Exodus 16:1-16, John 6:1-15
March 14, 2010
Again, we’re talking about “the Historical Jesus.” That’s our task this Lenten season. Were trying to think a little more about what Jesus was really like, in comparison to what we may have made him into over all these years. As we do, I find myself drawn more and more to the gospel of John. As I’ve mentioned before, John is the writer who “fleshes out” these stories more than the others. He’s the one who gives us more of the conversations and dialogue. And he tends to bring out more of the emotions. And that helps me with the picture of the historical Jesus!
We’re looking today at John’s sixth chapter. And I have to tell you, this is a turning point in Jesus’ ministry as John described it! This is the point at which Jesus started to become too controversial to some people. And that’s one of the things we have to understand as we look at the historical Jesus. One of my wife’s friends has an expression she uses to describe her feelings about certain people. She says of some people that she is “simultaneously attracted and repelled!” (It cracks me up to think of what she would be feeling if she knew she was being quoted in a sermon!) That was happening here. They were flocking to see this miracle worker. But they were starting to think he was stepping “over the line.”
We should really have read this whole chapter. I believe John wants us to see it as a whole. But of course it is one of the longest chapters in the new Testament with 71 verses, so the “20 verse rule of thumb” would have been severely shattered! But do read it when you have the chance. In fact, be deliberate. Set aside time to read it. (That’s a better way of looking at it, isn’t it?)
The chapter starts off with the story we read this morning, the feeding of the 5,000. That’s the beautiful part of this chapter. We usually read it in an uplifting way, thinking about the sharing and multiplication of gifts, and of God’s abundance. And those are wonderful things! But I want you to see how that story was the just beginning of the other things that happened in this chapter.
So picture that scene. Mental pictures are very important to us. But they’re also probably inadequate. I’m sure mine is! But just think of the wonder of that event. And as you do so, think of the words of the people that John recorded for us at the end of that account. They said, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.” Now it’s a little unclear what they meant by that. Remember, in their tradition the “prophet” was the one who would come to make way for the Messiah. But were they referring to him or to the messiah himself?
I also chose to read to you Jesus’ response in verse 15. There it says, “Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew…” Think about that! Imagine them taking him by force and making him king. And wanting him to be king was clearly about the Messiah. That’s why it’s a little unclear when they call him “the prophet…” But regardless of how they saw him, I want you to see how important this whole thing became to those people. This was more than just a miracle! It sparked this whole conversation that I’d like you to read later. But let me tell you about it.
Jesus is now talking to “the people,” as John describes it. He was talking with those who had gathered to see him and hear him speak after this miracle. And notice, this is not so much a debate with the religious leadership! At least not at first. They chime in later, and in John’s gospel they tend to be referred to as “the Jews.” But even then that’s not clear, because John calls those who were upset with Jesus “the Jews.” But at that point, what they were upset about would have upset any Jews!
At first, though, his conversation was with “the people,” who he also refers to as “the disciples.” Now remember that there were many disciples, but only 12 chosen who were later called “Apostles.” I know sometimes that gets a bit confusing. It’s like one of those things they used to tell us in geometry. “A square is a rectangle, but a rectangle isn’t necessarily a square.” So I like to say, “An Apostle is a Disciple, but a Disciple isn’t necessarily an Apostle.” (And you’re saying, “Yeah, like that helps!!”) What I want you to see here is that this is a discussion with the large crowd of his followers – not the 12. And I also want you to see that this is a tough discussion. Here in this chapter, Jesus says some of his most controversial things.
In verse 25, the people start to question him about who he is. “Where do you come from?” they ask. In other words, “Who are you? And how can you do these things?” And Jesus takes that question on. He asks them, “What do you believe? and “Will you believe what I tell you? Or are you just following me because you got a free meal in a miraculous way?” And then it becomes harder for them. He begins to tell them more, referring to himself with this Old Testament term “the Son of Man.” And they don’t know what to think! They say, “Give us a sign so we can know what you’re saying is true.” And that’s amazing to me, because they were there because he had already given them a sign!
It was as though they were saying, “we aren’t fully convinced, Jesus. You’re asking us to believe a lot here! How can we know for sure?” And don’t we sometimes think the same thing? “I wish I could know – absolutely. I wish there were no room for doubt. Sometimes believing in God is hard, especially when we know there is no complete and perfect proof for his existence. Everyone who has tried make one has come to a point where there is an “element of faith.” There’s no way around that! And so we lament, “God, if only you would prove yourself beyond all doubt! If only you weren’t so nebulous! If you would just give us a sign!”
Jesus then begins to turn this conversation into what we have know it to be about all along! (Remember, we’re the readers! We know the whole story!) Jesus begins to use this miracle of the loaves and fishes as an illustration. He begins to say, “I am the bread of life.” And that’s the point where he starts stepping over the line! And make no mistake here! One of the reasons this is such a hard chapter is that Jesus is treading on very holy ground! He’s making references to himself, using the Israelites’ experience of the Manna in the wilderness. And that was huge! That would be like someone coming in here and saying they were Jesus Christ. How would we take that?
So in verse 41 it says “The Jews then murmured at him.” This is probably where John includes the Jewish leadership. But as I said, it could well have referred to the other people, because what the religious leaders were upset about, any Jews would have been upset about! And of course, if those leaders who the people revered were upset, many would have followed their cue. Jesus was using some of their most sacred stories, and saying they pointed to him.
Well, it gets more intense. Jesus then refers directly to the Manna story – in case they didn’t get his side reference. And at the end of that paragraph, Jesus says, “And the bread I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.” Remember also that this was before the sacrament of communion was established. We understand this statement with that connection. But imagine how shocking these words would have been to those people! So they question him, and he becomes even more specific. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” And then even more directly he says, “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.”
Again, try to take yourself out of our context and put yourself in theirs. How would you have reacted? Probably not very well. In verse 60 it says, “When they heard this, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard saying, who can listen to it?” Wouldn’t we have been right there with them? Then a little later it says, “After this many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him.” I hope you’re getting the impact of this chapter. We’re fine with the Jesus as we know him now. But I wonder, what we would have done had we been there that day.
Now, look at the disciples – the twelve, this time. Yes, there are times in the Gospels that they just don’t get it! There are times they even appear to be the “comic relief.” But here, I think they get it the best. After the many drew back and left, Jesus addressed them directly. “What about you?” he said. “Will you leave also?” And it was Peter who answered him. And you gotta love Peter! “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
Notice here. It doesn’t say they were convinced. It doesn’t say they had no doubts. In fact, Peter was saying, “Lord, we don’t get it. We don’t know everything you’re trying to tell us. But we do know you!”
That is our task, my friends. Sometimes we’re like the crowds here. We’re not going to believe until we can be fully convinced. And in their case, it was very hard. And if we really think about it, if we really get down to the historical Jesus, it’s not all that easy for us, either! It’s much easier just to make him into something that’s easier to believe, or easier to understand fully!
Please know, I’m not wanting us to look at the “historical Jesus” and be discouraged. On the contrary, I believe we should take seriously this little foray into the past. And we should realize that Jesus, like God, is bigger than we can imagine, and we should never settle for our limited imagery! Yes, we should seek to “know about” him. But even more we should seek simply to “know” him. Because it is in the “knowing,” not the “knowing about,” that we find the peace and joy and abundance of life he offers. That is our task!
Eternal God, you are beyond us. Your power is beyond even our imagining. And your Grace is amazing! Help us to seek to know you better in this time of Lent. Help us to see beyond our limited mental images and our preconceived notions. Help us to grow in our fellowship with you. These things we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.