Aug 5, 2018

“Working for Food” 8-5-18

Exodus 16:2-4; John 6:22-35
11th Sunday after Pentecost
August 5, 2018

Whenever I read John’s gospel I’m reminded of a friend in Scotland who was an accomplished bagpiper.  He often related his opinion—how true it is, I’m not certain—that the Irish sent the bagpipes to Scotland as a joke, but that the Scots didn’t get the joke.  In other words, things are not always as they appear.  Thus, the bagpipes struck the Scots as a perfectly credible musical instrument rather than a device for creating a fearful cacophony.   In a similar way, Christians sometimes bring a questionable set of assumptions to the text of Scripture.  Given the distance in time and culture between us and ancient Palestine, this is to a certain degree inevitable.  On the other hand, some of our doubtful assumptions are a function of just sticking with our first impressions about the text of Scripture.

In the case of the gospels, many Christians assume that John’s is simpler or more accessible than the other three.   Perhaps it was the first portion of Scripture that they were encouraged to read when they became Christians.  Perhaps it is because there are fewer episodes to contend with and more extended dialogue that John’s gospel strikes people as easier to understand.  This, however, can be a bit deceptive.  If John’s gospel seems to be simple, it is only so in appearance.

Now I certainly have no objection to new Christians starting out with John.  I have no axe to grind with the fans who manage to get their John 3:16 signs before the end zone cameras of all the NFL football games.  John wrote his gospel so that we might believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that believing we might have life through his name.  I have every confidence that the Holy Spirit uses the text of John’s gospel to lead people to eternal life.  However, central to John’s telling of the gospel is intent to confront us with the limits of our knowing and understanding.  The gospel cannot be “simplified” to a point where anyone and everyone can understand it.  Saving insight can never be a human achievement.   Jesus told Nicodemus that unless people are born again, they can’t even see the kingdom of God—that is, they can’t even perceive or recognize God’s saving work in the world.  (3:3) Likewise, the message of the sign of the healing of the man blind from birth is that we are all spiritually blind and that spiritual sight can only be given by the Son of God. 

The irony is that many who genuinely and devoutly engage with John’s gospel not only sometimes miss the essential mystery, but actually attempt to empty the text of mystery altogether.   For example, it is a commonplace to hear sermons on “you must be born again” in which the preacher provides a formula—practically a recipe!—by which one may be born again.   Now when Nicodemus heard that one had to be born again, he was entirely confused and befuddled.  “How can that be?” he asked.  Jesus’ answer is to point to mystery.  New birth is the work of the Spirit and the work of the Spirit is like the blowing of the wind.  “The wind blows where it chooses and you hear the sound of it, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it goes.” (3:8) In other words, new birth is a mystery hidden in the sovereign good pleasure of God.  Yet many have no hesitation to offer a simple “formula” for being born again.  Clearly, this seems to run counter to John’s purpose to confront us with the limits of what we can know so that we might live humbly and trustingly in the presence of the One who knows all things.

One of the ways John’s gospel differs from Matthew, Mark and Luke is that John places great emphasis on the pre-existence of Christ.   Jesus is the man, as it were, who came down to heaven.   As he told Nathanael, the Son of Man is the ladder upon whom the angels traverse from heaven to earth.  (1:51) And again, as he said to Nicodemus, “No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.” (3:13) This emphasis on the pre-existence of Christ is intrinsically related to John’s purpose to show us the limits of our understanding.  The eternal Son becomes human, comes from heaven to earth, to reveal the Father to us.  The Son comes to us from a realm of which we have no direct knowledge.   He comes from the presence of Father in human form, so that we might be able to see what otherwise remains utterly hidden from our sight and understanding.  “No one has ever seen God.  It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.”  So, however else we may characterize John’s gospel, we should hesitate to characterize it as simple.  The “simplest” person may indeed read it and come to know the Father through Christ by the work of the Spirit.  However, a text that is faithful to the incomprehensible mystery of the Word-made-flesh can never be regarded as simple.

It is also worth noting that part of our tendency to regard John’s gospel as simpler than the others owes to our familiarity with the text.  Original readers of the text who inhabited a Greco-Roman world view would have struggled mightily to comprehend it.  Lesslie Newbigin, who served as a missionary in South India for 50 years and who has written extensively on the theology of missions, points out that the statement, “the word (Gk. logos) became flesh (Gk. sarx)” would have struck most Hellenists as nonsense.  The logos is pure reason, pure thought, and the highest plane of existence.  Flesh is at the opposite end of the order of being.  Newbigin insists that the original Hellenist readers had to make a decision before the end of the prologue whether to continue reading or toss the gospel as absurd.  With 2000 years of Christmases in our history, “the word became flesh” may strike our ears as profound, but familiar and, in the light of faith, entirely plausible.  But, the original Hellenist readers would hardly have commended the Gospel of John to others as a “simple” introduction to Christianity.

Jesus’ teaching about the Father is presented in relation to those “earthly” things which are entirely familiar and understandable to us.  In truth, there can be no other way for us to understand “heavenly” things than by analogy to what we know of this world.  In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus expresses this approach with parables of the kingdom.  The kingdom is God’s saving rule “based” as it were in heaven.  We pray, of course, that it may come upon the earth!  So, Jesus tells parables that begin with the words, “The kingdom of God / heaven is like…”  There follow, of course, stories about familiar earthly phenomena.   In John’s gospel, the parables of the kingdom are replaced by the “I am” sayings of Jesus—as in our text, “I am the bread of life.”

Now we all know about bread and eating and the connection of food with life.  Without food, we die.  With it, we live.  Moreover, food is more than just nutrition.  It is pleasure.  It is enjoyment.  It involves fellowship and relationships.   We know about life, but only Jesus knows eternal life.  Jesus speaks of earthly bread to lead us to heavenly bread.  As the “I am” saying, shows, Jesus himself is that bread.  How he can be that to us, how we may feed upon him, only Jesus can declare and explain. 

Jesus told the crowds who followed him after the feeding of the 5000 to “work for the food” that endures to eternal life, which “the Son of Man would give” to them. (6:27) This “working” is then identified with “believing.” (6:29) Here again we are reminded that John’s gospel is not simple.  The Son of Man gives the food that endures to eternal life.  It is a gift.  But, paradoxically, we are in some way to work for it.  Moreover, the work we are called to do is the work of believing, which is ultimately a renouncing of our own works!   Jesus memorably teaches those who put their trust in works that the work that God desires is trust in the one he sent into the world—namely Jesus.

As we approach the Lord’s Table, though, we should not see the text merely as a memorable way to contrast faith and works.  We should remember that we are not passive in the appropriation of salvation.  We are not saved by works, but neither are we saved apart from works.  Faith is a fight. (1 Tim. 6:12)  Faith is a race. (Heb. 12:1)  Faith is a “pressing on” to make [the resurrection] my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” (Phil. 3:12)  The life of faith is something we pour ourselves into, heart and soul.  We invest in prayer and scripture reading and corporate worship with the preaching and the sacraments.  Here is where the wind of the Spirit blows strongly.  Here is where we learn how to work out our salvation, not by works of our own righteousness, but by “works” that strengthen true faith in Christ, who alone feeds us with the bread of everlasting Christ.  Amen.

Pastor Paul Copeland
Faith Presbyterian Church
West Lafayette, IN 47906