Where Have You Been?
A meditation on John 6: 25 – 35
Rev. Cathy C. Hoop Grace Presbyterian Church August 5, 2018
I wonder which mystery brings you here today. Though we say we come to church to bring God our gift of worship, we know our motivation is not as pure or as simple as that. We come for so many personal reasons. We come for connection, for fellowship, for reassurance. We come because we are scheduled to be an usher or because we love to sing in the choir. Some of us come because we need someone to see us this week, to hear us today. We come for our children, or for our parents, or for our spouse. We come because the pain is too heavy to bear alone or because the joy is too much to hold inside. We come here for a tangled ball of reasons, but somewhere in that tangle, we each also come with a desire to unravel a mystery about our faith and the life we have been given to live. We don’t come with the sole purpose of bringing God our worship; we also come in hopes of receiving some reminder of God’s grace.
What is the mystery that propels you here? Do the Bible’s own contradictions trouble you? Are you hoping to sort that out? Is it the fear of death? (That’s one of my threads – and ministers aren’t supposed to be afraid of death!) Maybe the concept of salvation makes you squirm and yet you also wait for that phrase, “you are forgiven!” to be spoken each week. Maybe you just hope you’ll hear something that will assuage all your doubt. Maybe prayer is a mystery to you. Or maybe you hope to find help in uncovering your purpose. So many mysteries bring us to this sanctuary.
The crowd in the story, perplexed by a mystery, went on a scavenger like search for Jesus. They had had a taste, a glimpse of God’s goodness, and that taste left them longing for more. Jesus had fed them with an unlimited supply of bread and fish. Their stomachs had been filled to busting. They had known what it means to be “full,” and it is possible that was the first time they had ever known that feeling. Maybe they had never needed to loosen their belts before that day. Having experienced that fullness of body, they were now more deeply aware of their hunger, their longing. So they set out to find Jesus.
As it turns out, Jesus isn’t very good at hiding. Jesus likes to be found.
They put their clues together. They know the disciples left in a boat the day before, and that Jesus did not depart with them. They also know there was only one boat, so Jesus hadn’t sailed off on his own to rejoin them. They don’t know what we have the privilege of knowing: that Jesus doesn’t really need a boat to get where he wants to go. Maybe the crowd split up, some taking the shore line to look for clues, while others flagged down a passing boat to ask about Jesus’ whereabouts. Eventually, they ended up on the opposite shoreline and their scavenger hunt was over.
If you were here last Sunday, you will remember that the reason Jesus slipped away after the feeding miracle, away from both the crowds and the disciples was that he needed some time alone. He needed time alone, and he knew the crowd needed some time away from him. They had become caught up in what was something like a feeding frenzy. The abundance of the food, the sheer volume of leftovers, had dazed them. Jesus left them because they wanted to make him their king, and as we explored last Sunday, Jesus’ definition of king is a far cry from theirs. Jesus left them so that they might have time to digest the bread and the fish as well as the man and his mission.
Daylight does not always bring clarity; such is this case for this crowd. For this crowd, daybreak has not inspired them with new questions. They are still in pursuit of the miracle worker. When they do find Jesus, they ask him a funny question: When did you get here? The answer to that might have led them to the more interesting question of “How did you get here?” But no one is talking about that. Jesus didn’t walk across the water to show off his power, to put the “fear of God” in his disciples, or to put anyone in their place. Walking across the water was a practical solution to the problem of having no boat! Besides, if you could, why wouldn’t you take a moonlight stroll across the waves?
But no one is talking about that…and Jesus, in his wonderful, frustrating, hair-pulling, rabbinic way, completely ignores their question. “When did you get here, Jesus?” the crowd’s spokesperson asks. This query is…unimportant. So incredibly trivial. It doesn’t matter when he crossed the water, or how he crossed the water. So instead of answering, Jesus goes to the heart of the matter: “Let’s be honest. You didn’t follow me because you witnessed a miracle. You followed me because your stomachs are full of bread. Free bread, free fish. A truly free lunch. You aren’t really looking for me as much as you are looking for an endless supply of free food.”
