Ask a Stupid Question... Get a Perfect Answer 2.0

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“Then they said to Him, ‘What must we do, to be doing the works of God?’ Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent’” (John 6:28-29).  
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord 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?
Some people ask questions just to gain attention. Others 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—at least questions that have less merit than others. 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? Certainly no one was better at this than Jesus, as He demonstrates in our text.
Over the past few weeks our Gospel has us sailing back and forth across the Sea of Galilee with Jesus and His disciples. 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. The crowds love it. They want to make Him king. 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. The Savior’s stroll across the stormy sea scares His disciples senseless. They think He is a ghost. But once they hear His voice, they are more than willing to take Jesus on board with them.
When Jesus and the disciples land on shore, the crowd is a bit puzzled. The boat had left without Jesus; now it lands with Jesus. So it’s not surprising that their first question is already a little off the mark. “Rabbi, when did You come here?” they ask. 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 it provided answers. How Jesus 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 pertinent issue: faith. Where is their trust? Why are they following Him? What do they want from Him? “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking Me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves” (John 6:26).
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. Jesus is not chastising them for being hungry and seeking food. Hunger is often part of living in a fallen world. Jesus Himself experienced hunger—far more even than those people, most of whom had to scrape and scrap every day for bread. 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” (John 6:27).
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 personally 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 literally grew on trees. Fruits hanging low, waiting to share life-sustaining nourishment. And there was the tree of life, from which one could eat and live forever. In the beginning, it was all gifts and no work. But disobedience and death changed the ecology, economy, and nutritional regimen. No longer fruits, but 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. A cycle that is barely ended and must be immediately repeated day after day until the day you die.
It’s part of the curse. God has made work a sweaty, frustrating business to teach us work is not the way to life. It’s simply eking out a living. 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 days in 90 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, it rotted and was full of worms. Our food supply, like our world, is dying and decaying, and all our work to “save it” can only delay the decay a bit. It’s all part of the grand death that is the wages of sin. And there’s 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 provide a little comfort in the last days.
Our food is dead and we die along with it. Even though the manna was heavenly bread provided by God Himself, the people who ate it still died. The bread Moses gave couldn’t save them from death, no matter how miraculous it was. Nor could the Law Moses gave save them. That’s our lot as sinners—death and decay. That’s what St. Paul means when he says, “The wages of sin is death.”
“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. Here is free food from the hand of God that preserves body and soul to eternity!
And yet the world—including you and me—pays more attention to food for our bellies than eternal food. 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 palates are not naturally pleased by the portions of Paradise.
Look at the Israelites. God fed them in the wilderness. And what did they want? Leeks, garlic, cucumbers, melons, meat, and wine. All the good stuff in exchange for what? Freedom! You see, those delicacies were the food of their slavery back in Egypt. 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. But the food that endures to eternity is not a food you work for. It’s given you without charge from the Son of Man, the eternal Bread of Life Himself.
Now, that’s a long answer to a short question, to be sure. And, as often happens, Jesus doesn’t really answer the question that was first 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 us the process and procedures to perform. You’ve whetted our appetites—now give us the recipe. What must we do to be doing 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. Free gifts are not the normal course in this fallen world. You have to work for what you get. So the Law leads our hearts to question: “What must we do to be doing the works of God?”
Jesus says: “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 of us. For the command He gives is believe; but He corrects something that the people had said. Did you catch it? The people want to know what works they should be doing; but Jesus corrected it to a singular—work. And He does 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.
The crowd still doesn’t get it, so they ask more questions: “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 been hurt or mistreated by others; you’ve hurt others. You’ve been sinned against; you’ve been angry or unforgiving toward others. You’ve been greedy for yourself and have neglected the needs of others. You’ve lusted for or coveted that which God has not given you. You’ve grumbled against the Lord—accusing Him of being responsible for all that’s wrong in your life or questioning if He really cares about 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 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 removed. What must I do to be doing the works of God?”
It’s the wrong question, but Jesus gives the perfect answer anyway: “This is the work of God,” Jesus says, “that you believe in Him whom He has sent. I lived the perfect, obedient life that you have not, would not, could not live. I loved the Lord, My God, with all My heart and with all My soul and with all My mind. On the cross, I credited all of that to you. I purchased and won you, not with gold or silver, but with My holy, precious blood and My innocent suffering and death. I rose from the dead on the third day so that you, your loved ones, and all others who die in the Lord, might be raised from death to everlasting life.
“Now, I sit at God’s right hand interceding for you, ruling all things for the good of My kingdom, even as I come to you in My means of grace. In Baptism, I’ve joined you to My death and resurrections. In My Supper, I feed you the Bread of Life, My very body and blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins and to strengthen your faith. All the work of God has been done. You are forgiven for all your sins.”

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

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