compassion, his concern for the marginalised, his solidarity with the oppressed, and so on. And the most complete and full revelation of the heart of God is in the person of Christ, who is (as we read in Hebrews) the exact representation of God the Father. We think of Jesus, healing, touching, listening, seeing, walking, helping, weeping – all of these reveal the heart of Christ the King.
Our Gospel reading for today (John 18: 33-37) has Jesus talking with Pontius Pilate about Jesus as King. Jesus is persistently unwilling to refer to himself as a ‘king’ – twice he his pushed by Pilate: are you a king? And both times Jesus declines to answer directly. He is willing, though, to acknowledge that he has a kingdom (not of this world and from another place). I think he makes this concession, because a ‘kingdom’ emphasises the people who live in the kingdom more than the king of the kingdom. He is comfortable to speak about his people, the citizens his of kingdom, but not about his stature as ‘king’.
And in the end he says to Pilate, “You say I am a king”, in other words, you’re saying, not me. But, “in fact, the reasons I was born and came into the world [was not so much to be humanity’s king, but] to testify to the truth.” And what is truth? (as Pilate mockingly and cynically asks) The Truth is that God is, at the core and essence of God’s being, love. That is the ultimate truth of the Gospels and of God’s self revelation to humankind. That God is concerned for us and stands with us and fights for us and protects us and love us. This is Christ the King.
James and John come to Jesus and ask him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask” (Mark 10:35-45). Such an audacious question! One can just imagine Jesus counting to ten. And perhaps looking at them and reminding himself that he really loves them. His response is so calm and measured: “What do you want me to do for you?”
Jesus responds to two main flaws in these two disciples: ignorance and ambition.
First, they are ignorant. Jesus says, “You don’t know what you are asking” – in other words, “You are ignorant in what you ask.” The disciples want to share in drinking the cup that Jesus will drink and in his baptism, without understanding that this is the cup of suffering in Gethsemane and the baptism is his death on the cross. They really have no idea what they are asking for, yet they are so caught up in their eagerness or self-importance, that they cannot see it.
We get something similar in Job 38:1-3, which we also read today. Job has been pitching for a confrontation with God for some chapters – he believes God is deeply mistaken in treating him so badly and wants to set the record straight. In the opening verses of chapter 38, God finally speaks to Job: “Who is this that obscures my plans with ignorant words?” (or “words without knowledge). “Brace yourself like a man [like a human, rather than like a God]; I will question you , and you shall answer me.” God then spends two chapters asking Job if he can do all the many things that God has done. In chapter 40:1-7, Job recognises his ignorance and says, “How can I reply to you? I put my hand over my mouth.” Yet, God is not done with him and goes at him for another two chapters.
The disciples, like Job, forget that they are human, not God; that their knowledge and capacity for understanding is limited, unlike God’s; and that they are therefore comparatively ignorant. Being ignorant is not a sin! We are just human, after all, and do not know everything. We cannot see across time and and space like God can. We cannot imagine multiple universes existing concurrently like God can. But there is a problem when we forget that we are just humans and fundamentally ignorant.
In addition to being ignorant, James and John are ambitious – overly ambitious. They want to sit on Jesus’ left and right when he comes into his glory, that is, when he sits on his throne in heaven. Jesus quickly puts them in their place, saying “To sit at my right or left is not for me to grant.” If it is not Jesus to grant – Jesus, who is the Son of God, God the Son, the second person of the Trinity – how much more is not for the disciples to ask. “These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared” [by God the Father, we should assume].
He then goes on to speak to all the disciples about positions of power and authority. These are not fundamentally wrong or bad. Power is not intrinsically bad. However, he notes that there are some who lord their power over others, who exercise authority over others. These are people who want others to know and feel that they are the ones with power, while others are powerless and helpless. This is autocratic, oppressive and abusive power. This is the corruption of power. So Jesus says to the disciples, “Not so with you! Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant.” And he goes further to point out that even he himself – God the Son who he is – did not come to be served, but rather to serve and to die for us.
