On John 6: Offensive Things

This is a version of the sermon I preached on Sunday, January 31, 2021 at Broken Bow United Methodist Church. It’s part of an ongoing series running through Easter exploring the Gospel of John.

In case you were looking for it, last week (January 24), I preached without a manuscript, so here’s the sermon’s recording.

Today’s sermon is based on John 6.

This season, I invite you to make faith commitments using “A Covenant Prayer in the Wesleyan Spirit.” You can find it here.

You can worship online with BBUMC through Facebook, the church website, or YouTube.

Over the past few weeks in worship, I’ve been referencing “A Covenant Prayer in the Wesleyan Spirit” and the idea of committing to practices that help us live into the heart of God. How are you doing on your practices? 

In the daily devotional I’ve been using with my journaling, Paul David Tripp, shared this story. The man for whom Tripp was a gardener had just pulled into the driveway with another new car. As he hopped out, the man asked Tripp what he thought of the car. Tripp replied, “I don’t think it’s working.” Confused, the man asks, “What do you mean? It’s a brand-new car.” But Tripp says, “How many cars is it going to take before you realize that an automobile has no capacity whatsoever to satisfy your heart?” (Tripp, New Morning Mercies, 1/29).

As we let that story sit for a moment, I’d like to give a quick summary of John 6 as a whole. First, Jesus feeds a crowd of five thousand people, with a boy’s five loaves and two fish, when they interrupt his teaching retreat with his disciples. The people see this as a sign of miraculous power, and Jesus retreats from them before they force him to be their king, just as he had after healing people at the Temple on the last Passover (ch. 2). His disciples leave by boat across the Sea of Galilee. Jesus walks across the water to them in the night and then they immediately arrive in Capernaum. The next day, the crowds realize that Jesus is gone – though not sure how, since they know he didn’t go by boat with his disciples. So they search for him, eventually finding him Capernaum at the synagogue. They ask when or how he got there, to which Jesus replies:

26 Jesus replied, “I assure you that you are looking for me not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate all the food you wanted. 27 Don’t work for the food that doesn’t last but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Human One will give you. God the Father has confirmed him as his agent to give life.”

28 They asked, “What must we do in order to accomplish what God requires

29 Jesus replied, “This is what God requires, that you believe in him whom God sent.”

30 They asked, “What miraculous sign will you do, that we can see and believe you? What will you do? 31 Our ancestors ate manna in the wilderness, just as it is written, He gave them bread from heaven to eat.”

32 Jesus told them, “I assure you, it wasn’t Moses who gave the bread from heaven to you, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 The bread of God is the one who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

34 They said, “Sir, give us this bread all the time!”

Here, it’s important to see a theme that’s been repeating up to this point in John. They’re stuck in literalism, like others before them: like the woman at the well who says, “Give me this water so that I won’t have to come draw water every day”; like Nicodemus who says, “Do you mean I have to crawl up inside my mother’s womb and be born again?” and like the religious leaders later in chapter 6 that say, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (v. 32). These are all instances in which John the Evangelist, and Jesus, are trying to help us see that literalism may have its place, but it only goes so far when speaking of the mysteries of God. At their literalistic question…

35 Jesus replied, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. 

The rest of the chapter shows Jesus teaching those gathered in the synagogue what he means by saying, “I am the bread of life,” which is the central image of this chapter. When we’re reading scripture, like when we read literature, one of the tools is to look for things that repeat. In John 6, Jesus says three times, explicitly, with a few variations, I am the bread of life that has come down from heaven from God for God’s people (vv. 35, 41, 48). Additionally, he implies this message at least three more times (vv. 27, 32-33, 51, 57-58). Now, let’s be honest: this phrase is a little strange to our ears, right? However, it was downright offensive to at least some of those he’s talking with. Here’s why. 

First, John tells us that all this takes place at “nearly the time for Passover” (v. 4), and that the longer portion of this chapter, occurs at the synagogue in Capernaum (v. 59). Think of it like this. During the season of Advent, especially when we’re at church, we’re thinking about Christmas, about the meaning of Christmas, and the importance of Jesus’ birth. That’s in the background of our minds. If someone mentions a baby, we think “Baby Jesus.” Similarly, around the time of the Passover, at the synagogue, the meaning and importance of Passover is singularly resting upon people’s minds: they’re remembering that God saved them; that God brought their ancestors out of slavery in Egypt, fed them manna from heaven as they journeyed with God through the wilderness, and delivered them to their Promised Land. All of Jesus’s “bread of life” talk rubs up against everything they hold dear about their scriptural and historic heritage. When the people bring up that they’d like a sign like Moses’s manna in the wilderness, Jesus twice responds with what sounds like a criticism: Our ancestors ate Moses’s bread and still died, but whoever eats the bread I give will live forever (vv. 49, 58).

Second, what Jesus is implying in this chapter is offensive, because he’s coming very near to what sounds like blasphemy to them: saying, I am God. Here’s what I mean. They bring up the miraculous experience of manna in the wilderness (Ex 16). He tells them, rightly, that it wasn’t Moses who gave the bread but God: Moses was God’s agent. But then he says the bread that comes down from heaven, from God, is the one who comes down from heaven (v. 33). And then Jesus reiterates this, saying at least four times that he’s come down from heaven (vv. 38, 41, 49, 51, 58). When Jesus says, I am the bread of life, the bread that comes from heaven to bring eternal life, and whoever eats this bread, whoever eats me, will experience eternal life, he’s making a significant claim about who he is. He’s saying essentially, I am the God who brought you out of slavery; I am the God who fed you through Moses; I am the one who led you into the Promised Land; I am the one who will always be faithful; I am the one who’s ways are written on your hearts.

