Scripture: John 6:22-35
I want to begin today by talking about two separate but not entirely unrelated events in the news. First, over the past couple of months, two of the wealthiest men in the world spent billions of their considerable fortunes to do that thing that children of my generation believed we would all be doing by now… I’m referring, of course, to entrepreneurs Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos launching themselves into outer space. And they did so in rockets that their own companies designed and built. As a former engineer, I think that’s kinda cool! And don’t get me started about Elon Musk’s Space X program. I love it!
Of course, if you had asked the seven-year-old version of me, in 1977, whether or not space travel would be as commonplace as air travel by the year 2021, I would have said, “Of course it will!” And I would have been disappointed if you told me back then that by age 51, I still wouldn’t have gone up in space. But at least a small handful of civilians so far have now done so… So we’re a little behind schedule, but we’re making progress.
And now I want to say a word about another huge news event—the summer Olympics in Tokyo. My family has watched them every night over the past week. One of my favorite parts is watching the absolutely joy-filled reactions of athletes and their families and friends back home the moment after they win the gold! I’m thinking, for example, of the reaction of an young American woman from Florida named Anastasija Zolotic, who won gold for Tae Kwon Do. First gold ever for the U.S.A. in that sport. Or the reaction of the family of Suni Lee, watching from home, as their daughter… sister… cousin won gold for all-around gymnastics. Or the reaction of 17-year-old Lydia Jacoby’s high school classmates as she won gold in the 100-meter-breaststroke. It makes me happy to bask—at least a little—in their glory… in their pride… in their great joy.
But can you imagine being one of those athletes… what that must feel like? I’m sure that it’s at least a little like what Branson and Bezos must have felt when they finally fulfilled their dream, built these rockets, and went into outer space. They’re very different accomplishments, of course, but each is the product of years of hard work—and a huge investment of time, talent, and money.
And each accomplishment—although in very different fields of endeavor—receives about as much glory as it’s possible for any human being to receive in this world.
Well, if you don’t believe me, hang a left out of the church parking lot and drive by the Paul Anderson Park!
For the rest of us mere mortals, who haven’t accomplished quite so much in our lives, in our own professions, we might feel a little jealous: “If I could win a gold medal, I could live off that glory!” “If I could launch myself into space I could live off that glory!” “If I could achieve something I could point to and say, ‘This proves, objectively, that I am the best in the world at something, this proves that I am a person of great worth, this proves how special I am! Man, I could live off that glory!”
At least I’m tempted to think I could…
But we know, deep down, that’s not true. Right? You can’t live off any amount of earthly glory. You can’t live off any earthly treasure!
Speaking of the Olympics, the movie Chariots of Fire tells the true story of two British athletes who are competing for Olympic glory at the 1924 Olympics in Paris. One of them, Harold Abrahams, is getting a rub-down from his trainer in the locker room before his final race—the 100-meter. And this athlete is not one of those “I’m-just-happy-to-be-here” kind of guys. Up to this point in the Games, he has let himself down. Contrary to his own high expectations, he has failed to medal in any of his previous races. This 100-meter is his last shot. He tells his trainer, “And now in one hour’s time, I will be out there again. I will raise my eyes and look down that corridor; 4 feet wide, with ten lonely seconds to justify my existence.”
Why would he say that? Because this race is everything to him… This is his life. This is what he lives for.
And to say the least, this pursuit of glory is making him miserable!
Well, of course it is! Jesus says, in verse 27, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you.” This athlete was “working for the food that perishes.” In fact, we’re all tempted to do the same thing in our own ways—only on a smaller scale, perhaps, than competing in the Olympics. We are constantly tempted to “live off” of “food that perishes,” rather than feasting on the “food that endures to eternal life.”
What is this “food that endures to eternal life”?
Whatever it is, it’s clear in John chapter 6 that the crowd doesn’t want it, at least at first. We see this in three places. If you have your Bibles—and you should—look at verse 2. This is just before Jesus performs the feeding of the 5,000, which we talked about last week. John tells us why the crowd was there: “And a large crowd was following him”—Jesus—“because they saw the signs that he was doing on the sick.”