We learn about this also in Hebrews 5:7-10, where the writer emphasises that Jesus is obedient to his Father, and through that obedience, even to death, “he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him”. Jesus is the epitome of ultimate power that is sacrificed for the common good, even at his own expense. This is the inverse of ambition. Again, power is not wrong – Jesus was ultimately powerful. But power used for personal ambition is corrupt and harmful. It is not the way of Christ.
Jesus (like his Father) is always willing to engage us with whatever questions, frustrations, angers, accusations we have for God. In none of the passages we read today, do we we Jesus or God spurning anyone. However, we are also well advised to recognise our ignorance and lack of understanding, in comparison with God’s infinite understanding; and to see to serve rather than to have power. In so doing, we get closer to God, more aligned to God, more immersed into the way of Christ. This is the path to salvation. This is the path to Christ.
There are times in our life when things are desperate. These two years of Covid, and the losses, restrictions and challenges it has brought us, have given us additional reasons to feel desperate. There are times when life is exceptionally hard and we feel that the world is pitted against us – that even God is pitted against us.
Psalm 22 knows something about this:
1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish? 2 My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but I find no rest. 6 But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by everyone, despised by the people. 7 All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads. 8 “He trusts in the Lord,” they say, “let the Lord rescue him. Let him deliver him, since he delights in him.” 14 I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint. My heart has turned to wax; it has melted within me. 15 My mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you lay me in the dust of death.
Jesus uses this Psalm to express his desperation and despair as he hangs dying on the cross. He feels God-forsaken, utterly desolate. Where is God in all of this? Why am I abandoned?
The Psalmist shows a flicker of faith – just a flicker, though:
9 Yet you brought me out of the womb; you made me trust in you, even at my mother’s breast. 10 From birth I was cast on you; from my mother’s womb you have been my God.
And he cries out with a desperate, but muted plea:
11 Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help.
Job knows something about desperate times, having lost everything, despite being a righteous man of deep faith. He loses everything – everything – and grapples to make sense of what feels like God’s abandonment of him. Instead of imploding in despair like the Psalmist above, Job explodes outwards in anger and wants to confront God (Job 23):
2 “Even today my complaint is bitter; his hand is heavy in spite of my groaning. 3 If only I knew where to find him; if only I could go to his dwelling! 4 I would state my case before him and fill my mouth with arguments. 5 I would find out what he would answer me, and consider what he would say to me.
Job pushes towards God, seeking confrontation, to put his case to God, to demand to know why God would let him struggle like this. Job is desperate, and his desperation evokes anger and outrage at God.
Yet God makes himself unfindable:
8 “But if I go to the east, he is not there; if I go to the west, I do not find him. 9 When he is at work in the north, I do not see him; when he turns to the south, I catch no glimpse of him.
How frustrating it is when the person we want to confront is unavailable, inaccessible. God disappears and Job is left both desperate and angry, with nowhere to vent his anger. And yet, Job is also afraid of God – God is dangerous, and a confrontation with God could be a disaster for Job:
13 “But he stands alone, and who can oppose him? He does whatever he pleases. 14 He carries out his decree against me, and many such plans he still has in store. 15 That is why I am terrified before him; when I think of all this, I fear him. 16 God has made my heart faint; the Almighty has terrified me.
