Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 5th, Year of Our + Lord 2012
Trinity and St. John Lutheran Churches, Sidney and Fairview, Montana
"This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent." No works, just believe in Jesus. That’s hard to believe.
It’s not hard to believe in general, that is, it’s not hard to have a system of beliefs. Most people believe in some religion, others in the idea of a purely material, naturalistic world with no God. Everyone believes in something, some over-arching narrative or idea through with we process and understand the world and our experience, our emotions, desires, and ways of thinking. There are no blank slates, everyone is trusting in some God, even if they call it an idea, or a theory. Atheists often display a very strong and often emotional attachment to their belief that there is no Higher Being, no God. Everyone believes in something.
You, I suspect, are not an atheist, given that you have crawled out of your comfy bed early on a day when you could have slept in, or worked in the garden. Instead, you have risen early, showered, dressed and come here, to hear the Word recorded in the Bible, and listen to me explain it, and even to eat and drink the simplest of meals, which we confess is the true Body and Blood of Jesus, made so by the power of that same Word which you have come to hear. You confess, along with countless others, that Jesus of Nazareth is Lord, the Son of God, distinct and yet completely and eternally one with God the Father and the Spirit, the Son of God who became a man in order to be the Savior, in order to make it possible for you to please God.
This is all true, and it is worth celebrating when a person confesses these things. But this is not yet saving faith. To believe and confess that Jesus of Nazareth is both true God and true Man, who came down from heaven to open the way of salvation for sinners, is right and true and wonderful. But this is not yet the full teaching of Christ, not yet the faith that saves.
There is a saying that the devil is in the details, but I say the Savior is in the details. I suppose if we get the details wrong, then the devil is in them, for it is quite possible for us to believe a lot of right and proper things about God and Christ, and yet fundamentally be trusting in the wrong things, to be fooled by Satan and walking the road that leads to destruction. As Matthew reports, the Lord Jesus Himself says, "Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of My Father. It is possible to believe and confess some true things about Jesus, but miss the details that make all the difference. So the devil may be found in the details, if we have them wrong. But by God’s grace, today we will find the Savior in the details, details which Jesus takes us into this morning.
The crowds that are coming to Him are excited, for Jesus is full of signs and wonders and blessings, miraculous meals and healings and authoritative teaching. They believe, at minimum, that Jesus is a man of God, and want to learn more about God’s way from Him.
Jesus warns them not to seek Him in order to fill their stomachs. In other words, don’t think you have all you need from God when He answers your prayer for daily bread. Daily bread is great. Having a nice house and clothes, food in the fridge and some money in the bank are blessings from God. But eternity is forever. Daily bread and all the stuff of this life only last for a short time, but eternity is forever. So Jesus warns everyone to labor for the food that does not perish, the food that sustains you for eternal life, the food that the Son of Man, Jesus, will give to you.
Jesus is setting them up. “Don’t labor for food that perishes,” He says, “but for the food that endures for eternal life, which I will give to you.” That’s an odd sentence, labor for food that I will give to you. Is it a gift, or is it wages earned for labor completed? Well, apparently the people assumed Jesus meant wages for labor, because then they ask: "What must we do, to be doing the works of God?" Now Jesus has them set up, right where He wants them.
They ask a good question. After all, Jesus says we must do the will of His Father to enter the kingdom of heaven, that we should labor only for the food that never perishes. “So,” the crowd asks, “What, exactly, are we to do, Jesus? Give us a list, please” The God of Israel had certainly given them plenty of laws, dos and don’ts, along with the punishments earned by failures. These Jews, like so many people, were caught in between. On one side, they had the clear way of the Law: do these things, avoid these things, and you will please me, says the Lord. On the other, they had their failures, their inability and unwillingness to keep God’s Law. Salvation by keeping God’s Law seems reasonable, until you actually learn the Law and try to keep it. Because, while the degree of failure varies, you always fail to fully keep the Law, and God’s requirement is full obedience.
So, these Jews already knew the works God requires: Love the LORD your God with all your heart, soul and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. Straightforward, clear, but entirely un-kept, a law never kept by these Jews, nor by anyone else since Adam. These Jews seeking Jesus know they cannot make it by the Law of Moses. They are hoping Jesus, who seems to be from God, will offer another way. Jesus uses this caught in between-ness to draw them in, so that He can turn their faith upside down. "This is the work of God,” Jesus replies, “that you believe in him whom he has sent."
Huh? Simply believe? Like their ancestors in the wilderness, the first time they saw the Manna, their daily bread on the ground, these Jews don’t know what to think. Jesus’ definition of the work of God is not what they expected. They were hoping for a doable law, a Moses-lite kind of law, that perhaps they could manage to keep. “Try hard, do more good than bad,” that’s the kind of Law we really want, that’s what so many people think is true. But God isn’t interested in watering down His Law. Jesus instead came to fulfill the entire Law of God for us, removing it’s burden from over our heads, and putting faith in its place. “The Father doesn’t want you to do anything,” says Jesus, “just believe in him whom he has sent.”