Food is a legitimate need, and I don’t believe Jesus is attempting to shame them, though you may disagree. In their day to day existence, an abundance of food was absolutely amazing to their eyes, and Jesus didn’t even have to break a sweat to produce it. But he will break more than a sweat so that they, and we, might understand the depths of God’s love for all people, all creation. He continues, speaking a new mystery to them: “don’t work for food that will spoil, but for the food that endures for eternal life.” That is a hard teaching to offer to a hungry people. They must work to earn their daily bread; they must labor to feed their families. Though they would like for Jesus to provide their daily bread, they don’t expect him to offer them a daily feast. No, they must labor to put food on the table.
“Work for the food that lasts…” What does that even mean and how do you do it? A challenging statement now, as it was then. It’s not about seeing how good you can be, or how righteous. It’s not about how much you can give to the church or other wonderful benevolent organizations, whether your time and abilities or your money. It is at this point that someone in the crowd asks a really good question, the kind of question that makes a teacher smile.
“How do we do God’s work?”
Friends, Jesus’ next words are ones to which we should cling. Cross-stitch them and frame them and hang them on the kitchen wall next to the coffee pot. Tattoo them on your arm. Print them on a tee shirt. Frame these words and place them beside your bed so that you read them before you fall asleep and when you awake. And pay attention here because Jesus actually answers a question! He doesn’t respond with another question and he doesn’t skip over this answer to move on to the next. He answers the question!
“How do we do God’s work?” someone asks. Jesus answers: “Your work is to believe in me, the one whom God sent to be with you.” Our work is to practice believing. That doesn’t mean putting on blinders and pretending that it isn’t a hard thing to do. It doesn’t mean simple answers, or putting on your “Sunday best” and pretending everything is okay. Believing is hard, hard work because Jesus’ invitation is an invitation to absolute humility, sacrifice and compassion. This work of Jesus is about continually allowing Jesus in to our most vulnerable spaces, about acknowledging that we don’t have all the answers, and about being willing to say, “I believe; Lord, help my unbelief.” (Mark 9: 15) The words recorded in Mark’s gospel, spoken to Jesus by a father who longed for his son’s healing.
With Jesus’ words still resting in their ears, while they are still chewing on this idea that believing is their work, someone raises their hand and says: “We could believe if you give us a little more proof?” “Could you give us a sign? Our ancestors had manna every day when they were in the wilderness! You could do that!” Can’t you imagine the heads nodding? What a great idea! Proof: it’s what we all want. When I was in the Holy Land last month, I was mesmerized by the archeological sites: Magdala, Capernaum, Sepphoris, Masada. I sat in the cave of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem where they say Mary cradled her newborn son. I went to the baptismal park on the Jordan River where Jesus most likely wasn’t baptized by John. I visited both of the traditional sites remembered as the crucifixion and burial locations for Jesus. If you want proof, you won’t find it in the stones of the Holy Land. Instead of proof, what you will find there is deep, abiding, enduring hope. Hope. Hope is what takes belief by the hand, and says, “let me walk with you a while.”
Belief has nothing to do with proof. Jesus won’t give them manna as God had provided for the Israelites as they wandered. Jesus’ community are wanderers, too, as are we, as is each age. But Jesus knows that the people to whom he is speaking need to go back to work: to their fishing nets, and fields, to their vineyards and olive presses. They need to go back to their daily existence, and live out their faith in all of these places. Behind a plow, upon the sea, seated at the spinning wheel. They need to know that even as they work to provide bread for themselves and for one another, God will feed them with spiritual food, food that lasts.
Manna from God kept the Israelites alive in body as they journeyed for forty years; but it did not prevent them from losing their faith. It didn’t guard them against despair, or doubt or conflict. There is no magic solution to believing. No miracle that will erase our fears. No manna in the wilderness, no seaside picnic, no impossible cure. Something will always come along and threaten to undermine a belief built on an event. Dare I say it, even the resurrection. Especially the resurrection?
“When did you get here, Jesus?” And if he had answered, he might have said, “I was always here. From the beginning. From the garden, to the wilderness, to the Sea of Galilee. I was always here. I didn’t hide from you. I waited for you to come and find me. I waited for you to dare to believe with me that there is a world worth saving. I was always here; waiting for you to take hope’s hand and dare to believe.
Thanks be to our waiting God, who casts out fear, so that we may dare to believe. Amen.