Ask a Stupid Question; Get a Perfect Answer (John 6:22-35)
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!
I’m sure you’ve heard this before: “There’s no such thing as a stupid question.” It’s my experience that this is the kind of thing said at a question and answer session when nobody is asking questions. It’s meant to encourage more interaction between the speaker and listeners. And it’s been said so often that it’s become a truism—an “accepted fact of life.” But is it true?
No, there really are stupid questions—at least questions that have less merit than others. Some people seem to ask questions just to gain attention. Others people like to “play devil’s advocate” or “stir up the pot a bit.” A few already know the answer but want to test the speaker or to prove their own expertise. And some people just plain don’t think before they speak. So, yes, there are stupid questions. But have you ever noticed how a skillful teacher can take even a stupid or off-point question and still use it for a teaching opportunity?
Over the past few weeks our Gospel has us sailing back and forth across the Sea of Galilee. Hearing about the death of John the Baptist, Jesus loads His disciples in a boat and heads to a desolate place. There Jesus miraculously feeds the five thousand with five barley cakes and two small fish. The crowds love it. They want to make Him king by force. So Jesus makes His disciples get back in the boat and go to the other side while He goes up on the mountain to pray. Seeing His disciples are in trouble, Jesus decides to go out to them on foot. It was another “messianic sign”—Jesus walking on the Deep, Tehom, the swirling chaotic waters. The Lord of creation is free to walk anywhere He pleases, even defying the “laws of physics” and “forces of nature.”
Of course, Jesus walking on the stormy sea in the middle of the night scares the wits out of His disciples. But once they hear His voice, they are more than willing to take Him on board. So when they land on shore, this leaves the crowd a bit puzzled. The boat left without Jesus; now it lands with Jesus. So their first question seems a logical question. “Rabbi, when did You come here?” What they’re really wondering is “How did You get here?”
Now, of course, the simplest answer is: “I walked.” But that would have raised a lot more questions than given answers. How He gets from one place to another is as irrelevant as how water is Baptism or how bread and wine are the Body and Blood of Christ. The Lord is free to do whatever He pleases with His creation. Instead of satisfying their curiosity, Jesus switches the focus to a more important issue: faith. Where was their trust? Why were they following Him? What did they want? “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking Me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.”
Why is this crowd following Jesus? It’s not because they “saw signs.” Sure they “saw” Jesus miraculously feed a crowd of over 5,000 people. They “saw” Jesus healing all the sick people who were brought to Him. They saw the miracles, but they did not see them for what they really were—signs pointing to the Messiah. They “saw” these things, but they did not see who Jesus truly is—the Son of Man, the Messiah, their Savior.
Jesus is not chastising them for being hungry and seeking food. Hunger is natural for humans in a fallen world. Jesus Himself experienced hunger—far more than even those people, most of whom had to scrape and scrap every day to keep their bellies from rumbling. No, food for their bodies is a good gift; but Jesus offers more: “Do not labor for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on Him God the Father has set His seal.”
There are two kinds of food: Food you work for, and food which is given. Food that perishes and food that endures to eternal life. You know about the first kind of food. That’s one reason you go to work even when you don’t feel like it—to put bread on the table. That goes all the way back to the Fall: “From the sweat of your brow you will eat your bread until you die,” God told Adam. But that wasn’t how it was in the beginning. Food was plentiful. It grew on trees. Nuts and fruits hanging on the branches, waiting to share life-sustaining nourishment.
In the beginning, it was all gifts and no work. But disobedience and death changed the ecology and the diet. No longer fruits and nuts, but bread. Daily bread. Food you work for. Perishable food. Food that eventually kills you. Working uncooperative ground. Fighting weeds, heat, bugs, and drought. Planting and reaping. Grinding grain. Kneading dough. Baking bread. Work, work, work. Sales quotas, production schedules, budget constraints, government regulations, unreliable suppliers, cranky customers, mean bosses, lazy workers, and endless piles of paperwork. Ecclesiastes calls it “futility,” endless chasing after the wind.
God has rigged it that way. He’s made work a sweaty, frustrating business to teach us work is not the way to life. It’s simply work. We cannot work our way to heaven; we can only work our way to the grave. The food we work for perishes. It spoils. It rots. It gets moldy and smelly. If you don’t believe that, just come back by the trash compactor at Walmart after the disposed fruits, vegetables, and dairy products have been fermenting a couple of day in 100 degree heat. That’s why we have refrigerators and freezers. We’re just trying to slow the decay.
This was true even of the manna in the wilderness. If you tried to store it for the next day (except for the Sabbath), it rotted and was full of worms. Our food, like our world, is dying and decaying, and all our work to “save it” can only delay the decay a bit. It’s the death of Adam worked out in the cosmos. As St. Paul says, “The whole creation has been subjected to futility and decay.”
And so we shouldn’t be surprised. All that doom and gloom stuff in the headlines—pollution, global warming, melting polar ice caps—it’s all part of the grand death that is the wages of sin. And there’s no turning the clock back, no undoing the Fall or its effects. We can only manage the death, much like a hospice that doesn’t try to cure the patient, but offers palliative care. Our food is dead and we die along with it. And even though the manna was wonder bread from God Himself, the people who ate it still died. A whole generation. The bread Moses gave couldn’t save them from death, no matter how miraculous it was.
