“Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval. Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires? Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent. So they asked him, “What sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat. Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. “Sir,” they said, “always give us this bread.” Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” John 6:27-35 (NLT)
“Most Christians have just enough religion to be miserable” – John Wesley
John’s description of this encounter between Jesus and his multitude of followers is fascinating both in terms of what we learn about human nature, AND what we learn about Jesus.
You see, this scene is actually a reencounter of sorts. Jesus had been with virtually the same group of people the day before, on the other side of the Sea of Galilee. That first encounter begins with Jesus teaching and performing miracles, and ends with the well-known feeding of the five thousand (men) through the multiplication of a few loaves of bread and fish. In between that first encounter and this one, John manages to squeeze in Jesus’ “water-walk” to meet the disciples on their boat (so much more there, but onto this day’s encounter).
Now we find ourselves in Capernaum, where yesterday’s crowd finds Jesus once again. This time, Jesus begins with an exhortation in verse 27, “Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.” What follows is an exchange that culminates in one of the most quoted scripture verses of all time!
Interestingly, the first part of the crowd’s reaction to Jesus doesn’t surprise me. If I were in that crowd, having just heard Jesus’ command not to work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, I think my follow up question would be the same: What must we do to do the works God requires? It’s the logical question to ask… the question of HOW.
Yet, it also reveals a bit of our human nature. We hear that God wants to bless us and we ask “what do I need to do for this to happen?” It’s just the way we are. We want to know the “three steps” we need to take, or the “secret success formula.” Copy editors know all about this and have become masters at writing catchy “how-focused” titles to articles and videos to entice more clicks.
Jesus’ answer shifts the narrative, though. What he says is not what the crowd is expecting. He says in verse 29, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.” Do you see it? With just one simple statement, Jesus moves our focus from our own effort and from what we can do, to a person. He answers not with a HOW but a WHO!
This can be tough for us to understand because our relationships tend to be driven by exchange. I do this for you, and you do that for me. You give me a job, and I will do it expecting compensation. However, Jesus refuses to exchange with us. He instead wants to engage with us. When the disciples wanted to learn how to pray, for instance, they didn’t read a book about it, and Jesus didn’t give them a series of best-practice steps. He taught them by praying WITH them. He wants to do the same with us.
By the way, the idea that our faith is not about a HOW but a WHO sets the Christian faith apart from any other. It is one of the greatest tools in an evangelist’s “shed” (I work from a shed, so I just really wanted to work this one in).
Show Us The Goods!
The exchange continues as the crowd issues a follow-up request. They asked in verse 30 and 31, “What miraculous sign will you do, that we can see and believe you? What will you do? Our ancestors ate manna in the wilderness, just as it is written, He gave them bread from heaven to eat.”
Okay, now I’m confused! The first question made logical sense to me, but this? Are you as confused by it as I am? They’re not just asking for a miracle. They’re asking for one that is almost exactly what Jesus had just done the day before! I mean, sure, God sent manna from heaven to the people of Israel, but didn’t Jesus just feed thousands of people with just a few loaves of bread and fish, yesterday?! Are their collective memories that short?!
I actually think their memories are just fine. They are just not enough. At a later point in the same gospel of John, Jesus points to this reality saying “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” He was aware that believing is easier when we are able to see. But, seeing something today doesn’t guarantee that we will believe tomorrow.
Oh how easy it is to be forgetful of all that God has done and continues to do for us. I believe this is why God gave the people of Israel all kinds of rhythms of remembrance baked into Jewish law. This is why Jesus did the same, for instance, with the sacrament of Holy Communion. This is why we instinctively create rituals of remembrance in our own cultures and families, from holidays to family traditions, to Facebook memories. We do these things because our memories fail us.
When it comes to our faith, however, remembrance alone is not enough. It isn’t enough because while our faith does not come from what we do, it is also not really about the things God does for us. Ultimately, our faith is about a person, Jesus Christ, God made flesh, the living Word of God, who lived, died, is risen, and will come again. He is the beginning and the end, the author and perfecter of our faith, and he is seated at the right hand of God the father. Jesus Christ alone is our vision, our sole objective. He is the main thing.
Don’t get me wrong. The things we DO because of our faith are great and important! They’re just not the main thing. The things that GOD DOES for us are great and important! However, they’re also not the main thing. It’s like confusing the toppings for the bread. Have you ever had a spoonful of butter?! Gross!
A Different Kind of Bread
Jesus ends the exchange with a bold assertion about himself: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
Jesus’ words were a little too much for the crowd to handle. After some debate, John tells us that many disciples began to desert Jesus. It’s interesting to note that this is the only other instance where this happens outside of Jesus’ imprisonment and crucifixion narrative.
I’m tempted to be judgmental towards that crowd, wondering what in the world was wrong with them. Jesus’ word came after a series of powerful displays, making it almost impossible not to believe. Except, the truth is that Jesus’ words can be hard for me today as well. The idea that there is nothing I can do “to do the works God requires” but believe should be freeing! However, the part of me that wants to control my own narrative and outcomes. The part of me that sees myself as the hero of my own story. That part of me wants to resist.
You see, when Jesus becomes our Bread of Life, he also becomes the Center of our lives. Everything we do, how we act, how we think, how we relate. All of it flows from the Bread of life.
The problem is we still want our own toppings to be the focus. Our lives do not need the ever changing toppings of religion, ambition, or provision. Jesus, the bread of life, is sufficient! This requires full belief and trust. Trust that God is able to do more than we can think or imagine. Trust that God’s ways are better than ours. That God’s thoughts are greater than ours. I could go on and on. You know those scripture passages by heart. At some point, we have to decide if we want to live off the toppings or the actual bread.
God, I believe. Help my unbelief!