Give us this King, I mean Bread Forever
To really understand our Gospel lesson this morning, we've got to recall what had just happened. From Jesus and the disciples, five thousand people had just eaten even though there were only two fish and five small barley loaves of bread at this gathering. After this feast, the disciples set off across the Sea of Tiberias to go to Capernum, but Jesus didn’t get into the boat with them. We, as the readers, come to learn that Jesus has done yet another sign after his feeding of the 5000; he’s walked on the rough sea out to the disciples who are likely fearfully trying to navigate their boat safely to the shores of Capernum. He gets to the disciples who themselves are rather stunned by Jesus’s walking on water, and immediately the boat arrives on the shore. The crowds from those 5000 who had been fed eventually get their own boats and head to Capernum in search of Jesus and there they find him. Naturally, they were pretty perplexed and asked: how on earth did you get here? We know you didn’t get on the boat with the disciples and that was the only boat there was!
Jesus’s reply to them is a bit of a sharp rebuke: “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” What’s going on here? Shouldn’t they be commended for following Jesus? But Jesus’s rebuke is tied to something we hear earlier in John’s Gospel: “Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.” I know your hearts. You are looking for me because you think I will bring you what you want. And what you want is the power of a King to get your own way and presume to say that what you get by that power is of God.
To understand what God is doing in this passage, it’s really quite essential that you know your scriptures well. If you don’t, you’ll miss what God is really doing here. Where in Scripture do you first hear about the people of God desiring Kings? (The Book of Judges). And what do you hear in the Book of Judges? Slow moral and ethical decline of Israel, until, they have utterly destroyed themselves as witnesses to God, quarrelling amongst themselves and devoting themselves to attending to their social lives and their personal desires and assuming the ways of the cultures they are surrounded by, gaining power, wealth, and influence, and all the while doing so by bowing to their unsavory ways pulling further and further from God, all the way to raping a woman whom they slice into 12 pieces sending her body parts to each of the 12 tribes. This is not a mark of victory but another display of human hubris that leads to self condemnation and death. Now the Israelites continue to recognize this at one level - they go through 9 Judges, each one getting worse and worse as a guide to lead people to God - and are horrified at where they’re at as a culture and society. But rather than turn to God, they demand a King who can provide them order. God does indeed grant them a King - see the Books of Kings and Chronicles and the prophets to see how that turns out. Hint: not well.
This is critical to understanding Jesus’s next words: “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal." A king, a prime minister, a president, your own self-acquired power can only provide a way of living that perishes and that must be constantly replaced with something else (me, Communist Russia, Nazi order, discipline, law). This is in part because all created power is limited in time and capacity and value i.e. it is finite. But it is also because the power of created beings is soaked in sin whether that’s intended or not. It cannot provide you with the ultimate way to truth, goodness, joy, God’s peace, holiness and life. The best a king or a prime minister can do is prevent the worst things from occurring (see Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan). Do not set your hope and so your faith on a king, or on your own ways, for not only do these things perish, they are likely going to lead you astray.
The group that has followed Jesus to Capernum replies: ‘thanks be to you, dear prophet rabbi.’ And getting back into their old mentality of seeking to do the works of the law they ask: “what must we do to perform the works of God,” in other words, to earn our salvation? But Jesus's answer here again presses his key point: it is not your work that will save you; no my friends, the work of salvation “is the work of God, [who is opening your eyes to his presence in the world through his Scriptures fulfilled in Jesus SO THAT you believe in him whom God has sent.”
Here comes the tricky part. The crowd asks: "What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, 'He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'" How many times have you come to doubt or used your own power because God didn’t do what you wanted or expected him to do with you, or with a situation or with a person in your life?
You see the Jews are still failing to see from where the real power of truth comes: they assign power to their leader Moses rather than to God himself. So Jesus corrects them: “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world."
Finally catching on, the crowd says, “Please give us this bread always.” Jesus gives them the summary of the entire Christian faith: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” Seek the things eternal so that the faith that grows from this might provide you with the power to witness to and do the work of God, which far surpasses what you or any earthly ruler can see, understand or accomplish. That is it and that is everything. For all those who hunger and thirst for relief, for rest, for direction when lost and drowning in the sea of life, for strength when confused or tired or sad or lonely, for all who seek joy - do not seek to have only what you want. Rather seek what it is that God provides you. For here is where you will find true life in the midst of whatever your circumstances. Thanks be to God for this. AMEN