Jesus was healing the sick… and doing so very effectively—perfectly—in a world in which the practice of medicine was very primitive. So in a crowd of thousands, you can imagine how desperately many people wanted physical healings from Jesus.
Now look at verse 15, which is after the feeding miracle: “Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.”
They wanted to make him king. This feeding miracle proved to the crowd just how powerful Jesus was. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful, therefore, if we made Jesus our political king—the new king over Israel—so we could once and for all defeat the evil Roman Empire, and gain independence, and reestablish the dynasty of King David here on earth.”
Jesus, of course, is the world’s one and only true King, infinitely more powerful than Caesar, but as he would later tell Caesar’s representative, Pontius Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world”1—meaning not that Jesus wasn’t king over this world, but that his kingdom doesn’t operate according to the world’s rules; it’s not political; it’s infinitely greater than any worldly kingdom!
But the crowd didn’t understand that… And it’s easy to imagine that they were looking for Jesus to bring them military success, economic prosperity, national pride and glory—and a worldly kind of peace with justice.
So in both verse 2 and verse 15, the people are looking to Jesus to meet important, yet very temporary and superficial physical needs. Meanwhile, the people’s greatest need of all—their spiritual problem… the very thing that God’s Son became incarnate in this world to solve… well, they were perfectly willing to ignore.
But not Jesus; he puts his finger on the problem the next day, in verse 26: “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.”
This is a famously blunt, even harsh-sounding statement from Jesus. If I had thousands of people who were so anxious to see me at church on Sunday mornings, I would be far more concerned about offending them than Jesus is! But I’m not Jesus… obviously!
And maybe you think, “Well, hold on… Why does the crowd’s reactions to Jesus’ miracles bother Jesus so much? I mean, he fed hungry people the day before with bread. And doesn’t Jesus teach his disciples in the Lord’s Prayer to ask him for bread: ‘Give us this day our daily bread’? And when Jesus gives his disciples this prayer as a model to follow, he uses ‘daily bread’ as a symbol for any material, physical, earthly need that we might have each day. If the crowd is asking Jesus for daily bread, what’s the problem? We’re supposed to ask God to meet these needs. And Jesus is God, after all. Therefore it’s okay for them to want Jesus to give them more bread… right?”
To which I say, “Yes, but…”
Because… if we are disciples of Jesus Christ, why do we want our Father to give us our daily bread to begin with? Remember the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” That’s the first petition in the prayer. I know that in 17th-century King James English that doesn’t sound like you’re asking God to do anything, but you are! As the first and most important part of this prayer that Jesus gave us as a model to follow, we are asking God to make God look as great as he already is. This is another way of saying that we’re asking God to be glorified. And by putting this request first in the Lord’s prayer, Jesus is saying, “This is your top priority in life… This is what you’re living for… This is the thing that you want more than anything else… that you and the rest of Creation can show the world how glorious, how amazing, how great God truly is.”
In fact, I was deeply touched by an Olympic swimmer last week—a South African named Tatjana Schoenmaker. She won a silver medal—and in one of the semifinals, she set a world record, I think. But underneath the official green swimming cap of South Africa she wore another cap—a white cap with a Jesus fish symbol and these Latin words on them… “Soli Deo Gloria.” For the glory of God alone. And what does that mean?
This Olympic athlete is saying, “All of my swimming, all of my success in this sport, whatever great things I accomplish… they aren’t for my glory; they’re for Christ’s glory. I’m swimming for his glory. I’m living for his glory, not my own. I want nothing more in life to please not myself… but him.”
That’s what the first and most important petition of the Lord’s Prayer means!
Then there are two more petitions—about submitting to God’s loving rule over our lives and doing his will… and please notice, this is before we even get to “Give us this day our daily bread.”
