Questions. The crowds have lots of questions. And Jesus has answers. And with the answers come much more than anyone would dare to ask. That’s how it always goes with Jesus. We come with our questions – sometimes curious, sometimes trivial, occasionally challenging or even doubting. And Jesus meets our questions with answers that go far beyond our small, religious way of looking at things.
Feeding the five thousand with five little barley loaves and two small fish was a genuine crowd-pleaser. They wanted to make Jesus a king by force. And so He withdrew to a mountain, slipped away from their political plans. His disciples left by boat and headed across the sea of Galilee. Jesus decided to go foot. Literally, walking on the water. Again, it was another “messianic sign” – Jesus walking on the Deep, Tehom, the swirling chaotic waters. The Lord of creation is free to walk wherever He pleases, even defying the “laws” of buoyancy.
Of course, Jesus walking on the water in the middle of the night scares the wits out of His disciples, but once they hear His voice, they were more than happy to take Him on board. So when they land on shore, Jesus is with them in the boat, which leaves the crowd a bit puzzled: The boat left without Jesus, and then it landed with Jesus. So the first question is a logical one: Rabbi, when did you come here? How did you get here?
Now, of course, the obvious answer is, “I walked,” but that would have raised more questions than answers, so Jesus just leaves that question aside. How Jesus gets from one place to another as irrelevant as how water is Baptism or how bread and wine are the Body and Blood of Christ. The Lord is free to do whatever He pleases with His creation.
Instead of satisfying their curiosity, Jesus pushes on the issue of faith. Where was there trust? Why were they following Him? What did they want? “Amen, amen, I say to you, you are seeking me not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” “You’re looking for me to fill your bellies with food, to scratch your needs, to put a bandage on your bumps and bruises. But I have so much more to give you than bread and fish. You’d be thrilled with bread and fish for life, but I have a food that will give your much more than a full belly at the end of the day.”
“Do not work for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you; for on Him God has put His mark.”
There are two kinds of food: Food you work for, and food which is given. Food that perishes, and food that endures to eternal life. You know about the first kind of food. Food you work for. That’s one reason you go to work, to put bread on the table. That food goes back to the Fall in the Garden in Genesis: “From the sweat of your brow you will eat your bread until you die.” That wasn’t how it was in the beginning. In the beginning, food was fruits and nuts, gifts freely falling off of trees where nothing dies. There was the tree of life, from which one could eat and live forever. In the beginning it was all gifts and no work.
But disobedience and death changed the ecology and the diet. No longer fruits and nuts, now bread, food you work for, work that eventually kills you. Farming uncooperative ground. Fighting weeds, climate, bugs. Grinding grain. Kneeding dough. Baking bread. Work, work, work. Sales quotas, production schedules, budget constraints, government regulations, unreliable suppliers, dishonest business partners, lawyers, cranky customers, mean bosses, lazy workers, endless piles of paperwork. Ecclesiastes calls it “futility,” endless chasing after wind.
God has rigged it that way. He’s made work a sweaty, frustrating business, to teach us work is not the way to life. It’s simply work. We cannot work our way to heaven; we can only work our way to the grave.
The food we work for perishes. It spoils, it rots, it gets moldy and smelly. That’s why we have refrigerators and freezers. Our food is dead and slowly decaying. We’re just trying to slow the decay with freezing and preservatives. Even the manna in the wilderness was like. If you tried to store for the next day, except on the Sabbath, it rotted and was full of worms and stank.
The world is decaying, and all our work to “save it” can only delay the decay a bit. It’s all the death of Adam worked out in the cosmos, as Paul says, “The whole creation has been subjected to futility and decay.” All that doom and gloom stuff in the headlines – pollution, global warming, melting polar ice caps, you name it – it’s all part of the grand death that is the wages of sin. And there’s no turning the clock back, no undoing the Fall or its effects. Remember, God isn’t into rehab, but dying and rising. We can only manage the death, much like a hospice that doesn’t try to cure the patient but comfort him.
Our food is dead and we die along with. And even though the manna was wonder bread from the hand of God HImself, the people who ate it still died. A whole generation of Israelites. The bread Moses gave couldn’t save them from death, no matter how “miraculous it was.” Nor could the Law Moses gave save them. That’s our lot as sinners, no matter how “good” you might be. That’s what Paul means when he says, “The wages of sin is death.” You earn it with your works – all the ways you’ve trampled on God and on each other.
