It’s sort of the miracle after the miracle. Jesus had just fed 5,000 on a hillside by the Sea of Galilee. These lost sheep have been feeding on his teaching and his attention for so long and so carefully that they have neglected their own nourishment, so it is up to Jesus and his disciples to feed them.
And the next morning, after Jesus has sent his disciples on their way, and he has walked across the top of the sea, the crowd begins to stir, and they realize that the teacher has left.
Have you ever seen 5,000 people in boats crossing a body of water? At Camp Fowler, where I grew up as a camper and then, later, as a summer staff member, we would from time to time have a sunset canoe ride, where groups of campers would load into canoes and paddle out onto the lake to loudly sing camp songs as the setting sun cast brilliant shades of red and orange across the horizon. On those occasions, we had at most, 20 boats, carrying at most, 70 people. Here, John describes five thousand people in who knows how many boats! They are seeking after Jesus, desirous of his teaching, hungry for his words, thirsting for his truth.
Our gospel story this morning can be divided into three movements: first, seeking; second, learning; and third, faith-ing.
As we move through the gospel of John, we watch the Jesus movement grow in scope and number. The people Jesus encounters move from the named and the individual in privacy, to the nameless and the multitude in a very public arena. In chapter 3, he encounters Nicodemus, in secrecy, at night. In chapter 4, he has a conversation with a woman at a well, alone in relative privacy, but in a public place, at mid-day.
Here in chapter 6, he teaches and feeds a crowd of 5,000 on a hillside by the sea- a very public teaching and feeding, and this crowd continues to grow until it simply is referred to as “they,” as if all of them were speaking with one voice. We watch as Jesus becomes more recognizable to people and his celebrity status reaches the shoreline even before his feet do.
Yet what drives this crowd, this multitude, to seek after Christ? They have questions, but he immediately calls them out in verse 26, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.’” In other words, it’s not because you saw some miraculous sign from God (which by the way, you did, you just didn’t know it!). You are tracking me down because I fed you. You like the feeling a full belly, and you want that to last!
On one level, Jesus is answering some very tangible needs: he is feeding the hungry and healing the sick. On its own, that is great, but there’s nothing really different. There are others who can feed them: the state, though that is tainted by the power it holds over the people; the church and charity, though they too are in need and unable to keep up with demand; the benevolent wealthy, though their motives are questionable, and their continuance unreliable.
I suppose that they see in Jesus someone who is willing to feed them without demanding control or service from them at the same time; it’s a gift given freely.
And there are his healings, which while they are certainly miraculous, are not completely unique. There are other healers in the known world at this time, and they may be just as popular, though they may charge more.
As the crowd seeks Jesus to respond to their very real, very present needs, he pushes them to look further than full bellies and healed bodies.
And this is where our scripture lesson moves into the “Learning” portion. “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life.”
Jesus is here setting up a “contrast… between ‘perishing food’ and ‘abiding (menein) food into life eternal.’ Menein is one of the most important verbs in the fourth gospel. It means ‘reside with,’ ‘abide,’ or ‘dwell.’ In every single case, Jesus is the one who ‘abides,’ the one who is there, the one who is with the people” (Petty). This is not the Eucharist, but it foreshadows the Eucharist.
Of course, the people (and by people, I mean we), just don’t get it! “What might we do to perform the works of God?” I imagine the dialogue between Jesus and “they” as follows:
Jesus: Don’t work for the food that will go bad, but for the food that endures for eternal life.
They: So… what do we have to do?
Jesus: Well, believe in him who God has sent.
They: Well… what sign are you going to give us? We need a sign in order to believe. Is it you? If it is, what work are you performing? We knew Moses because he gave us manna in the wilderness.
Jesus: Oy… It was Moses who gave you bread, but it is God who is giving you bread… even today! That bread of God gives life to the world!
They: Hey! This bread sounds good! Give it to us!
Jesus: I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.
Does anyone else find it vexing that the crowd asks for a “sign” even just after he fed a whole multitude of them from five loaves and two fish- literally just 16 verses prior! “If they get a ‘sign,’ then maybe they will ‘see’ and maybe they will ‘faith’” (Petty).
