Jesus said: “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.”John 6:27
Have you ever heard the expression, “There is no such thing as a free lunch?” It’s an expression that has been around for a long time. One tradition that it refers to goes back to saloons in the “old west.” They would offer a free lunch to everyone who purchased at least one drink. But it would be a very salty lunch, of course, which required a lot of beer to wash it down with. Eventually people enjoying those free lunches realized that perhaps they were not quite as “free” as they thought.
When something is offered to us for free, we have been taught (wisely) to ask: What’s the catch? But I think that there is still a part of us that wants to believe that maybe, just maybe, there really is such a thing as a free lunch.
The crowd in today’s gospel reading (John 6:24-35) thinks that they have found that free lunch, in Jesus. They are looking for him, as Jesus himself points out, because they ate their fill of the loaves. Jesus has just fed this crowd, as we heard last week, in a miraculous way. (With Jesus, There Is Always Enough: My Sermon on John 6:1-21)
Jesus fed five thousand with just five loaves of bread and two fish. And they want more of that. More of those free lunches. But, here’s the thing: Jesus wants to offer them – and us – much more than simply a free lunch. Jesus is not offering a meal with a catch. He’s not even offering a meal. He is inviting us to see the world in a completely different way. Jesus is offering food for our souls. The very Bread of Heaven. And it is free. Really and truly free. But, if there is a catch, this is it: It can only be found in Jesus.
So, let’s take a look at today’s gospel reading, and see what we can learn about what Jesus wants to give us all. Which is so much better than simply a free lunch.
The (Only) Food that Endures
The first thing that Jesus tells the crowd is that they should not work for the food that perishes, but for “the food that endures for eternal life.” So what is this perishable food, and what is the food that endures for eternal life?
The perishable food is more than just food, of course. Perishable food is the bigger house, the better-paying job, or the more exciting vacation. It is all the stuff that we work for, the stuff that the world wants us to believe will finally fill the hunger and the longing that we have. But it never does seem to satisfy, because we never have enough of it.
Not long after my wife and I got married, we purchased a nice 3-bedroom house in the suburbs of Chicago. I was working in Chicago at the time. And it was a great house in a wonderful community. It had a two-car garage, a nice sunroom, and a great fenced-in backyard. We loved it. But not too long after we moved in, we were going for a walk in the neighborhood, and we noticed that less than a mile down the road, there were newer, bigger houses. They had 3-car garages, not two. They were fancier, nicer homes. And so, we started to talk about the day when we would be able to move up to one of those homes. Why? We didn’t need a 3-car garage, or a bigger, nicer house. But that’s the trap that we can all fall into. Our world leads us to believe that bigger is better, that more is better, that if we are not satisfied with what we have, we just need more.
But the truth is that when we fall into the trap of putting our hope in perishable food, there is never enough. And when we spend our lives trying to get this perishable food, we spend our lives unfulfilled, with the nagging feeling that there is more to life than what we have found. My wife and I just had to remind each other of this truth, because we all need reminders, don’t we? (Oh, and by the way, our next home ended up being a very small, 2-bedroom apartment at a seminary in South Carolina. But that’s a story for another day.)
Food for Our Souls
So, why doesn’t this perishable food ultimately satisfy us? Because it does not feed our souls. Some years back, I heard an interview with a Japanese woman, who was explaining why they eat rice at almost every meal. She explained it by saying that it is like they have two stomachs. In one goes all the meat and vegetables and everything like that; but in the other goes the rice. And no matter how much they have to eat, if they don’t have rice, that other stomach is still empty.
(By the way, I used to try that same analogy when I was a kid. I would tell my parents that I had two stomachs, but the second one was for dessert. No matter how much or how little healthy food I ate, I still had room for dessert. Needless to say, they weren’t convinced.)
But this is very much like what Jesus is saying to us today. It is like we all have two stomachs, and in one goes all the perishable food. All the material possessions, all the physical pleasures of life, all the security and happiness and the well-being that this life can offer. But no matter how much we fill that stomach, we will still feel hungry, until we feed the other stomach, our souls. Which hunger only for the food that endures for eternal life. And that food is found only through Jesus.
