Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 1, 2021
John 6:24-35 Commentary
We’re in week two of our long stretch in John 6 as Jesus introduces himself as the bread of life. This week’s Scripture passage begins in an odd spot. The lectionary skips a couple of verses that talk about how some people noticed that Jesus didn’t travel with the disciples and picks up the story as they go to Capernaum intent on finding Jesus because he provided a very filling dinner the night before.
Their bellies are full but their hearts are empty of wonder. When they ask Jesus how he got over to the other side of the lake, Jesus, as usual, skips the pleasantries and jumps straight to their motivation. He basically says, “You’re only looking for me because I’ve filled your belly. You missed the point of what I’m showing you because your eyes are in your stomach and you’re more preoccupied with getting whatever it is you think you need.”
Their short-sighted effort to find him is from the wrong motivation. Understandable, I’d say—when you’ve been given a good meal, don’t you hope for a return invite? And yet, this is our typical approach to our relationship with God: we seek him through our quick prayers for whatever it is we are in need for: a decision we need to make, a resource we lack, a struggle we need saving from; we want a full belly and we know God provides. But, we keep missing what Jesus is offering in abundance: a heart full of wonder, a much fuller “feast.”
The flip side to our general approach, of course, is that we don’t really know God’s abundance and get caught in the same trap of thinking there is something we need to do to get it… just like the people with full bellies. They ask Jesus, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” They like the sound of food that doesn’t go moldy, but nothing that good is free in this world. As the saying goes, “If it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is.”
But Jesus has literally just said that the work isn’t theirs to do: the Son of Man (God) will give it. Understandably, people will full bellies but hearts empty of wonder tend to think a bit literally, so maybe they stopped listening when they heard mention of an eternal supply… But now Jesus gets them wondering, How can their work be done by God on their behalf? Having something to do is the way it’s always been: sacrificial system, covenantal law-keeping…
Or, like many of us can relate to, maybe they aren’t trying to earn something, but they’re wondering what the “catch” is and they don’t want to be in anyone’s debt. No matter the reason, we humans seem to find it difficult to fathom that, when it comes to God, it’s all God’s work. Anything we do isn’t work, it’s a response to him at work.
Jesus tells them the work that God gives them is also the work that God has done! Belief in the one God has sealed all of his promises for the world in, the Son of Man—the one who filled their bellies and is offering to fill their hearts, is God’s gift. In the beautiful consistency of the way God works, God’s already done it. The miracle we explored last week was Jesus doing the work of being the bread of life for both body and soul. All that’s left is to accept belief.
But our bellies like being full and meeting the needs for life can be all-consuming to our attention. The people, hearing what Jesus is telling them, feel the need for a little assurance. One meal for 5,000+ isn’t enough proof for the daily. They need to credentials that this Son of Man can produce like Moses did!
Notice how Moses got the credit for the manna? When we’re in the habit of having our bellies filled but keep our hearts empty, it’s easy for us to disconnect from the true source of all good things. It’s as though we have spent so long looking at what is (or is not) in the palms of our hands that we forget to lift our eyes to the infinite skies and marvel. When we’re looking for immediate needs to be met, our eyes are attuned to the flesh and blood people and things around us and we can forget that the Spirit is hovering and acting as the powerful arm of God through them! So, Jesus corrects them on the source of heaven’s bounty, and he reminds them that the Israelites simply had to receive it.
Notice the theme? The only string attached to that bread was trusting what God promised: there would be more tomorrow. Bellies would be full enough. What a wonder.
More than the new Moses, Jesus is the gift of life coming down from heaven to the whole world. That’s the theme of these five weeks in John 6. First, Jesus showed it through the miracle of the feeding and now he says it with the first of the seven “I am” statements in the gospel of John: “I am the bread of life.” Like God promised in Isaiah 55, Jesus emphatically tells the people that if they come looking for him to spiritually feed them (and not just their stomachs), they will never know what it’s like to be spiritually hungry or thirsty. In and through Christ, we receive the abundance of God. As full as Jesus has made their bellies, the Spirit can (and will) fill their hearts with wonder that will never cease.