“Do not labor for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you,” Jesus says. He offers a food that requires no preservatives, no refrigeration. It endures to eternal life. And guess what? It preserves the eater to eternal life, too. Talk about “health food”! This has vitamin supplements and nutrition shakes beaten hands down! This is better than any age-defying antioxidant or flavonoid out there! We spend oodles and oodles of money on “health food” and nutritional supplements,” and here is free food from the hand of God that preserves body and soul to eternity!
And yet the world—including you and I here this morning—pays more attention to belly food than eternal food, to daily bread than the Bread of Life. We lavish more devotion on our daily bread than our daily devotions. We spend more time reading nutrition labels than we do our Bibles. We’re more concerned about Sunday brunch than we are about the Supper of the Lord. Our taste buds are not naturally inclined to eternity. Our palates are not naturally pleased by Paradise.
Look at the Israelites. They were fed by God’s hand in the wilderness. And what did they want? The menu of Egypt—leeks, garlic, cucumbers, melons, meat, and wine. All the good stuff in exchange for what? Freedom! That was the food of their slavery. Our fallen appetites are not geared for liberty, and we’d be willing to sacrifice most anything for a loaf of bread if we were hungry enough.
The food that endures to eternity is not a food you work for, but a food that’s given you free, gratis, from the Son of Man, Jesus alone, and there is no other.
A long answer to a short question, to be sure. And, as often happens, Jesus doesn’t really answer the question that was asked, but rather addresses in great detail the question that should have been asked. How did He get here? It doesn’t really matter. What is important is the gifts He brings to the table.
But the crowds are still thinking about works. “What must we do to be doing the works of God? After all, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. You don’t get something for nothing—and you certainty can’t get something that will never perish or spoil for nothing. So tell us Jesus. Give us a list. Give the process and procedures to perform. You’ve whetted our appetites—now give us the recipe. What must we do, to do the works of God?”
You have to admire Jesus’ patience. He has already told them that the Son of Man would give them food that never spoils. What part of give do they not understand? But fallen man will always possess in his heart the false teaching that he needs to work for salvation. This is the teaching of every non-Christian religion and belief system. And man believes this because man has the Law written upon his heart. Everyone knows by nature the Ten Commandments—even if we do not have our Catechism memorized. It is our fallback position.
Free gifts are not the normal course in this fallen world. It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there. You have to work for whatever you get. So the Law leads our hearts to question: “What must we be doing to do the works of God?”
So Jesus explains further: “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent.”
“Aha!” says our sinful heart. “There is something that we must do. There is something that we must add to Christ’s work—we must believe it. We must have faith. We must accept Jesus as our personal Savior and invite Him into our hearts.
But alas, dear sinner, Jesus is once again one step ahead. For the command He gave was believe; but He corrected something that the people had said. Did you catch it? The people wanted to know what works they should be doing; but Jesus corrected it to a singular—work. And He did not call it the work of believers; He calls it the work of God.
Dear friends, do you realize the full weight of this? Your Lord has just told you that your faith is the work of God. It is not a personal quality that God expects of you; rather, it is an instrument that God gives you that you might receive His grace for the sake of His Son. St. Paul fleshes this out in Ephesians 2: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God—not because of works, lest any man should boast” (vv. 8-9).
Any works you and I do are built on the work of God in Christ. It’s not our good life that saves us, but Jesus’ perfect life, His sacrificial death, His victory over the grave, all given to us freely as a gift and received through trust God works in us. “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent.”
The questions get more direct. “Then what sign do you do, that we may see and believe you, Jesus? Moses had bread from heaven, what do you have for us?”
And though they still miss His point, Jesus has brought them right where He wants them. And us, too. At the place where He gives Himself. You see, the bread He gives is Himself. “I AM the Bread of Life,” Jesus says. “Whoever comes to Me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in Me shall never thirst.”
When God the Father, by the faith creating work of the Holy Spirit, gives you His Son Jesus, He gives you everything you need for this life and for all eternity—physical food and spiritual food. Daily bread and the Bread of Life.
You have temporal needs—needs that come and go—and so God gives you the ability and opportunity to earn a living. This is how He most often provides you with your daily bread: food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, home, money, and other goods. But sometimes He gathers other Christians around you to provide for those bodily needs in time of emergency or crisis. He’ll send someone to lend a listening ear when you are experiencing one of the trials of life in this fallen world. Or He’ll use their arms to hold you when you mourn the death of a loved one.
But Jesus knows that you have even greater needs. You’ve hurt your spouse, children, or parents. You’ve been angry or unforgiving toward others. You’ve been greedy for yourself and have neglected the needs of others. You’ve lusted or coveted for that which God has not given you. You’ve grumbled against the Lord—sinning against Him by accusing Him of being responsible for all that is wrong in your life, or questioning if He really cares what happens to you.
With these sins comes guilt, shame—and as God says in His Word—everlasting punishment and death. Your greatest need is to have these sins and all your sins removed. And so you come asking God: “What must I do? What’s the recipe, Jesus? Go to church? Pay my tithe? Have my children baptized? Take them to Sunday School? Live by the Golden Rule? What else must I do, Jesus? Just tell me, so that I can get all these sins wiped off of my permanent record.”
“This is the work of God,” Jesus says, “that you believe in Him whom He has sent. I AM the Bread of Life. By My death on the cross in your place all the work has been done. Whoever believes this and is baptized shall be saved for eternal life: You are forgiven for all your sins.” In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.