Here we come to a critical point of faith in this story. In verse 28, they ask, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” This is a very typical human question. If I get this job, what will my responsibilities be? If I join this organization, what is expected of me? And Jesus’ answer to them in verse 29 is, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”
There is a word in the original Greek in this verse, pisteuein, which the NRSV translates as “believe.” Pisteuein is a verb, which means “faith.”
“Unfortunately, using faith as a verb sounds odd in English which is why the translators made the regrettable leap to ‘believe’ instead. The Greek actual phrase is pisteuete eis– ‘faith into’” (Petty).
According to John Petty, “The fourth gospel uses this phrase quite often- 26 times! It does not mean ‘believing’ things about Jesus, as many suppose. It means, rather, ‘trust into’ Jesus, which is an orientation of one’s entire self.”
Consider how we often talk about faith. Do you have faith? When did you come to faith? At the risk of channeling George Michael, “You gotta have faith, f-f-f-faith.”
What Jesus is doing here is pointing us to a new understanding of faith, and a reorientation back to God. Reorienting us and changing our understandings of our world is something Jesus has been about since the beginning of John. In chapter 3, in his conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus points us to birth beyond birth. In chapter 4, as he talks with the woman at the well, he points us to water beyond water. This morning, in chapter 6, he points us to bread beyond bread. Could this reorientation in our understanding of faith be pointing us to life beyond life?
Faith is not, as we have used it, a noun. It is a verb, a word expressing action, existence, or occurrence. It is not something you have; Faith is something you do; something you are.
The passage from Second Timothy that we read from this morning is a letter to a young man who is in need of encouragement and inspiration. We often read this letter as Paul’s farewell address, giving some last wisdom and special insight before his death. Throughout the letter we find Timothy being charged to remember his faith as being rooted in the past. “The mention of Paul’s ‘ancestors,’ Timothy’s ‘sincere faith’ with roots in his grandmother and mother, and Timothy’s need to ‘rekindle’ God’s gift- these all encourage Timothy to understand his identity and his obligations by considering those who have gone before him… The letter construes Christian faith and ministry entirely in communal and familial settings, extended through time” (Skinner).
But “his faith and calling aren’t ancillary to his identity” (Skinner). Timothy’s faith and his calling as a disciple of Christ are not add-ons to who he is. “They are part of who he is” (Skinner, emphasis mine). Without his faith, without his calling, he is not Timothy, just as I would not be me, and you would not be you.
It is an interesting equilibrium Paul draws for us. We are each uniquely gifted and talented for the work of Christ in the world; remember his words in Romans about the body of Christ. Yet, we are also meaningfully connected in our beliefs and our ministry. Within this congregation, we have our individual, personal identities, but also our corporate identity as Western Presbyterian Church. We each bring our own unique stories to the table, but we also share a rooted, shared heritage (Skinner). Our ideas of faith have been molded and shaped by all of these.
In my experience, faith is something that is experienced and expressed most definitively in community, and particularly, in our communion.
Communion, the Eucharist, the Holy Supper which we are about to receive, is something that has been, for centuries, incredibly difficult to explain and express. Of course, I could go on and on articulating the specific understanding of communion in the Reformed tradition and how it is juxtaposed from other understandings, Catholic or Lutheran, for example.
But that is both boring and, to a certain extent, dismissive of the inherent mystery found in this meal. Will Willimon writes that “Faith means encounter with a person, one who is ‘the way, and the truth, and the life.’ The one who speaks to us in this peculiarly metaphorical way is the one who desires not only that we think about him but that we feed on him, ingest him, implying that we could starve to death without him. The truth being communicated here is so peculiar that mere surface comprehension, mere intellectual assent, is inadequate to the truth under consideration.”
Willimon remarks that “When John Calvin was asked to explain the Eucharist, he said that he would ‘rather experience it than to understand it.’ Actually, to feed upon the truth who is Jesus Christ, to find primary sustenance in him, is better even than to understand him.”
As we eat this bread and drink this cup, take Christ into you, let him fill you, not only that you will not be hungry or thirsty again, but that you might find the truth of what it means to faith into the one who gives us bread from heaven; faith into the one who was sent. Amen.
Petty, John. “John 6: 24-35.” Progressive Involvement. N.p., 30 July 2012. Web. 30 Sept. 2016.
Skinner, Matt. “Commentary on 2 Timothy 1:1-14.” Working Preacher. Luther Seminary, 6 Oct. 2013. Web. 30 Sept. 2016.