Aug 31, 2018

“Coming to Faith” 8-26-18

John 6:60-69
14th Sunday after Pentecost
August 26, 2018

As we have spent the month of August working our way through St. John’s account of the feeding of the 5000 in John chapter 6, we have paid particular attention to some of the unique aspects of John’s gospel compared to the other three.  In particular, we have noted John’s emphasis on the pre-existence of Christ as the Son of Man who came down from heaven.  This is dramatically clear in the discourse following the feeding of the 5000 when Jesus presents himself as the bread that came down from heaven.  In 6:38 he says, “…for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me.”  Today’s text reinforces the same theme when Jesus asks his sign-seeking, wavering followers, “What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?” 

In noting some of the differences between John and the other evangelists, though, we were also reminded that the sign of the feeding of the 5000 is the one miracle performed by Christ recorded in all four gospels.  Moreover, this leads to another point of strong convergence among the evangelists—namely, the recording of the confession by Peter that Jesus is the Messiah immediately following the multiplication of the loaves.  In the NRSV rendering of John 6:69, of course, Peter confesses that Jesus is the Holy One of God.  Those who are familiar with the King James Version (both the old and new one) will recall that these instead read “the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”  My own conviction is that the text adopted by the NRSV is to be preferred.  However, the reading reflected in the KJV, certainly indicates that very early on the title “Holy One of God” was understood as equivalent to “Messiah.”  (The KJV, by the way, relies on a Greek textual tradition in which harmonizes Peter’s confession in Mt.16:16; Mk.8:29; Lu.9:20 & Jn.6:69) 

The fact that Peter’s confession is recorded in all four gospels very shortly after the feeding of the 5000 indicates that this sign—not surprisingly!—was very important in confirming the faith of the disciples.  John’s gospel is unique, though, in that the “bread of life” discourse explores the nature of faith and unbelief at length.  Whereas in the synoptics Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ stands in contrast with other assessments, such as John the Baptist, Elijah, or one of the Prophets, in John’s gospel Peter’s confession stands in contrast with the unbelief of those who had been following Jesus, but who at this crucial juncture are offended and decide to follow no longer.  Once again, Jesus asserts the sovereignty of God as the decisive factor in bringing people to saving faith.  In vs.44 he had told them, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.”  Now, as those closer to the inner circle of disciples take offense at the notion of “eating the flesh and drinking the blood of the Son of Man” (v.53), Jesus reiterates, in even more straightforward terms, “No one can come to me unless it is given to him by the Father.”

Jesus has no reluctance to let the decisive gift and effectual “drawing” of the Father stand alongside the free offer of eternal life to all who believe.  Thus, we are clearly not allowed to view the possibility of our salvation from some deterministic or fatalistic stance.  But, we are called to humility, particularly since in all four gospels there is a sobering dimension of God’s judgment at work in the lives of people who identify as religious but demand special signs in order to believe.  Indeed, in all four gospels and Acts include some form of the quotation from Isaiah 6:9, 10, “Go and say to this people: ‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking but do not understand.’ Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed.”  At that point, of course, Isaiah’s “Here am I. Send me!” gives way to “How long, O Lord?”   Likewise, Jesus’ words, “And what if you should see the Son of Man ascending where he was before?” (v.62) most likely expresses his chiding at their unbelieving stance.  We could paraphrase it, “If you saw the Son of Man ascending to heaven, would that be a sufficient sign?  Would that help you believe?”

In the final exchange that leads to Peter’s stirring confession we are taught more fully about the mystery of faith.  In vs.64 John tells us that Jesus knew from the beginning those who did not have faith and who it was who would betray him.  The Lord who knows people’s hearts.  Yet, when many of the disciples turned away, Jesus questioned the twelve, “Will you also go away?”  Surely he knew the answer! But, that he should put the question shows that he did not view the apostasy of the others with anything but sadness.  That people only believe when it is given by the Father does not lead Jesus to shrug his shoulders and say, “O well,” when former disciples turn away.  He is clearly grieved at the exodus from the disciple band. 

“Will you also go away?”  Peter’s response is full of conviction.  The faith of the twelve is no lightly considered faith.  They have considered the options.  They have looked at the possibilities and concluded that Jesus alone offers what they seek: words of eternal life.  Their faith has reached a point of strong conviction.  As the NRSV expresses it, “We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”  The Greek perfect tense here shows that this is settled for them.  Others may walk away, but they aren’t going anywhere.  “We have come to place of faith and continue there.” (Leon Morris, The Gospel according to John NICNT)  We know, of course, that there are other manifestations of faith before and after this in the hearts of the disciples.  But, Peter’s profession at this point becomes a kind of watershed in the gospel stories.  It is after this that Jesus begins to disclose the way of the cross more fully.  The full import of the scandal of Jesus’ body and blood is going to be revealed.  This will require strong faith and will make it stronger still.