In the end, Job does not offer up a muted plea like the Psalmist. Instead, he shakes his fist at God:
17 Yet I am not silenced by the darkness, by the thick darkness that covers my face.
23 “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! 24 … Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
The disciples also experience similar desperate times with Jesus. While we think and teach about Jesus as always available, receptive and loving, sometimes he is not. We know the story in Mark 10 of a young man who rushes up to Jesus, falling on his knees and asking what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus seems, from the get-go, to treat him harshly, eventually telling him to give away everything he has, and the young man is crestfallen and “went away sad”. Jesus then turns to the disciples and says:
The disciples are amazed and shocked – presumably at both Jesus’ response to the earnest young man and Jesus’ words about how impossible it is to saved. Peter cries out in desperation:
26 Who then can be saved? [and] 28 But we have left everything to follow you!
You can hear Peter’s despair. He has left everything – family, work, home, community, his place in society, everything – to follow Jesus, and now Jesus says that it is impossible for man to be saved and how hard it will be for anyone to be saved. It seems to Peter and the disciples that everything they have sacrificed is for nothing.
This is a low point for Peter. He hits rock bottom as it seems to him that he has lost everything. His sense of purpose is fracturing.
Sometimes, we find ourselves in similar places to the Psalmist, to Job and to Peter. Our world seems to be falling apart, the challenges of life pile up and seem unduly heavy, God seems to have abandoned us, where is he to be found?, we feel alone and desperate. It as this lowest point that transformation can come.
Peter missed something that Mark noticed. In Mark 10:21a, Mark writes, “Jesus looked at him [the rich young man] and love him.” Jesus looked at him and he loved him. Jesus looked at her and he loved her. Jesus looked at me and he loved me. Jesus looks at you and he loves you.
The writer of Hebrews helps us understand that a fundamental change occurs in the life of God, through Christ’s experience here on earth. Before the incarnation, God could see what human life was like, but could not feel what it was like. But with Jesus’ coming into this world in human form, God now knew first hard what human desperation feels like. Hebrews 4
14 Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.
And because Jesus understands fully what it is like to be human, and because he truly understands what it is like to be desperate, and because he loves us utterly and to the very end, the writer to the Hebrews invites us to come to God:
16 Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.
We can come to the throne of God, not with a muted plea, not with anger, not in desperation, but in confidence, knowing that at that throne we will find grace and mercy to help us in our time of need. We can be confident to wrestle with God, to plead with God, to challenge God, to lean into God. Because he love us and because he knows first hand how hard this life can be. Jesus (in Mark 10:29-31) does not promise an easy life – he promises both reward and persecution.
But he does promise that we can always have direct access to the throne of grace and mercy. Such is the love the Father has for us. God is always accessible, always nearby, always connected, always empathic, always in the midst of adversity with us.
We complete our five-part series on the Bread of Heaven, this week focusing on John 6:56-69. Over the past four weeks, Jesus has been consistently redirecting us to himself and presenting himself to us as the source of life. Among other things, he has show that:
He cares about us.
He feeds us, meets our physical needs, abundantly.
He redirects us from earthly things to heavenly spiritual things.
He directs us towards himself.
He invites us repeatedly into a relationship with him.
He says he is the bread of life, come down from heaven
He invites us to feast on him.
He offers us and the world eternal life.
Now the question is: How will you respond to all this?
There are two sets of responses in our reading: the response of the larger group of Jesus’ disciples and then the response of the 12 disciples, voiced by Peter.
The response of Jesus’ disciples
Today’s reading indicates that Jesus’ teachings are hard – who can accept them? What is it about Jesus’ teaching in John 6 that is hard to accept, offensive? In part, it is his claim that he came down from heaven (John 6:42) and in part that he invites us to eat his flesh and drink his blood (John 6:52). On the one hand, he is too heavenly and on the other hand he is too earthly and fleshy. He is too high and too low!
Jesus responds to the first point by asking how they will feel when they see him ascending back into heaven (John 6:61-62). If his claim to have come down from heaven is hard to accept, how much more witnessing him ascending back into heaven! And he respond to the second point by saying they should forget about earthly flesh and concentrate on spiritual flesh and words, which are full of Spirit and life (John 6:63).