So if all that’s true—if we’re living for Christ’s glory above our own, and we’re letting him be in charge of our lives, and we’re only interested in accomplishing his will, then by the time we get to the prayer’s fourth petition—“Give us this day our daily bread”—then the answer to my earlier question—“Why do we ask our Father for our daily bread?”—becomes crystal clear: Ultimately, we ask for one huge reason: So that we can continue to glorify him, continue to let him be in charge of our lives, continue to surrender to his will… in everything! That is why we are put on this earth in the first place!
In case you think I’m coming out of left field with these ideas, think of the most famous prayer that John Wesley was known for praying… and encouraging us Methodists to pray. It’s called the Wesleyan Covenant Prayer, and it’s number 607 in our hymnal. Listen to just some of these words:
I am no longer my own, but thine… (In other words, I belong to you, Lord. You own me.)…
Put me to doing, put me to suffering…
Let me be exalted for thee or brought low by thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal… (In other words, it all belongs to you in the first place, Lord; you can take it away if that pleases you!)
In this prayer, we tell God that we surrender our lives to him; that we’re willing to suffer for him; that we’re willing to be brought low for him; that we’re willing to be empty for him; that we’re willing to possess nothing, for his sake; that we’re willing to give up everything—if that’s what he wants for us. And that we will happily do all these things… for him and for his glory. Because he’s in charge, not us.
And when we pray this prayer, we’re not supposed to cross our fingers behind our backs… which I promise I’ve been tempted to do at times over the years!
Needless to say, the crowd in today’s scripture would have been unwilling to pray this Wesleyan Covenant Prayer. They did not desire bread from Jesus so that they would have the energy they needed to live their lives for him… so that they could live only for his glory… so that they could live only to please him…
They were searching for him in today’s scripture not so they could be useful to him but so that he could be useful to them.
But even putting it like that—talking about “being useful for Jesus”—is risky. Because then we can easily get confused and start to think of Christian discipleship as “those things we’re supposed to do for Jesus… those things we have to do for him.”
Well, that’s what the crowd thought in verse 28: “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” This reminds me of that episode found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke in which the Rich Young Ruler asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus responds, in so many words, “Well, if you think that inheriting eternal life is a matter of doing, rather than something that God does for you through faith in his Son, then… I hate to break it to you, but you better keep all ten commandments… you better keep them perfectly… without sin. If you can do that, then you’ll be fine,” Jesus says.2
But of course none of us can do that! And that’s why Jesus answers the crowd in verse 29 with these words: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” The only necessary “work” that God requires of us, in other words, isn’t a work at all: It’s faith in his Son.
And some of you might be thinking, “Well, sure, Pastor Brent… Of course we have to believe in Jesus… first. We get our sins forgiven. We have to get born again. And the Lord does all that for us. But… once he does that for us, then… then… we need to go out and start doing things for him, right?”
And my answer is… No… That’s not what Jesus says here. What he says is actually much, much better than that. Look at verse 35: “Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.’”
Back in 2017, a team of explorers from New Zealand was on an expedition in Antarctica. They were excavating an old campsite that included artifacts left behind by a team of British explorers back in 1911—106 years earlier. One of the artifacts they found was a perfectly preserved fruitcake, still packaged in its original tin, made by a British biscuit company. The tin was badly rusted, but the fruitcake itself, according to scientists, was remarkably well-preserved. It was, they said, “almost edible.”3
The vast majority of people in the world don’t like fruitcake even when it’s fresh from the oven… so how many of us would like to take a bite of 106-year-old fruitcake?
No, that’s the worst-tasting thing we could eat. Imagine, by contrast, the best. Think of the smell of a bakery—think of steaming-hot, fresh-baked bread! I mean, I get it: some people are gluten-intolerant; some have celiac disease. And not to mention many of us want to lose a few pounds! But if we were all able to eat hot, fresh-baked homemade bread without any consequences, every single one of us in this room would do so!
I wouldn’t need to convince any of you to try a piece of this delicious bread. I’d have to fight you off with a stick because you would want it so badly!
What does it mean, then, that Jesus offers himself to us as the “bread of life”?