Jesus offends the people he’s teaching by essentially saying he’s better bread than Moses’ bread, and that he and God, who brought them out of slavery in Egypt and nurtured them all the way to the Promised Land, are connected, or one. His disciples even tell him, “This message is harsh. Who can hear it?” (v. 60). And indeed, many cannot hear it, they cannot believe it, and they turned away from following Jesus. At this, Jesus asks the Twelve, “Do you also want to leave?” essentially also asking, “Do you believe I am the bread of life?” (vv. 66-67).

Perhaps that’s exactly what Jesus is asking us today, “Do you believe in me? Do you believe I am the bread that nourishes you, fills you? Do you believe I am the way you experience eternal life – God’s life, now – and live with hope of resurrection to life beyond death?”

Now, I know this is like the epitome of preaching to the choir. I’m standing in the midst of a church building, with people who’ve been worshipping here or online regularly – many longer than I’ve been alive. Yet, this chapter lays out the central issue of what it means to be Christian: we believe Jesus is God’s way of nourishing us, bringing us out of the sin and darkness that have bound us. Jesus is God’s way of filling us with God’s eternal life – the fullness of life – in this life, and promising that we will be raised “at the last day” (v. 40). Jesus frees us, Jesus nourishes us, Jesus fills us with God’s life, and Jesus gives us hope of resurrected life in God’s presence.

But, before everyone races up here to offer testimonies of how they believe in Jesus, I think we should admit two things about Jesus’s claims in John 6 that might just be a little offensive to our ears. First, we’re clear that Jesus is saying, “Believe in me as your bread of life, and you’ll have eternal life and be raised up at the last day.” That’s it. Just believe: this is what God requires. Belief is the work Jesus calls us to.  But, we’re a people who value hard work, putting in long hours, earning and paying our own ways. In little and big things. We try to teach our kids responsibility in numerous ways. We train them up to see work as the way to obtain the things they want or need. We argue in political and financial houses of power about fairness and honoring people’s work, not giving handouts. But here’s God, giving a free handout of God’s eternal life in our lives and resurrection for simply believing. That’s grace. And it’s not fair. And that can be offensive, no matter how many times we sing about how amazing it is.

The second way this is potentially offensive relates to my opening story of Tripp and the man with the cars. Maybe it’s not brand-new cars for many of us, but are there other things we order our lives, attentions, and finances toward in order to try to satisfy our hearts? Do we get caught up comparing ourselves, our clothes, our balance sheets, our kids’ successes, or something else with others? Do we stand in front of the figurative mirrors of our lives and think, If only I was more like so-and-so, had their land, their job, their family, their whatever, then I’d be happy? As Tripp said to the man, “I don’t think it’s working.” Jesus says the same thing: eat all that other stuff, even if it was good stuff, but if it’s not me, it’s not going to satisfy you. He says explicitly, “Don’t work for the food that doesn’t last but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Human One will give you” (v 27). That’s offensive. It’s a huge shift. It means that all this external stuff that we like, that we strive for, that we stress about, is always futile if we first don’t have this one thing: Jesus. Jesus alone feeds us so that we can experience God’s eternal life everyday, and love with hope of resurrection at the last day.

Our closing song for the last month has been “Living for Jesus” (Chisolm and Lowden, The Faith We Sing, 2149), because it puts the central confession of our faith front and center. Each week we’ve sung, “Living for Jesus a life that is true, striving to please him in all that I do, yielding allegiance, glad-hearted and free, this is the pathway of blessing for me. O Jesus, Lord and Savior, I give myself to you…I own no other master, my heart shall be you throne, my life I give, henceforth to live, O Christ for you alone.”

Like Jesus asked his disciples, Jesus asks us, today and every day, “Do you want to follow me?” To follow Jesus, to believe in Jesus, is our daily choice and calling. Believing in Jesus, we commit to be fed and shaped by his grace. Following Jesus means letting grace shape all our actions. Believing in Jesus, we commit to put everything second to him and his lordship in our lives, shaping our desires, our actions, and our words. This is the most important work we do, and the most important thing we share with others.

REFLECTION QUESTIONS:

  1. What does Jesus being the “bread of life” mean to you?
  2. I contend in this sermon that the idea of grace – that salvation, by which we mean experiencing God’s eternal life in this life and being raised to life beyond death – is offensive. In what ways do you find this to be true, or not true?
  3. I also contend in this sermon that Jesus’s call to put him first in our lives – to seek “food that endures for eternal life” – is also offensive. In what ways do you find this to be true, or not true?
  4. Obviously, belief in Jesus is more than just a prayer we pray once, but that might be part of it. Have you invited Jesus to be your Lord and Savior and committed to live for him? If not, and you feel the Spirit’s leading in your life, I’d be honored to help you explore what this means, and how you can follow Jesus.
  5. If you have children, parents, or friends in your life, have you shared with them about your commitment to follow Jesus and what that means in your life? Is there someone you could share this with today? Sometimes, practicing how to talk about our faith experiences with people we know and trust can be a good way to grow in this skill.

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