But, recognising that his teachings are hard to understand, Jesus acknowledges that some do not believe and some who believe will fall away. It is our choice whether or not we believe in him. Yet, it is important for us also to know that God the Father enables our faith, enables us to believe and even to accept hard, difficult teachings. Indeed, three times in this chapter, Jesus emphasises that it is the Father who inspires and enables our belief:
The Father enables us to come to Christ (John 6:65).
God is sovereign. God does the drawing of our hearts towards Jesus. We rely and depend on God to enable and inspire our faith. And so we pray to him when our faith frays.
Nevertheless, many of Jesus disciples turn away and leave him. God does not force them to stay or force them to believe. We have free well to listen to God’s call and to follow him. God may give, draw and enable our faith, but he does not coerce – we still choose.
The response of Peter
Finally, Jesus turns to the 12 disciples – they are not among those who turned away and left. He asks them, “You do not want to leave too, do you?” (John 6:67). The phrasing of the Greek implies a ‘no’ answer. Jesus is hoping that they will not join the others who have turned away.
Peter’s reply is wonderful:
“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life!” (John 6:68) Peter knows the options out there, and concludes that they are all wanting. Even if Jesus’ teaching is hard to fathom, he can think of no better options. And besides, despite the difficult of Jesus’ teachings, he recognises that these are words of eternal life. Not words about eternal life, but the words of eternal life! Jesus very words are Life itself! As Jesus said earlier (v63), “the words I have spoken are full of the Spirit and of life.”
“We have come to believe to know that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:69) Here Peter describes a process – the same process that we have been following these past five weeks: there is a process (“we have come”) of learning to trust Jesus and to entrust ourselves into Jesus (“to believe”) that leads to knowledge about who Jesus is and what he means to us (“and to know that you are the Holy One of God”). There is a process of trusting Jesus that leads to us knowing him.
All of this (this entire chapter 6 in John’s Gospel) has been about drawing us closer into a trusting relationship with Jesus, redirecting us from the things of the world to himself, and learning to trust that he himself, as the bread that has come down from heaven, is the source of all the nourishment that we need, of life, of Spirit.
Again, the question is: How will you respond to all this?
We continue with our series on the Bread of Heaven, this week focusing on John 6:24-35. Last week (Part 1) we read about Jesus’ feeding of the 5000 men (plus children and women) with just five small barley loaves and 2 little fish. We recognised that there were two levels to the story – on the ground floor, this is a story about Jesus caring about people being hungry and doing something about it; on the first floor up, this story is an invitation to have faith in Jesus, that he is more than capable of taking care of our needs. This week (in Part 2 of our series), we add on a third floor, which is to faith in Jesus, who is the Bread from Heaven, the Bread of Life.
Today’s passage involves four interactions between the crowd (who had followed Jesus after his feeding them) and Jesus: they as a question and Jesus answers. With each Q&A, Jesus seeks to redirect the people from focusing on the things of this world, on things of the past and on ourselves, and to rather focus on him.
Redirection from worldly work and food to heavenly work and food
The crowds ask Jesus, “Rabbi, when did you get here?” Jesus is quite critical of them, saying they are just chasing miracles and food for their tummies. The then urges them, “Do not work for food that spoils, but rather work for food that endures to eternal life.” Note Jesus’ emphasis both on work and food, contrasting work and food that are temporal and can go off and have to be discarded, versus work and food that are enduring, even to eternity.
This reminds me of Jesus speaking to the Samaritan woman at the well, just two chapters earlier, where he said, “Everyone who drinks this water [from the well] will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:13-14).
Jesus is redirecting us from the things of this world – from food and water and even miracles – towards the things that are of eternal significance – towards faith, towards heaven and (we shall soon see) towards himself.
Redirection from our actions to Christ’s
The crowd seem to be getting with the programme, so they ask, “What must we do to do the works God requires?” This is a laudable question – they want to do the works of God, they want to meet God’s requirements, so they want to know what they should do. It is hard to fault them for wanting to do the work of God! But Jesus gives two redirections.
