The Fourth Sunday in Lent| Rev. Rolf Preus| March 18, 2007
“And Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst.’” John 6:35
The Gospel Lesson for today records a wonderful miracle in which Jesus fed five thousand people with five barley loaves and two small fish. After they had eaten their fill, Jesus’ disciples gathered together the left over food and filled twelve baskets with the fragments of bread that had not been eaten. The miracle is wonderful for several reasons. First of all, it demonstrates that Jesus is God. He creates what was not there. He literally multiplies the food before the eyes of thousands of people. Secondly, the miracle shows us the providential care of God. Jesus provided for their physical needs. God cares for all people. Thirdly, this miracle gave Jesus the opportunity to preach one of the most powerful sermons ever preached. Now when I say powerful, I don’t mean that it converted many people. In fact, it drove some of his disciples away. Near the end of this chapter, St. John records, “From that time many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more.” (John 6:66) It was powerful because of its powerful claims. Those claims are summarized best in the words of Jesus recorded in our text: “I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst.”
During their forty years of wandering through the Sinai Peninsula, God fed the children of Israel with Manna that rained down from heaven. Every day they would gather together only what they needed for that day. Anything extra would turn rancid. They learned to depend on God’s providence. We confess God’s providential care for us in the Catechism where we say that God:
richly and daily provides me with all that I need to support this body and life; that He defends me against all danger, and guards and protects me from all evil; and all this purely out of fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me.
This is fundamental to the Christian faith. God takes care of us. There is no need we have that He does not provide. More than that, He provides us with what we need even when we don’t know what we need. God is directing research through scientists in order to prepare treatment for a disease that we haven’t even contracted because He wants to cure us when we do. Consider all of the technological advances we have witnessed in the past century that have bettered life for people all over the world. God has given all of this to us as gifts of His fatherly mercy. The God who fed His people with Manna for forty years is a God who provides us with everything we need. God feeds us and clothes us and provides us with homes.
God’s providence is a simple enough truth, but the manner in which He provides can become very complicated. One means through which God feeds us and clothes us and protects us from harm is through good government. We love to complain about the government we have in America and, of course, we are blessed with the constitutionally protected right to do so. Imagine what life must be like for people living under regimes like those of North Korea. The government is supposed to protect you from criminals but frequently criminals are the ones running the government. This was the case under the Nazis and the Communists. From this kind of criminal tyranny, all sorts of terrible things happen. When there is no rule of law people cannot be safe in their own persons and property. The entire economy of the nation declines. Poverty and hunger increase. Decent schooling, medical care, and other necessities of life become harder to find. Thank God for the blessings He has showered upon our country!
But these great blessings have not won America over to God. In fact, the very opposite is the case. As America has prospered, she has become complacent. As she becomes more sated with material abundance, she has become less and less aware of her spiritual need. Jesus is facing today in our country much the same situation He faced among His own countrymen nearly twenty centuries ago. They were fond of miraculous signs and of course they’d take a free meal, but to admit their spiritual poverty and their need for Jesus was something they were unwilling to do. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.” (Matthew 5:6) There’s a simple reason why folks don’t believe in Jesus. They’re not hungry for what Jesus has to give.
That’s not to say that folks aren’t hungry for religion in their lives. They are. The sheer number of religious groups or denominations in America has multiplied during the past couple of generations from a few hundred to many thousands. The religions of the East have invaded our country at an alarming rate. Various strands of Hinduism and Buddhism have found fertile soil to grow in American soil. After all, we prize religious freedom. Even Islam – a religion that has been militantly hostile to the West for centuries – is growing in America. But Americans aren’t hungry for what’s most important.
The religions that have been growing during the past few decades are those religions that teach us that the answer to life’s most pressing problems is to be found inside of us. There is really little difference between the secular humanist who denies that there is any god at all and the devotee of the so-called New Age Movement that teaches us to find the god within ourselves. We Christians must be aware of how non-Christian religions have invaded the religious culture of our country. Unchristian teaching has found its way into churches where people have not been on their guard against it. The radical social changes of the past generation left many churches with huge losses in membership, and many churches have naively embraced ideas antithetical to the Christian faith without even knowing they have done so.