Remembering the other times in John’s gospel when the disciples believed also provides a valuable lesson for all of us.  After Jesus turned the water to wine at the wedding in Cana, we are told that his disciples believed in him.  Later in that same chapter John comments that after Jesus was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered a word he spoke early in his ministry “and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.” (2:22) At the end of Jesus’ Last Supper discourses the disciples profess, “Now we know that you know all things, and do not need to have anyone question you: by this we believe that you came from God.”  And, we should not forget that when John went into the empty tomb on Easter morning that “he saw and believed.” (20:8) Faith is not a once off, one-and-done sort of thing.  Neither, of course, does true faith come and go.  It is always there in the heart of the true child of God.  But, faith normally grows through life, not necessarily in a steady, linear sort of way, but nevertheless, as Psalm 84:7 says, “from strength to strength.”  Certain situations call forth and deepen faith.  When the crowd of disciples turned away in unbelief, Peter said, “Where else can we go?  You alone have words of eternal life.”  Following Jesus is always a journey in and into faith.

There is one other point of seeming, though not genuine, difference between John and the synoptic writers that we should observe before we leave the “bread of life” discourse.  It is noteworthy that the word “repent” never appears in John’s gospel.  According to Matthew, Mark and Luke, however, this was a keynote of Jesus’ preaching, as it was with John the Baptist.  For example, Mark 1:14 reads: Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”  Luke’s gospel ends with Jesus telling the disciples that “repentance and forgiveness of sins was to be preached in his name to all nations.” (24:47) But in John, the call to repentance, at first glance, appears to be missing.

On reflection, though, this is hardly the case.  The basic meaning of repentance in the Old Testament is “turning.”  Thus, in Isaiah 45:22, God says, “Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth!”  People are headed down the wrong path.  They are looking in the wrong direction.  When John the Baptist and Jesus called people to repentance, this was how they would have been heard.  The Greek word for repentance, metanoia, connotes a change of mind.  This, of course, points to what goes on inwardly in turning away from sin unto God, but the practical force is the same.  A true change of heart or mind results in a change in the direction of one’s life.   In John, this change in direction is expressed by “coming to Jesus.”

In John 1:5 John tells us that the light of the Word shines in the darkness.   In 3:19, Jesus explains to Nicodemus, “This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.”  To come to the light, i.e., to Jesus, would necessarily involve a change of heart and direction.  That is, of course, the ultimate direction and goal of all repentance—to turn to Christ.  Jesus makes the same point again to his detractors in 5:39-40.  “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf.  Yet you refuse to come to me to have life.”  Repentance is more than just turning over a new leaf or a personal effort to reform our lives.  Repentance is ultimately coming to Jesus that he may direct our lives.  It is inseparable from saving faith.  Indeed, as is often said, repentance and faith are two sides of “the same coin.”

In John 4, when offers the Samaritan woman at the well water that would permanently quench her thirst, she jumped at the offer.  “Sir, give me this water.” (4:15) Jesus response was to tell her, “Go, call your husband.”  Her path to living water involved facing an area in her life that needed to change.  Jesus was graciously calling her to repentance.  This theme sounds clearly in the Bread of Life discourse: “I am the bread of life.  Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” (6:35)   These two phrases are sometimes interpreted to mean the same thing, i.e., that coming to Jesus is just another way of describing believing in Jesus.  Now they are obviously very closely related; however, they are not the same.  This phrase perfectly captures the relationship between repentance and faith.  Here are the two sides of the same coin.  One will not come to Jesus if they do not believe in him.  But, a person can’t come to Jesus without leaving some other place behind.  They have to abandon food that does not satisfy; they have to forsake water that still leaves you thirsty.

In his book, Desiring the Kingdom, James K.A. Smith, following St. Augustine, forcefully argues that what decisively shapes our response to God is our heart—meaning our desires, our longings, and our loves.  Now Smith is a philosophy professor and can scarcely be accused of anti-intellectualism.  But he admonishes us to pay careful attention to the practices that shape and influence our desires.  The “liturgies” and “rituals” of our culture, particularly those of the shopping mall, the stadium, and the academy are certainly designed and calculated to shape what we love.  Christian worship has the same power and must be pursued with the same seriousness and passion, knowing what is ultimately at stake.  This is the question the bread of life discourse presses upon us.   What are you hungry for?  What are you thirsty for?  In your walk with Christ, is there a satisfying taste of the bread of heaven, a refreshing draught of the water of life?  Or, is you appetite dulled by other cravings?  May the Lord look into our hearts and make us truly hungry for the food that endures to eternal life.  Amen.


Pastor Paul Copeland
Faith Presbyterian Church
West Lafayette, IN 47906