First, he shifts the focus from that they must do to what God does. The tells them what they must do by referring to the “work of God“, not ‘your work’. This is a huge hint towards the centrality of salvation through faith in Christ. Jesus says that the work we must do is in fact the work of God. This reminds me of Phil 2:12-13, where Paul writes, “[you] work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfil his good purpose.” He gives what sounds like a contradiction! You work out your salvation because it is God who is working in you…” We cannot do anything, except what God does in us. We are dependent on God for everything that we do.
Second, he shifts from “the works God requires” to the “work of God” – from plural to singular. The crowds were thinking in terms of the many things they needed to do as signs of faith, but Jesus says, ‘No! There is just one work of God. Just one thing is required. And that is to believe in the one God has sent’. That’s it: to believe, or have faith. Faith alone is what God requires. And this faith is almost a falling into Christ, like a relaxing into him, reclining into him, resting in him. It is hardly ‘work’ at all!
Jesus is redirecting us from a focus on the many things we think we need to do to satisfy God’s expectations, towards a simple (yet also hard) just trusting in God to enable our faith in Christ.
Redirection from a small vision to God’s grand agenda
The crowds now get cocky and impertinent, asking Jesus what sign he will given them to prove that they should deign to listen to him. They seem to have entirely forgotten that he just fed thousands of people from a small lunch box! They refer back to Moses, when they were wandering in the desert, centuries before, who gave them bread from heaven (manna).
But in Jesus’ response, he contradicts everything they have said (and in the process, declines to give them a ‘sign’):
It is not about Moses, but about my Father.
It is not what was given to them (in the distant past), but what the Father gives them right now.
It is not about bread from heaven (manna, which lasted only one day), but The True Bread from heaven.
It is not just for you, but for the whole world.
Jesus directs them from a rather small and long-gone longing for manna from Moses towards a far greater, more enduring and more inclusive bread that is True and from Heaven.
Redirection from bread to Christ
Finally, it seems they get it! Instead of referring to Jesus as “Rabbi” as in the start of this passage, they now refer to him as “Lord” (or “Sir”). And they now ask, “always give us this bread”. They recognise that everything they had been setting their eyes and hearts on was quite worthless. But this True Bread that Jesus was talking about now – that was bread worth having! This is like the Samaritan woman, who says “Lord, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”
And Jesus replies,
I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.
Jesus has completely redirected them away from bread to himself. Jesus IS the bread of life. He does not give them the bread of life; he is the very bread itself! If we want bread, we want Christ.
Our reading this morning is from John 6:1-21. We will be spending five weeks on this chapter. I think that this is the most consecutive Sundays we spend on any chapter in the Bible. (I stand to be corrected.) This is because we receive here some of Jesus’ most profound and important teaching – about the Bread of Life, the Bread of Heaven. It starts with a story about ‘real bread’ and becomes a story about ‘Real Bread’ (Bruner’s commentary on John).
In the first 15 verses of John 6, we are introduced to bread. It sets the scene for the rest of the chapter. We can read this story at two levels: on the ground floor, it is a story about Jesus feeding 5000 men from five small barley loaves and two small fish – a story of compassion and care; on the first floor, it is a story about an invitation to faith – faith in Jesus, who is the Bread of Life.
The ground floor – a story about caring
Jesus is on the mountain side and he sees a large crowd heading his way. John writes “Jesus looked up and saw”. Jesus is always looking up and seeing. We get this again and again in the Gospel narratives. He has his eyes open and sees the needs of those around him. If you listen to my messages over the past month, you’ll hear it over and over. He sees. And he has compassion.
So he asks his disciples how they can arrange bread to feed the people. It is a huge ask, of course, with 5,000 men, plus children (we know there are children there, because soon we meet a ‘boy’ in v9) and women (if there are children, there are surely women). So, there were perhaps 15,000 or 20,000 people! Andrew brings a boy who has a little bit of food – not much more than a snack. Jesus gives thanks for the food and distributes it to the people. (One wonders what the boy thought about having his lunch annexed by the Andrew and Jesus!) Everyone eats their fill, so much so, that there are 12 large baskets (big baskets that could hold a man) of leftovers of the barley bread.
