Fathers Know Best
The title is not from the 1954-60 sitcom “Father Knows Best”. Fathers is plural. It’s not true that earthly fathers always know best or that even Church Fathers do. However, something is to be said for how the first Christians understood our text 16 centuries before we even read it.
Can you believe that on the basis of this text Augustine, over 1,600 years ago, was warning against pandering to those who were seeking the wrong things? Augustine quotes Jesus saying to the crowd who followed Him, "Most assuredly, I say to you, you seek Me, not because you saw the signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled.” Then Augustine says, “How many seek Jesus for no other object but that He may bestow on them a temporal benefit! One has a business on hand, he seeks the intercession of the clergy; another is oppressed by one more powerful than himself, he flies to the church….One in this way, one in that, the church is daily filled with such people” (Tractates on John, 25:10).
What once was the Church Growth Movement, became Evangelical, then Non-denominational, and now the Emergent Church, is based on what Jesus and Augustine rejected. They’re based on what Paul quoting the OT Church said could never be. “’There is no one who seeks God.’” They develop Seeker Services to appeal to those who can’t be seeking God. O they can be seeking their felt needs. Augustine says in our text Jesus is in effect saying, “’You seek Me to satisfy the flesh, not the Spirit.’…you seek Me for something else.’” Jesus then directs them to “’seek Me for My own sake’” (Ibid.). Jesus Himself is the food we are to seek. Don’t seek after your felt needs, but for food that doesn’t spoil. Did you see that subtle switch of Jesus? He says the crowd sought Him not because they saw what the miraculous sign was pointing to but because they “ate the loaves.” Then He switches from bread specifically to ‘food’ in general. Food that doesn’t spoil but endures to eternal life. How does anyone make the leap from seeking after everything but God to seeking God and His eternal things?
Let’s turn to the Church Father Chrysostom for help. In a sermon on John, he deals with the wider problem of those who misunderstand Jesus words from the Sermon on the Mount, “Take no thought for tomorrow” to mean don’t get a job, don’t go to work, God will provide. As if the birds of air Jesus points to in the same passage get their daily bread by remaining on their perch and just opening their mouth. No, they fly to where God gives food and water. So, here, Chrysostom goes on, when Jesus says, “Do not work for food that spoils”, He is not saying do no work at all. No, He’s saying, “’not to be nailed to the things of this life’” (ACC, NT, IVa, 222).
That’s the problem from last week: so fixated on today we lose sight of eternity. We obsessively focus on how we feel – physically, mentally, emotionally. Happiness and healthiness are our guiding lights. As long as we can ‘don’t worry, be happy’, it’s all good. As old people have told me since day one in the ministry: as long as you have your health you have everything. Really? That’s what Jesus suffered, cried, bled and died for? So I could have a “you’re as healthy as horse” bill of health from a doctor? God took on flesh and blood to live under the Law that I could not, would not, so I could, “Put on a happy face; Brush off the clouds and cheer up, Put on a happy face”? Chrysostom writing 16 centuries ago said with this text Jesus makes our guiding lights of happiness and healthiness in this life “superfluous.”
That’s easy for him to say. Is it? Paul said it before him, and Paul knew what it was to want and to have much. He know how to abound and to be abased. Here Paul’s description of his office in this world: “God has displayed us, the apostles, in the lowliest position, like men sentenced to death,. …At the present we still hunger and thirst and lack proper clothing. We are treated roughly, and we have no settled place to live in. We toil, working with our own hands. When we are verbally abused, we bless. When persecuted, we endure. When slandered, we speak kind words. We have been treated like the world’s garbage, like everyone’s trash, right up to the present time” (1 Cor. 4:9-13). But don’t think this only describes those in the Office of the Ministry. Listen to Heb. 11: “Still others experienced mocking and lashes, in addition to chains and imprisonment. ...The world was not worthy of them as they wandered in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the ground” (:36-38). Who on earth would ever seek this?
