Strange Bread

Text: John 6:22-35
Date: Pentecost IX (Proper 13) + 8/2/09
Lutheran Church of the Incarnate Word, Rochester Hills, MI

In the middle of the long, green season of Sundays after Pentecost, in the second year of the three-year lectionary (Series B), Saint Mark’s short Gospel takes a little, three-week summer vacation and Saint John makes a visit with readings from the sixth chapter of his Gospel, Jesus’ “Bread of Life” discourse. Especially because John does not include the institution of the Lord’s Supper in his Gospel, and because of the words of Jesus here, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood” (v.53), the question is often asked whether this is John’s way of addressing the Sacrament of the Altar. Is John 6 about the sacrament or not? We believe, on the basis of the text, that it is not. Rather, the chapter is about faith. Nevertheless, it is obviously impossible for a Christian to read John 6 without thinking of the Sacrament of Christ’s body and blood.

When our Lord Jesus Christ says, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent,” He is saying that faith itself is the very working and creation of God through the means of grace. This fundamental doctrine of the Bible is true for every human being of every place and time. This doctrine is wonderfully captured in the hymn, “I Know My Faith Is Founded,” as it confesses the sure confidence that God would have us possess because we know that faith is not dependant upon our feelings or figuring out, but solely upon God’s own work in us:

I know my faith is founded
On Jesus Christ, my God and Lord;
And this my faith confessing,
Unmoved I stand on His sure Word.
Our reason cannot fathom
The truth of God profound;
Who trusts in human wisdom
Relies on shifting ground.
God’s Word is all-sufficient,
It makes divinely sure;
And trusting in its wisdom,
My faith shall rest secure. [LSB 587]

The thousands of people who saw the signs of Jesus’ healing of their sick and then feeding them all in the wilderness from only five loaves of bread and a couple of fish, began to think in religious terms about Jesus, but their faith was misdirected and was not at all secure. It is the same today when people bring their own religious thoughts or theories not based on God’s Word but only their own opinions or presumptions. The people wanted more proof, but only because they really only wanted more bread. Jesus spoke about His true mission as “the true bread,” but to them it remained a strange bread, indeed.

Jesus even warned them in so many words, saying, “you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” Yet still they went on to demonstrate their lack of spiritual understanding.

When he said to them, “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,” they heard the word “labor” or “work.” And so they put into words the universal problem of all mankind asking, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?”

It seems a natural question, “what must I do to be saved? to be a Christian?” But it is a misguided question from the start. The Second Article of our Lutheran Formula of Concord of 1577 goes to some lengths to describe the proper, Biblical teaching concerning human so-called free will. It is such a fundamental problem and the answer is so thoroughly answered that I’d like to quote the Formula today at some length. The question is put this way, namely, “what the intellect and will of the unregenerate man is able to do in his conversion and regeneration from his own powers remaining after the Fall (into sin); whether he is able, when the Word of God is preached, and the grace of God is offered us, to prepare himself for grace,” that is to accept it or assent to it.

We hear with a little chagrin the words of these people who were just fed miraculously by Jesus when they now ask, “What sign do you do, that we may see and believe you? What work do you perform?” For, what more of a “sign” did they want than he had just done? They tell us when they go on to day, “Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” They wanted a continuous supply of bread; food to stuff their mouths. They remembered Moses and how he provided miraculous “bread from heaven” every day. Jesus, on the other hand, fed them just yesterday with regular bread from the earth. But now, what about today? What about tomorrow? “C’mon, Jesus. DO IT AGAIN!!!”

Jesus corrects them and tries to lift their eyes of understanding by saying, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven.” “The true bread” is something more than regular bread, actually, someone more, as He says, “For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” He is talking about Himself. They, on the other hand, continue to talk about baked loaves, saying, “Sir, give us this bread always.” They still didn’t get it. Again, as the hymn said, “Our reason cannot fathom The truth of God profound; Who trusts in human wisdom Relies on shifting ground.”

The problem, as we say in the Formula of Concord, is that there are those who hold and teach that, although man cannot from his own powers fulfill God’s command, or even truly trust in God, fear and love him, without the grace of the Holy Spirit, nevertheless (they say) he still has enough of natural powers left before regeneration as to be able to prepare himself to a certain extent for grace, and to assent to it, although feebly. This has always been the true danger and problem of revivalism of all stripes.

On the other hand, “The pure teachers of the Augsburg Confession have taught and contended that by the fall of our first parents man was so corrupted that in divine things pertaining to our conversion and the salvation of our souls he is by nature blind, that, when the Word of God is preached, he neither does nor can understand it, but regards it as foolishness; also, that he does not of himself draw nigh to God, but is and remains an enemy of God, until he is converted, becomes a believer, is regenerated and renewed, by the power of the Holy Spirit through the Word when preached and heard, out of pure grace, without any cooperation of his own” [Triglotta, 881:3-5].

Further, the Formula of Concord illustrates this truth brilliantly and convincingly when it says, “now, just as a man who is physically dead cannot of his own powers prepare or adapt himself to obtain temporal life again, so the man who is spiritually dead in sins cannot of his own strength adapt or apply himself to the acquisition of spiritual and heavenly righteousness and life, unless he is delivered and quickened  by the Son of God from the death of sin” [Triglotta, 885:11].

So how, indeed, does this happen? “The Holy Scriptures ascribe conversion, faith in Christ, regeneration, renewal, and all that belongs to their efficacious beginning and completion, not to the human powers of the natural free will, neither entirely, nor half, nor in any, even the least or most inconsiderable part, but entirely, solely, to the divine working and the Holy Spirit” [Triglotta, 891:25]. “This is the work of God,” in the Divine Service, namely, that “through his holy Word, when men hear it preached or read it, and the holy Sacraments when they are used according to his Word, God desires to call men to eternal salvation, draw them to himself, and convert, regenerate, and sanctify them…. Now, all who wish to be saved ought to hear this preaching, for the preaching and hearing of God’s Word are instruments of the Holy Spirit, by, with, and through which he desires to work efficaciously, and to convert men to God, and to work in them both to will and to do” [Triglotta, 901:50-52].

Jesus said in the teeth of their blindness and unbelief, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” So it is if and only when you find yourself saying, “Yes, I believe,” then know what a true miracle that is—evidence that the Holy Spirit has called you by the Gospel, enlightened you with his gifts, sanctified your heart as his dwelling and is keeping you in the one, true faith. You may not feel any different than before, but only then are you also ready to do what the Apostle Paul urges in his letter to the Ephesians, “to put off your old self…to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph. 4:22-23)—all of that, that is, by means of “the work of God,” God working through the means of His own mighty Word and Sacraments.

The work of God is to believe in the One He has sent, the true bread of heaven, the Bread of Life, Jesus Christ, the Lord. Do not doubt and do not look for another. Trust in Him and be filled with hope—today and everyday and forever.