Many of us believe that Jesus performed a miracle, in which he multiplied that little bread into much bread. Others believe that when people saw Jesus’ (and perhaps also the boy’s) generosity and compassion, they were moved to share what they had with those who had less. And so, what we see is a social miracle about people moved to caring and sharing. Either way, this is a story about Jesus caring for others – caring for our everyday needs. As we often pray, ‘Give us this day our daily bread’. Bread is life in come communities. In others, it is maize meal porridge. In others, it is rice. Every society has a staple food that provides the foundation of life. Jesus cares about this and wants people to have food in their stomachs. And to have it abundantly.
The first floor – a story about faith
The feeding of the 5000 is an important miracle story in the Bible. It is the ONLY miracle, taking place between Jesus’ baptism and his entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, that appears in ALL FOUR Gospels. There is no other miracle that appears across all four Gospels, except this one. And in John’s gospel, it introduces a lengthy chapter about the spiritual meaning of Real Bread. Still, even on the first floor, the real bread is just bread. But the interactions between Jesus and the others are an invitation to faith.
John tells us that the event takes place just before the Passover festival (v4). The Passover symbolised, as it still does, liberation and redemption from slavery in Egypt, God standing up for the people of God, God caring for God’s chosen ones. It is central to Jewish faith, like the cross is central to Christian faith. This cues us that this is a story about faith.
Seeing the large crowds, Jesus invited Philip to faith: “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” For sure, this is a big ask – it is a big crowd. But Philip was there in John 2, when Jesus changed water into wine – a lot of wine, a lot of really good wine! Jesus invites Philip to have faith. A faith response might have been, “Lord, I can’t imagine where we could get or afford so much bread. But I know you can make a plan! If anyone can feed this many people, it is you!” That would be a faith response, particularly after witnessing the water into wine miracle. Instead, all Philip can see is the large crowd. He loses sight of Jesus. His faith fails him.
Andrew shows a little faith, however. He finds a boy with some food. He emphasises the smallness of what the boy has: “five small barley loaves and two small fish” (v8). And then his tiny bubble of faith pops: “But how far will they go among so many people?”
Yet, that is all Jesus needed: a tiny morsel of faith. He takes those small loaves and small fish and gives thanks for (literally ‘eucharists’) them and feeds 5000+ people. Jesus is not constrained by the size of our faith. Andrew’s faith is feeble, small and easily fizzles. But what is important is not so much our faith, as the one in whom we place our faith: Jesus is more than capable of calming our storms, feeding us, healing us, helping us. He is the Lord of lords and King of kings. He is God incarnate. He can do anything.
It is only in the collecting of the leftovers that the disciples and the people recognise a miracle has taken place. I think Jesus instructs the disciples to collect the leftovers so they can see and touch the miracle, much as Jesus does with Thomas in John 20 – “Put your finger here; see my hand”. As Thomas was invited by Jesus to see, touch and respond in faith, so were Philip and the other disciples invited to see, touch and respond in faith. And so are we. Particularly during times of turmoil, illness, loss, distress and hunger.
Immediately after the story of the feeding of the 5000, we have John’s version of the story of Jesus walking on the water (see my sermon on this same story from Mark’s Gospel, a month ago). The disciples are alone in a boat on a lake in a storm and struggling to make headway. Jesus sees their plight and walks across the water to them. They are terrified to see him, but he says, ‘It is I; don’t be afraid“, and he climbs into the storm-rocked boat with them – he chooses to be in the boat in the storm with them – and immediately, they find they have reached the other side of the lake, where they were headed.
Jesus remains more than capable of riding out and calming the storms in our lives.