“But the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus, our Lord.” Gift not works. Free gift – undeserved, unmerited, placed into empty, dead, receiving hands. “Do not work for food that spoils, but the food that endures to eternal life which Son of Man will give to you.” Jesus promises a food that requires no preservatives, no refrigeration. It doesn’t spoil. It endures to eternal life. And guess what? It preserves the eater to eternal life too. Imagine that. A food that doesn’t spoil, and it prevents you from rotting eternally. Talk about “health food,” this has vitamin supplements and nutrition shakes beaten hands down! We spend oodles of money on “health foods” and “nutritional supplements,” and here is free food from the hand of God that preserves to eternity!
And yet the world, and even us, you and I here this morning, pay more attention to belly food than eternal food. We lavish more attention and devotion on our daily bread than on the bread of life. We’re more concerned about Sunday brunch than we are about the Supper of the Lord. We’ll point a good restaurant much more quickly and easily that the Lord’s Supper. Our taste buds are not naturally inclined to eternity.
Look at the Israelites. They were fed by God’s hand in the wilderness, and what do they want? The menu of Egypt – leeks, garlic, meat, wine. All that good stuff in exchange for what – freedom. That was the food of their slavery. Our appetites are not geared for liberty, and we’d be willing to sacrifice most anything for loaf of bread.
The food that endures to eternity is not a food you work for, but a food that’s given you free, gratis, from the Son of Man, from Jesus, marked in His Baptism as the Son of God and Source of salvation. Jesus alone, and there is no other.
But the crowds, like us, are still thinking about works. What must we do to be doing the works of God? Surely we must do something? “There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” as economist Milton Friedman once observed. “What must we be doing to do the works of God?”
Listen carefully to Jesus’ answer: “The work of God is this: That you believe in the One He has sent.” Not “works” but a singular “work.” And not our works but the work of God, the singular work God does. Faith is God’s work, not ours. It’s the work of God that we believe, trust, in Jesus whom He has sent. St. Paul fleshes this out completely in this one sentence from Ephesians chapter 2: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God – not because of works, lest any man should boast.” (Eph 2:8-9)
Any works you and I do, are built on the work of God in Jesus. It’s not our good life that saves us, but Jesus’ perfect life, His sacrificial death, His victory over the grave, all given to us freely as a gift and received through trust that God Himself works in us. Our work can’t save us, our bread can’t save us. Only Jesus has a work and a bread that gives life to the world. He is the Baker of a new loaf of bread, a new and mysterious manna. Not as Moses gave. Not as the Law gives. Only as the Son of God gives.
“What sign will you give us,” they ask, “that we should trust you. Moses had bread from heaven, what you do have, Jesus?” And Jesus has them right where He wants them. And us too. At the place where He gives Himself. The bread He gives is Himself. “I am the Bread of Life. Whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever trusts in me shall never thirst.” Jesus our bread; Jesus our drink. If you’re thinking Lord’s Supper, you on the right track. And we’ll get there in a week or so as we tour John 6. But today it’s about trust in Jesus and His work to save you. If you don’t get trust in Jesus right, you won’t get the Lord’s Supper right either.
And what is the sign He gives that we should take Him at His word and trust Him? Nothing short of His death and resurrection. That’s how this Bread of Life is baked – in the fiery furnace of God’s wrath against our sin and in the burning heat of His passion to save His fallen creation. Like wheat ground up by the mill and put into the fire, Jesus endured the cross bearing our sin in order to be our Food, the Source of life.
“I am the Bread of Life.” Bread. Not caviar, not chocolate, not a delicacy to be indulged in once and a while. Bread. Daily, ordinary, earthy food. Jesus is manna for sinners – those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. You, in all the ways that sin has left you empty and hungry. There is food that endures forever. A Bread that gives life forever. A drink that quenches your thirst and soothes your parched soul. Not “chicken soup for the soul,” but bread of life for your life. And it is free. Not earned but given, received.
That Food and Drink is Jesus Himself – Jesus in the Word, Jesus in your Baptism, Jesus in the Bread and Cup. Eat and drink, trust in Him, and you will filled with life forever.
In the name of Jesus,