“No one not even one,” Romans 3 teaches. So are we doomed always to do what Jesus says not to? To work for the food that perishes till we’re like the bank robbers I told the VCS kids about. The last scene in the movie is them having escaped the posse by going into the arid wilderness. There they are huddled around a campfire, horses dead, no water, no food and throwing into the fire handfuls of money that they can’t eat or drink, to keep the fire going. Or how about Johnny Cash singing a year before his death that “you could have it all my empire of dirt.” If we’re nailed to the ground were making like fire ants. Feverishly burrowing into the dirt mounding it up only to see it washed away with the next rain. And we do this in the face of Jesus’ promise, “I am the Bread of Life. He who comes to Me will never go hungry, and he who believes in Me will never be thirsty.” I believe all this talk of dirt has left me parched.
Let’s go back to Augustine. As many times as I have read, preached, taught our text, what Augustine saw here never dawned on me. Jesus says, “Stop working for food that spoils, but work for food that endures to eternal life.” The crowd responds, “What must we do to do the works of God?” Jesus answers, “The work of God is this: to believe in the One He has sent.” For 40 years I took this to only be saying that by believing we do the work of God, i.e. there is nothing to do but believe. Listen to the voice of Augustine across more than a millennium and a half: Jesus “did not say, ‘This is your work,’ but ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent…’” (Tractates on John 25:12.1-2). Do you hear the difference? Jesus isn’t telling us that the work of God we are to do is to believe on Him. If you think that’s the case, you immediately look inside of yourself to see if you have this thing called ‘believing’ going on in you. And you might, but not for long, or only for as long as believing makes sense, feels good, or is humanly possible.
But remember we’re looking at doing the impossible of ceasing to labor for the things that perish in favor of food that endures to eternal life, to pull our feet off the ground where our felt needs have them nailed in order to soar with angels, archangels and all the company of heaven. Both things are impossible for us, but with God all things are possible says Jesus. It’s God’s work to create faith in us. Eph. 2:8-9 that most of you probably have memorized teaches us that. “Indeed, it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” Do see here that it’s God’s grace that is the mechanism of your salvation: You’re saved by grace. Faith is the means through which God’s grace gets to you: You have been saved “through faith” not by faith. And this faith is not from you; O it goes on inside of you but you don’t start it or finish it. It’s God’s gift from start to finish. Heb. 12:2 says Jesus is the “author and finisher of our faith.”
We have no more resources to bring ourselves to faith, than the crowds of thousands had resources to feed themselves. At the end of the day, Jesus fed them all. But Jesus says this in a particularly graphic way. “You are looking for Me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill.” John had used the ordinary word for fill in verse 12. Here the word used originally applied to feeding cattle so as to fatten them. In early Greek and in special cases in later Greek, like here, it was used as a derogatory term (Nicoll 1, 751; Morris, 358). Perhaps our “ate like pigs” is too harsh; maybe more like “had your faces stuffed.” Jesus is trying to turn them from the food that filled bellies to Him, the Bread of Life. He doesn’t want them or us to be satisfied with just the former. So, He blatantly points them and us to Himself: The food that does not perish, is given by Him, and is in fact Him. On Him God has set His seal of approval. Bread loaves in ancient time were commonly stamped with the seal of the one who made it (Nicoll 1, 752).
Jesus is trying to switch them from earthly bread to the Bread of heaven, but do you see how stubbornly they refuse? Do you see this is us? Jesus has already told them He has given the miraculous sign of feeding thousands with nothing, but they insist on another sign citing Moses giving them manna. Jesus says it wasn’t Moses but His Father who gives the true bread of God that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. This is Jesus and He is here for you. The food of the world fills you for a time not forever. The drink of the world takes away thirst for awhile but not for good. The saviors the world has to offer will meet your felt needs, but not your true needs: Only the Man who is God has lived your life and died your death. Only the Man who is God can deliver you from the death you fear and the damnation you know you deserve. Only the Man who is God can provide the eternal things of God in forms that temporal men can use.
Church Fathers don’t always know best, but they certainly saw better. C.S. Lewis makes this observation: Where the fathers peered into the eternal and saw gleams of gold and solid warm reality, “we see only the mist, white, featureless, cold and never moving” (Miracles, 265). You’ll hear this in our closing hymn. And this from a father less than 300 years before us. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost (20210808); John 6:24-35