Grace and peace to you, sisters and brothers in Christ.
This week, we continue to explore the Gospel of John, which centers around Jesus’ sign and proclamation: “I am the bread of life.” As we opened chapter six, we discovered Jesus is not just another prophet. As we got deeper in, we found that he fills not only our immediate hunger, but our central need for life. The bread that was shared on the hillside is a sign that points to Jesus, the Bread of Life, who nourishes us not only for a meal, but into eternity.
We spend so much time in this chapter because people don’t get it. They don’t get Jesus. There’s so much here that we can get lost, too. What Jesus says is not always what we think we’re going to hear.
The crowd who ate their fill of the loaves didn’t understand what the sign was about. The Jews who complain about Jesus don’t understand who he is. The early church wasn’t quite sure what life they were supposed to be living in to. And we can wonder how we come to Jesus.
The sign of the multiplied loaves points to who Jesus is. But some among the crowd think they know perfectly well who Jesus is. They know his mother and his father. Maybe some are thinking- not too long ago I was helping your mother change your diapers and now you’ve gotten too big for your britches- calling yourself the Bread of Life coming down from heaven.
The one who lives in the heavenly realm is God- the one God- and who is this Jesus we knew with skinned knees and snotty nose to call himself God?
As readers, we can find some sympathy for their confusion. It takes work to see someone in a new way. Some of you who have grown up in this community might know what that’s like. You might try to lead in the congregation and feel pushback from your Sunday School teacher. You might want to change, grow out of old habits, but people keep assuming you are who you once were.
The complainers’ expectations about who Jesus is gets in the way of their ability to accept that he gives life. They may have experienced a miraculous meal, but they’re not ready to believe there might be a fuller course ahead.
Jesus’ response to the crowd’s objection is simply to say that their ability to see him for who he is all up to the Father. Faith in him will come as a gift from God, not as a result of more impressive shows.
Jesus says, “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me.” Today, we don’t stumble over knowing Jesus in his childhood. We can wonder what it takes to have faith and how we are “saved.”
When it comes to knowing how we get to God, we find our expectations about achieving get in the way of celebrating Jesus as the source of life.
Coming to faith is the work of God. It’s not up to us. Luther writes, in the Small Catechism, for us to confess “I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith, just as he calls, gathers, enlightens, and makes holy the whole Christian church.”
God works within us to create faith. Faith itself is God’s gift. It’s God’s work within individuals and among communities, to establish a life-giving relationship that is wholly dependent on God’s own action.
The idea that God gifts can terrify us. That faith, eternal life, and God’s love are all beyond our control and beyond our ability to achieve – we just don’t get it. It doesn’t make sense. Our reaction can be anger and questioning.
In my early days of my call in North Dakota, I was invited to the neighboring church’s Bible study. It was informal, just the women, meeting and talking. They were beginning the book of Ephesians, with its wonderful verses about God’s adopting us as children before the foundation of the world. It speaks of us being included in the great plan of salvation that Jesus has accomplished. It declares that our place among God’s beloved is secured by God’s grace- a freely given gift of love that has claimed us through Jesus.
I was so excited by these verses of love- and began talking about how beautiful it is that we are so loved- even before we do anything- even before we are born. God so loves us that we were made to be God’s blessed children forever- and we are secured in that place by Jesus’ death and life for us.
I was so excited that I wasn’t paying enough attention to the faces of those around me. Instead of nodding heads and smiles of grace-filled joy- eyes were starting to squint, eyebrows were raising- and finally someone shouted out- “you’re scaring me!”
What?! God completely loves you- no matter what- and has shown the depth of that love by entering creation and dying for you- and that scares you?
It took me a long time to understand what would scare someone about that grace. It’s the question of agency- who is in control of my future, whose action matters.
The people of North Dakota, salt of the earth farmers, are used to hard work. Hard work leads to a good harvest, a smartly run business. Nothing good will be earned by those who are lazy. Investment leads to success.
That we have the ability to create a desired outcome by our will and hard work is a narrative of our culture of control. Control is a central part of who we are. We believe we have a certain amount of control over our future, and center our lives around that belief. To leave our future- even our eternal future- all up to God is a huge act of faith. Wouldn’t we feel better if we could just do something that would make us sure we got in?
As we enter the back-to-school season, and parents send their children off to college, many wonder if students might get more out of their education if they had to pay for it themselves. Might there be more of an investment if it really cost them? Does getting something for free spoil a person?
Salvation comes freely. My hope is that the giftedness of life that Jesus gives you is the central part of what forms your faith life. It can be hard to let go of wanting control, needing to earn. I like to be in control- I want to be sure things happen- and if I give up control, even to Jesus, that means I have to trust him to get the work done.
Jesus’ gift, eternal life, begins right now. It’s the quality of life that grows out of a relationship with the life-giving God. The life-gifting God. That faith and life are all gift, all work that Jesus alone has done, is what makes eternal life a reality today. Eternal life begins today as a quality of life that is created by living in the certainty of God’s grace. It is the freedom to accept your own doubts, your own failures, your own sin, knowing that God holds you through them all. It is the freedom of letting go of all the rules and supposed tos that you, your friends, society, and even the church has forced on to you, trusting that Jesus’ faithfulness is enough. It is the freedom to serve and love others without expecting anything about them to change or to receive anything in return, because you’ve experienced that same grace from God. Eternal life begins today as a life of faith- a connection with the source of life- and looks forward to the promise of resurrection, new life with Jesus.
The Jews looked at Jesus, asking, who are you to give us life? When we try to work our own salvation, we do much the same. Who are you, Jesus, to gift me life?
Jesus is not just another prophet. He is God. But he’s not just another god. Remember back to John 1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. All things came into being through him… what has come into being in him was life… And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” This Word is the Bread of Life, the source and creator of life who chose to enter into the life he created, and even to die, so that in giving up his life he would bring all creation into life forever. Jesus brings us to God. The way to life is through the Creator, who comes in Jesus to bring us life through his own death.
Maybe all this will always be a little confusing. We see plenty of examples in scripture of faithful people not quite understanding what God is doing. When it comes to faith, life, and salvation, you don’t have to get everything. Jesus has gotten you.
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