No works at all? Just believe in Jesus, even though God’s Law demands so much? That’s hard to understand. God doesn’t require us to do any works for salvation?
No, none at all. And this is the detail that makes all the difference. For we hold with Paul that we are made righteous by faith, apart from works, lest any man should boast. We rejoice with Isaiah that the Lord has done all our works, for us.
Sadly, many misguided teachers in the Church have tried to work out this paradox by turning faith into a work. They imagine that God with His Gospel presents to you the person and work of Jesus, and then they say the “work” of faith is for you to decide whether you’re going to believe it or not. Make a decision, choose Jesus, give Him your heart, that’s the work of faith, say some.
But faith is no work, for to try to make yourself believe something is self-deception, not faith. Even more, the reply of the crowds to Jesus shows that they understand faith not to be a work, but simply to trust someone else, to believe in what someone else has done. Jesus tells them only believe, and they ask Jesus why they should believe in Him. What sign would Jesus do, in order that they might believe in Him? Faith is caused by the work of the One in whom faith trusts. So, what will you do, Jesus? Show us something to believe in.
They are very near to salvation. And Jesus could have pointed them directly to the Cross and Empty Tomb. As He does another time with the Pharisees, He could have told them the only sign they would receive would be the sign of Jonah, that the Son of Man would be three days in the earth, and then rise again. Or, He could have said “Tear down this Temple,” meaning the temple of His body, “and in three days I will raise it again.”
But on this day Jesus is thinking of them, and of us. Jesus is thinking of His flock of sinners, of our need for an ongoing sign. Jesus is thinking of feeding His lambs, and so this time Jesus starts taking them to toward the fruit of the Cross, His Supper. Jesus connects faith with eating, taking the crowds towards the Holy Communion He would soon institute for His Church.
Come and feast on me, says Jesus, for I am the True Bread from Heaven. Just as He offered the water of life to the woman at the well in John 4, here in John 6 Jesus offers the Bread of Life, mixing metaphors freely as He teaches. “The bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world." The people say, "Sir, give us this bread always." Jesus replies, "I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. Eat Jesus. Believe in Him, and you will never hunger, never thirst.
Again, this is hard to believe. Which is kind of the point of this whole passage. Salvation is as simple as faith in Christ. For those who trust in Christ alone as Savior, God the Father requires no works for entering His kingdom. Saving faith is that simple. But it’s not easy. Faith is full of hard things, for at the heart and center of faith is the death of Jesus. Faith in Christ has saving value because the center of Jesus’ work for the life of the world is His self- sacrifice. The strength of faith is not in how strongly we believe, but rather the strength of faith is the Strong One, who submitted to suffering, the Pure One who submitted to humiliation, the Life of the world, who submitted to death. The center of Christ’s work, in which we believe, is the terrifying prospect of God the Father punishing Jesus for our sins, so that we can be forgiven.
That’s hard to believe. God loved the world in this way, giving His only begotten Son into the suffering of the Cross, so that whoever believes in Him might never perish, but live eternally. This is a frightening and beautiful mystery, when we consider what it says about God, so focused on His requirement that justice be served, and yet even more focused on loving a world full of sinners. The result is that God meets His requirements within Himself, between the Father and the Son, despite the pain it caused them both.
The Cross is a frightening, beautiful mystery, when we consider what it says about God. It is a painful indictment, when you consider what it says about you. What it says about me. About all of us. For the Cross only makes sense if our sins are so bad in God’s eyes that there is nothing we can do to even begin to win God’s favor. You and I do not fully understand how truly sinful we are. But God does. If there were any other way that anyone could be saved, surely God would have chosen it. But there isn’t. The entire work of salvation is, and indeed must be, carried out by God, for no work that we sinners could ever do can earn even a small fraction of our salvation.
This is a bitter pill to swallow. Bitter, but true. And, when God forces it down your throat, this pill of the truth about your utter sinfulness prepares you for the medicine of immortality. The work of the Cross reveals, indeed it is, the very love of God, who would not have the sinner die, but rather that he turn from His sin and live. And so Jesus has died, to turn you from your sin, and give you life, through His victorious resurrection. And Jesus is still working, coming to you here, through His Word, in His meal, creating faith, driving out your unbelief, feeding you for eternal life.
Jesus isn’t done with this crowd. In fact His discussion of God’s way of salvation is just beginning to be difficult. Next week, Lord willing, we will hear more of the mystery of faith and salvation through eating and drinking, as Vicar Toombs expounds God’s Word to us. But enough for this day. Rest in Christ. Faith is hard, but God is up to the task. He has removed your burden of sin, and He is here today, doing His Work, forgiving, comforting, feeding your faith. Believe it. Receive it. If you have publicly confessed the faith of this altar, come then and eat and drink, for salvation. And in all these things, rejoice, for Christ is in these things, Christ, who pleases His Father perfectly, and shares the Father’s pleasure with you, both today, and forever and ever, Amen.