To say the least, it means that Jesus is not the “kale salad of life”… or the “keto diet of life”… or the “intermittent fasting plan of life”… Jesus isn’t merely offering us something we partake of because, as unpleasant as it is, it’s supposed to be “good for us.” Too many people think that that’s what Jesus and Christianity and the church are all about.
Have they learned that from watching us and the way we live? God forbid! If we’re feasting on Jesus the “bread of life” who satisfies all of our deepest wants, God forbid! They should look at our lives and want what we have—because this bread of life is amazing!
No… Jesus says he’s the bread of life. That means that what Jesus offers us is something that we should want… It means we should want Jesus more than we want anything else! It means we should enjoy being in a relationship with Jesus more than we enjoy anything else! It means Jesus is supposed to make us happier than anything else in the world. It means we find our deepest satisfaction in him alone. It means—as our church’s mission statement puts it—we “treasure Christ above all”—above anything that the world offers.
If we treasure something, after all, it’s not because someone has to convince us, intellectually, to do so… when we treasure something it’s because we’re following our heart… It’s because doing so brings us pleasure and lasting happiness and joy. It’s because we couldn’t imagine not treasuring it… It’s because we wouldn’t want to do anything else!
So you can keep your worldly glory, keep your earthly achievements, keep your worldly success and recognition and acclaim… We don’t need those anymore! We have our greatest treasure in Christ!
Remember I warned against thinking of Christian discipleship as something we do for Jesus—you know, he does stuff for us, then in return, we do stuff for him. We shouldn’t think of it like that for a number of important theological reasons. But here’s one good reason from today’s scripture: if Jesus is the “bread of life” who satisfies our deepest desires every day, that means Jesus never stops giving to us… it means we never stop receiving from him… it means we enjoy receiving from him as much as hungry people enjoy eating a steaming hot loaf of bread.
So… I’m not saying that we don’t do things for Jesus, it’s just that… what we do is nothing in comparison to what he has done and continues to do for us!
When Jesus says that he’s the bread of life, and that we find our deepest needs met in him, Jesus is inviting us to do what David invites us to do in Psalm 37:4: “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” I want the desires of my heart fulfilled, don’t you? That’s synonymous with being deeply happy. I want to be happy in a way that lasts. Don’t you? Jesus tells us that, in him, we can be! He wants to make us happy like that!
Now let me conclude by telling you about an English woman named “Eleanor Rigby.” Have you heard of her? She is the subject of a song that Paul McCartney wrote and sang with the Beatles in 1966. When I first heard this song in 1981, at age 11, it struck me as the saddest song I’d ever heard! Many of you know it.
The song concerns two “lonely” people: Rigby, a churchgoing woman who spends her life volunteering at the church, working for the church with little fanfare. No one notices her. She is alone. And when she dies, Paul tells us, no one even attends her funeral. Except for Father McKenzie, the pastor of the church who, Paul says, is “writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear.” I feel like I’ve done that a few times in my pastoral career, believe me! “All the lonely people/ Where do they all come from?/ All the lonely people/ Where do they all belong?”
But not so fast… Suppose Eleanor Rigby and Father McKenzie have discovered that Jesus is their “bread of life.” If so, who else do they need in order to be happy? What else do they need to be satisfied? Certainly not an audience to love and praise and appreciate them! For one thing, they already have an audience—God is there, along with the angels who surround them. They’re not alone. For another thing, since Rigby and McKenzie are doing these works without a human audience, how is God not especially glorified? Remember Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount: “And your Father who sees in secret will reward you”?4
Paul McCartney isn’t a believer, at least he wasn’t when he wrote the song—I don’t know whether he is today. My point is, I wouldn’t expect Paul to know about this soul-satisfying bread that Jesus offers unless or until he was in a relationship with Christ.
What about you? Do you know about this bread? Have you tasted this soul-satisfying bread? Have you experienced it? Do you crave it every day? Do you want more of it?
If so, let’s make the prayer of the crowd in verse 34 our own prayer: “Lord, give us this bread always.” And he promises us that he will! Amen.