Recently Amy and I met with the individual who is helping us do some financial planning. It is our goal to see that college is paid for so that our children will not come out with any student debt. That is, of course, quite a challenge with four children. Thankfully, our oldest son has been a tremendous help in this because his involvement in the National Guard and future career plans with the Army have great benefits in paying for education. Of course, he has certainly been earning it as he spent two of the previous summers at Ft. Benning, Georgia in basic training and AIT, and then most recently was deployed in the Persian Gulf region for almost a year. Finding your way at night to a portable toilet in the middle of a sandstorm does not sound like my idea of a good time.
And of course, further down the road, Amy and I do want to retire. I hope that does not come as a shock. I love serving as pastor at Good Shepherd, but I am not going to do it forever. There will come a day when I will want to stop doing this and retire. The Lord will place another man to serve in his Office of the Ministry here at Good Shepherd, and Amy and I will actually be free to go away for a whole weekend whenever we want.
It has been interesting to think about how much money we will need a year to live in retirement. Life down the road is going to be far less expensive on many fronts. The first thing that came to mind is that with the house paid off, there will no house payment. The very next thing Amy commented on was, “Can you imagine what our food budget will be like when it is just the two of us?” Buying food for four children gets expensive. The return of one large appetite after nine months away has definitely increased the food budget at the Surburg house, and reminded us of this fact.
The cost of buying food is a central concern in our Gospel lesson for today. Our Lord raises the question of how he and the disciples are going to feed a crowd of more than five thousand people. The obvious answer is that it’s not possible – it would be just too expensive. Yet then Jesus works a miracle by feeding them with five loaves of bread and two fish. He works a miracle – a sign. But the true understanding of the sign can only be received by faith in Jesus who came to give us what matters most.
Our Gospel lesson begins by saying, “After this Jesus went away to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, which is the Sea of Tiberias. And a large crowd was following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing on the sick.” We learn that a great crowd was following Jesus because they saw the miracles of healing that he was doing.
John describes these miracles as “signs,” which is very important for the proper understanding of what this action by Jesus means. After telling about how Jesus turned water in wine at the wedding in Cana John says, “This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him.” Jesus miracles are signs that reveal his glory and call forth faith in Christ. But as we will see, this faith can only be faith in the Christ that Jesus has come to be.
John then adds, “Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand.” This is important background for two reasons. First, it helps to explain the size of the crowd. There would have been many pilgrims making their way to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. And second, it provides information about their attitude and mindset. The Passover celebrated how Yahweh had freed Israel from slavery in Egypt. With the exception of about one hundred years after the Maccabean revolt, since 587 B.C. Israel had constantly been a conquered and ruled by foreigners: the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks and Seleucids. Now the Romans were the conquering power. The Passover always called to mind the hope that God would again free his people from foreign rule and oppression.
Jesus saw the large crowd coming toward him and said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” John tells us that Jesus said this to test him, for he himself knew what he would do. Philip looked at the situation and gave the assessment that worked in the way of the world. He said, “Two hundred denarii would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” A denarius was a day’s wage. This was a very large amount of money, and yet even this would not really be sufficient.
Andrew, Simon Peter's brother reported, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish,” but then he immediately added the obvious point, “but what are they for so many?” Yet Jesus had the people sit down. We learn that there were about five thousand men, so if we add in the women and children with them, the crowd must have been far larger than that. Jesus then took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated. He did the same with the fish. Everyone ate as much as they wanted, and when it was all over their were twelve baskets full of left over bread.
Jesus had worked an incredible miracle. In fact, this is the only miracle that is reported by all four Gospels. It was certainly a sign, and we learn that when the people had seen it they said, “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!” First century Judaism had a number of different expectations about an end time prophet. What united all of them was that this individual was certainly going to be involved in freeing God’s people and bringing God’s judgment against their enemies. In the setting of the Passover expectation, what happened next is not surprising. John tells us, “Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.”
The next day people from the crowd tracked down Jesus across the Sea of Galilee in Capernaum. They asked, “Rabbi, when did you come here?" But Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” Jesus told them that their interest was no longer in the signs. Their attention was no longer focused on the miracles that were means of revelation about Jesus – something that called people to faith. Instead, they were thinking with their stomach. Jesus had given them an easy meal, and they wanted more of that.
Now before we look down on the people who came to Jesus, we need to be very honest about what we really want from him. And many times, we aren’t all that different. Our focus – what we want – is for things to go well. We want to be healthy and happy. We don’t want any physical issues that limit or hamper life. We want school or our job to go well. We want our plans for the future to work out – we want to advance and have success. We want to be comfortable with all those material blessings that we consider to be essential.
And we want Jesus to give these things to us. That’s what we really want. And we think that is what he should be doing. Now this orientation itself is wrong – it is sinful and breaks the First Commandment. And then if things don’t go this way, we face the temptation to be frustrated with God, or to doubt God, or to be angry at God.
Jesus said the people had coming looking for him because they wanted more bread. Then he went on to say, “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. For on him God the Father has set his seal.” Our Lord told them that what really matters is the food that endures to eternal life. This is the food that he the Son of Man would give to them, because he had been sent by the Father.
Our Lord told them that the work of God is to believe in him, the One God had sent. To this they responded, “Then what sign do you do, that we may see and believe you? What work do you perform? Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Since Jesus had just fed more than five thousand people with five loaves of bread and two fish, their demand for a sign bears witness to their unbelief.
Jesus told them that “my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” When the people asked for this bread Jesus replied, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.”
Our Lord teaches us to recognize what really matters. What matters is life with God – eternal life. What matters is the sin that stands in the way of this. Later, Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
Jesus came to give us life with God – real life - life that will last. The Son of God became flesh in order to give his life amd win life for you. He came to die as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world – who takes away your sin. All of the signs in the Gospel of John point towards the cross where God’s love for us is revealed. During Holy Week Jesus said, “Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” Then John adds, “He said this to show – literally, “to sign” - by what kind of death he was going to die.”
But Jesus did not come to bring death. He came to bring life. Our Lord said during his ministry, “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.”
On Easter Jesus rose from the dead, as he began the resurrection life that will be ours. Because Jesus died and rose from the dead, we already have eternal life now and we will share in his resurrection on the Last Day. Jesus said to Martha at the tomb of Lazarus, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live,
and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.”
God does provide us with daily bread, and many blessings that go far beyond that. But he never promised to make everything healthy and happy. Instead, he has promised us life, and the peace that is found in that assurance. On the night he was betrayed Jesus told his disciples, “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”
In our Gospel lesson we see Jesus work a great sign – a miracle as he feeds more than five thousand people with five loaves of bread and two fish. This sign points us to Jesus’ cross and resurrection, by which he has won for us forgiveness and life. Because of our crucified and risen Lord we have life with God – life that will have no end as we share in Christ’s resurrection. This is what we really need. This is what Jesus has given to us.