It is in view of the widespread religious complacency and ignorance in our country that our Lord’s words take on a real urgency for us today. Jesus says, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst.”
Jesus likens faith to eating and drinking. This tells us four things about faith. First, there must be something to eat before you can eat it. God must have something to say that faith believes. He must give out His promises. Without the gospel there is no faith. Faith has to eat and to drink something. Unless we have God’s promises we cannot have faith. We have nothing to eat.
Secondly, you can eat good food or bad food. If the food you eat is bad enough, you can poison your whole body and perhaps die. It matters very much what you eat. Similarly, if you trust in false promises you poison your soul. The religious climate in which we live is hostile to the Christian claim to know the truth. But we Christians didn’t come up with the truth on our own. We learned it from Jesus. Jesus claims to teach us the truth that makes us free. He claims to take our sin away by bearing it upon Himself. He claims to give His flesh and blood for the sins of the whole world. Jesus claims to be the Bread of Life because if you eat in His words they will bring you life. If, on the other hand, you trust in false promises you poison your soul and you die.
Thirdly, when you eat something it becomes a part of you. You are what you eat. That is true biologically. That is also true spiritually. We eat the word of God by believing it and then what we believe becomes what we are. Christ is the bread of life. We eat and drink Christ by faith and we become Christians. Faith receives Christ. Luther explains the benefits of the Lord’s Supper by comparing it to a wolf eating a lamb and by that eating becoming a lamb. The sinner receives Christ and becomes a Christian. The Christ he has received by faith is the Christ who gave Himself for the sin of the world. He is the Christ who is life itself. We take Christ in, and we have eternal life inside of us. We can feel our sin and see our death and live with doubts and sickness and every kind of loss. It may appear that we have no future but death. But within us is the bread of life. Jesus remains with those who eat and drink His promises. He lives within them.
Finally, eating and drinking does not make the food. It only takes it in. It contributes nothing. It is purely receptive. Faith doesn’t do anything to take away our sins. Jesus has given Himself up for us whether we believe it or not. Faith can only receive what it is given: forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. The mouth doesn’t prepare the food or make the water pure. The mouth can only take it in and be satisfied.
There are so many challenges to our Christian faith and we don’t have time to list them all. There is the widespread rejection of biblical authority, even on the part of church leaders. There is the prevailing attitude that we don’t need to go to church to be fed because the spiritual strength we need lies within us, waiting to be tapped. There is the idea that sin is not really sin anymore, or if it is sin it doesn’t call for punishment or judgment so we don’t actually need a Savior. Then there is our own proud and lazy flesh who doesn’t care to learn anything from God because he thinks he knows everything already. In the face of these threats to faith there is Jesus who calls Himself the bread of life and invites us to eat and to drink. He tells us that the food we eat is His own flesh and blood. He offered up that flesh and blood on the cross once and for all to take away sins. Now, whenever we hear his gospel and believe it, He Himself comes into us and feeds us spiritually with His flesh and blood. He forgives us. He sets us free from the traps we create by our sins.
In addition to this spiritual eating and drinking, Jesus has given us His holy Supper in which He gives us to eat and to drink His body and His blood with our own mouths. As Christ’s body and blood are put into our bodies, the Holy Spirit takes up residence in our souls and binds our hearts to Jesus, who is our life.
There was plenty of bread left over after Jesus fed the five thousand. Jesus never runs out of the food our souls need. In fact, the pantry is always full. In today’s Epistle we read, “But the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all.” We Lutherans may not be accustomed to calling the church our mother, but she surely is. She has all the spiritual treasures that our heavenly Father gives us in Christ. As we come to our mother she is always ready to feed us with the wholesome and life-giving gospel and sacraments she has received from Jesus. From our baptism that joins us to the church we are clothed with the righteousness of Jesus. We are always welcome in our mother’s home, even when we’ve wandered far away and done those things of which we are ashamed. In Christ’s church we Christians will always find our home, where we may eat and drink and be fully and eternally satisfied. Amen.