There is a difference between being hungry and hungering, between thirsting and being thirsty. When we are hungry and thirsty—the conditions Jesus promises we will never ever be if we feed on him spiritually—we lack, we are in need of something to eat and/or drink. But when we are hungering and thirsting, we are craving more of something. We aren’t meant to think of Jesus’ promise as a commitment to our “being satisfied” but of our being supplied. In a spiritual sense, if we know and trust Christ as the source of all good things, we will want more of him and his will in our lives, of Christ ruling in our hearts and the Spirit’s presence filling us. The Old Testament prophets speak of hungering and thirsting after God’s righteousness, Song of Songs speaks (on the allegorical level) of yearning for the presence and enjoyment of God, and imagery of continuing to hunger, thirst and press on towards God has long been part of the Christian tradition. In The Life of Moses Gregory of Nyssa (late 4th century) describes it this way: “This truly is the vision of God: never to be satisfied in the desire to see him… no limit to the Good can be found nor is the increasing desire for the Good brought to an end because it is satisfied.” (section 2.238)
In other words, it is impossible for us to have had so much Jesus as our spiritual breakfast as to tire when he is also our lunch, dinner, and dessert. Better than a belly full, our hearts are full of wonder and holy desire, able to expand and become a vessel of God’s nourishment and blessing for others.
When we are full of wonder and growing spiritually, we begin to experience that the rhythm of spiritual meals, practices, and devotion to the Triune God morning, noon, and night is far from monotonous. We have an abundance of wisdom from the Christian tradition to change up the place settings for our spiritual meals without changing the menu. As Gregory of Nyssa also wrote, “But one must always, by looking at what he can see, rekindle his desire to see more. Thus, no limit would interrupt growth in the ascent to God…” unless, of course, we’re just looking for our bellies to be full. Our motivational starting point needs to find its way from our bellies to our hearts and souls so that we might understand and feast on the diverse spiritual nourishment that Jesus offers as the true bread of life.
There are three different instances of emphatic grammar in verse 35. First, Jesus says, “I am the bread” (in the Greek, there is an additional, unnecessary word for “I”). Then, Jesus says, as that bread, anyone who comes to and believes in him will never ever be hungry and never ever be thirsty again; these are double negatives in the Greek, emphasizing that it won’t happen. It’s as though Jesus is giving them (and us) their first opportunity to do the “work” of trusting the message and messenger by using this bold and simple emphatic sentence structure.
Grateful Living vs. “Works”
On one of my birthdays, my boyfriend at the time gave me an “experience gift” to the local float house, where you float in a deprivation chamber with highly salted water. (Float houses are not everyone’s idea of a good gift, so feel free to leave out the specifics, or perhaps use a similar example of gratitude for an experience.) Not to be overdramatic, but my experience in the float tank changed me: how I physically felt, my attitude and disposition, even my perspective. The best way I could think of saying thanks to my boyfriend for the gift was to share with him how his gift had changed me, what it was like to experience it, what I wanted to keep in my mind and body from what he had made possible as I went about my daily activities for the next few days.
When we talk about “doing good” as our way of saying thanks to God for his gift of eternal life, I think that this is the sort of grateful disposition we’re meant to have with God; so changed by what he has done and is doing that we want to share everything about what it has meant for us with him. We do that through prayer and a lifestyle of grateful living. Of course, it’s only gratitude when we are trusting that what God promises about our atonement are true; anything else is asking, “What is the spiritual work we are to do?” and trying to earn it…
In the show “Friday Night Lights,” which ended over a decade ago, there was a saying from high school football head coach, Eric Taylor, to his team: “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose!” It became so popular and universal that the quote has outlasted the show and become part of mainstream culture. I thought of it while working with this text.
You know how there are some Christian people who seem capable of seeing “God’s hand” in everything? Our passage’s talk of what it means to have a full belly versus a heart full of wonder made me reconsider some of my own cynicism about folks like that. Maybe the people who do that can do it because their eyes are clear (not in their “stomachs”), their hearts are full of wonder about who God is and what the Spirit is up to, and, spiritually nourished in Christ, they know and trust that we really can’t lose with God. Maybe I’m more focused on all the needs and brokenness in the world that I too have forgotten to look up and marvel. It’s not a coincidence that “Great is Thy Faithfulness” is a sort of peak in the middle of the book of Lamentations: a moment of the people lifting their eyes out of the muck to praise and marvel at God.
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