As it has been wisely said, there is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every person, and it can never be filled by any created thing. It can only be filled by God, made known through Jesus Christ. (You can learn more about this quote in this post):
So, do not work for the food that perishes, Jesus tells us, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.
The Work of God
Okay. The crowd hears Jesus tell them this, and responds with an obvious question: What work do we need to do to earn this food that endures for eternal life? Whatever we have to do, it will certainly be worth it, right? What must we do to perform the works of God, they ask? Since there is no such thing as a free lunch, and since Jesus is offering food that endures for eternal life, they want to know what they must do to get it.
What must we do? But Jesus already told them the simple, radical truth: That this “eternal life food” is given to them by the Son of Man, by Jesus himself. It really is free. We can’t buy it. We can’t earn it. We can only receive it. That is the radical nature of grace, the gift of the gospel. There really is such a thing as a free lunch, when Jesus is offering it. (Of course, this lunch is not free for Jesus. It will cost him his life. But he gave it willingly, to give us the food that endures for eternal life.)
So, it is free, but it also has something of a catch. And the catch is that we only get it by accepting it. It is a gift. It is grace. And faith opens this gift. What good is a free lunch that is thrown away? What Jesus offers us is free. But faith is how we receive it. Jesus emphasizes this by answering their question in this way: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”
That is what they must do, and what we must do: Believe. The work of God is to believe. And this might not seem like work at all, but turns out to be the work of a lifetime. To believe and trust in God more and more. Until we have the full “the assurance of things hoped for,” the full “conviction of things not seen,” as Scripture puts it. And none of us are there, but we are all on the way.
We come to church for worship because we believe, but we still struggle at times. We all do. It’s hard to believe in something that we cannot see. And in a world where we are taught to doubt everything we hear and read without firm evidence, it’s even more difficult. But we’re not alone.
What Sign Are You Going to Give Us?
Go back to this gospel reading, and we see that the crowd is also skeptical. “What sign are you going to give to us,” they ask Jesus, “so that we may see it and believe you?” Of course, in their case, the ironic thing is that Jesus has just miraculously fed them all. And he has been busy healing all their sick. Even with these signs, they still want more. Which shows us how difficult it is to believe.
Help us, the crowd asks Jesus, to believe this thing that we cannot see, by showing us a sign that we can see. After all, they said, “Our ancestors ate manna in the wilderness.” Which is true. They were given manna in the wilderness. Although, to be fair, it was not to prove that God existed. It was actually to help them to believe and trust in God. God wanted to teach them to trust that they would be given daily bread, that God would provide for them, so each day they were sent perishable manna.
Manna lasts for one day. This is not what Jesus came to give to them, or to us. Jesus came to give us something far greater than daily manna. He came to give us something far greater than what Moses offered them. Jesus came to give us something that only the Son of God can possibly give us. The bread which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. The bread which alone can feed our hungry souls. The bread which does not perish, but endures forever.
I Am the Bread of Life
And what is this bread that Jesus wants to give them and us? The answer is found in the last verse of this gospel reading, the key verse in this entire chapter. Because it turns out that this bread is not something that Jesus gives. It is who Jesus is.
Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.John 6:35
Jesus himself is the bread of life, the bread of heaven. And whoever comes to him will never be hungry again, and whoever believes in him will never be thirsty again. There is no other bread that satisfies. Nothing else that fills the God-sized vacuum within us. Nothing else which can feed our hungry souls.
Everything else is perishable. It is Jesus alone that endures. It is Jesus, and Jesus alone. It is the work of a lifetime to come to believe this more and more. But there is no other work that is more important. Believing that Jesus is the bread of life is the very work of God, and feeds us like nothing else can.
We are blessed at our church today to be reminded of this truth. And then to come forward and receive this sacrament of holy communion – the body and blood of Jesus himself – which also keeps us connected to this truth. It is our free lunch, you might say, reminding us each and every time we receive it that there is no other meal on this earth which can feed our soul. Jesus alone is our bread of life. Whoever believes this will never hunger or thirst again. Thanks be to God. Amen