For this Sunday’s bulletin, click here: 1st Sunday of End Times 2011

The Festival of the Reformation has a special place in my heart. It’s simultaneously a day to celebrate our Lutheran heritage (because we should be proud of it, and not ashamed or embarrassed), and a day to emphasize that to be Lutheran is really to be Christian — the best kind of Christian, one that doesn’t add or subtract to God’s holy Word and that accepts the best of the past, purified of all errors and dross. Too few today understand what Lutheranism really is, and what it should be. The world needs what a genuine, vibrant Lutheranism that’s lived out every day has to offer.

Witness this sermon text: Christ as the Bread of life, the One who feeds our faith and gives us eternal life. This text cuts to the heart of what it means to be a Christian in so many ways, and it does so with that memorable way of speaking that Christ employs, that of the Bread of life. St. John’s Gospel offers so much rich food for the soul in terms of things to meditate on and ponder — you could start at the beginning and never make an end of everything to chew on. I highly recommend just taking a few minutes and pondering how Jesus is the Bread of life for you.

When I took the time to ponder this text, it really grabbed me. We hunger after so many other things, but He is the only thing we really need. Only He can satisfy the hunger of our souls, which is far worse than hunger of the body. Sometimes we speak of bread or carbohydrates as “comfort food”; Jesus is just that for our souls: the ultimate comfort food. By the forgiveness of our sins and the giving of peace that no one else can give, He satisfies us uniquely and eternally.

A blessed Festival of the Reformation to you all. May Jesus, the Bread of life, nourish you and comfort you as nothing else can. Amen.

Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?”  29 Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”  30 So they asked him, “What miraculous sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? 31 Our forefathers ate the manna in the desert; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” 32 Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”  34 “Sir,” they said, “from now on give us this bread.”  35 Then Jesus declared, “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.” (john 6.28-35 niv84)

Sometimes you can tell it’s going to be one of those days. Someone – maybe your boss, maybe your spouse, maybe somebody else – comes up to you with a task for you to do. They say, “Hey, can you do a favor for me?” You say, “Sure,” and then instead of telling you what they want you to do, they launch into a long explanation of a bunch of background knowledge that you a) don’t need or b) already know – and then they just keep talking, and talking. You feel like you’re standing there for ten minutes or more. You look at the other person and think, “When will you be done? I need to go work now. Just tell me what you need, give me what I need to do my job, and let me do it.” Sometimes we’re just impatient, or sometimes we genuinely are busy – but it can be hard to get a straight answer on what you’re supposed to be doing.

The Jews that Jesus is talking to in our text must have felt like that, because that’s how they sound. Right before this Jesus had fed the five thousand in the hills above the Sea of Galilee. It took them a little while for them to realize what Jesus had done. In the meantime Jesus had slipped away and hidden Himself from them. Now they’ve found Him. Jesus calls them out for their motives in looking for Him. He says, “You are looking for Me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill.” He points out that all they really care about is their stomachs. As long as they get to eat, they’re happy. Then He tells them, “Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. On Him God the Father has placed His seal of approval.”

Then they ask the question that begins our text: “What must we do to do the works God requires?”They just want a list of things they should do. Here’s what pleases God. Do x, y, and z and you’ll be fine. They were accustomed to that from their teachers, who debated endlessly about which works pleased God the most, which works outranked the others, and on and on. Think about the questions Jesus was often asked: “Which commandment is the greatest? What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Ever since Mt. Sinai, the Jews were used to asking, “Okay, what do I need to do? What does the Lord require of me? What does He want?”

The Jews aren’t the only ones asking questions like that. Each and every person has to deal with this question: What must we do to do the works God requires? Even if they don’t put it in these terms, all people still have to grapple with it and come to terms with it. This question drives everybody’s words and actions, even if they don’t realize it or even if they wouldn’t call themselves Christian. Different people frame this question in different words or put different terms on it, but sooner or later everybody has to answer this question for themselves. Every age phrases this question their own way and they give their own answers. For the Jews, it was follow God’s law, try hard, and if you can, be like the Pharisees – or at least follow the Law of Moses the best you could. In the Middle Ages, and even still in Martin Luther’s day, the answer was go to Mass, go to confession, follow the manmade rules of the church, give your money to buy indulgences and help spring your relatives from purgatory, and if you really got into a jam, call on Mother Mary or your favorite saint for help, because Jesus was too high and holy for someone like you to approach. In our age, a lot of people answer this question with, “God? He doesn’t exist, He’s a myth.” Or, “Do whatever feels right to you, because God wants you to be happy and He would never tell you no. He won’t ask any more of you than you feel comfortable giving.”

How do we answer this question as Lutheran Christians? It’s an important one. What must we here today do to do the works God requires? By God’s grace, and taught by the God who justifies the wicked, we answer this question as Martin Luther did in his day, and as all of God’s people throughout history have answered it: “The work of God is this: to believe in the One He has sent.”

The work God requires isn’t a work at all – it’s faith! Simply believe that Jesus is everything for you, that He has done it all, suffered everything in your place and He gives it all to you free of charge. Don’t do. Don’t work. Just believe.  The work God asks each of us for isn’t work at all. It’s to believe – to surrender every shot you have at pleasing God on your own, to give up the threadbare rags of your own righteousness in exchange for the perfect white robe of Jesus’ righteousness, which you didn’t do anything for and you don’t really deserve, but you need it anyway to get into heaven. To believe means to admit that you’re not the good person you look like on the outside, you’re a sinner and you always will be, but you lean yourself on Jesus’ mercy and hide yourself wholly in His holy wounds, trusting that they were put there in His hands, His feet, His side, for you. To believe in the One He has sent means to let go of any right to draw near to a holy God on your own, to give up any right to call Him your Father on your own terms, because your sins took that from you a long time ago and you’re never going to get it back unless Jesus gives it to you. To believe is to forget everything you think, everything you feel, everything you know that’s not God’s Word and free-fall into Jesus’ arms, trusting that He will catch you in His nail-scarred hands and He will never let you fall. To believe means to live like you’re absolutely sure that Jesus is strong enough to bear you up through whatever it is you’re facing, even when it’s the valley of the shadow of death, even when you’re not really sure that Jesus is going to help you – you still live like He is.

That’s all God’s requires: to trust. But that’s the hardest thing for us to do. We find ourselves groping around for proof, just like the Jews did. The hardest thing for our flesh is simply to take God at His Word. We are always and forever looking for external evidence that God loves us. Is our church prosperous and growing? Are we debt free? Does my family love me and treat me well? Is my job secure? Am I well provided for? We cast about looking for some external reassurance of God’s love.

Sometimes we have something specific in mind, like the Jews did here. They say, “What miraculous sign then will You give that we may see it and believe You? What will You do? Our forefathers ate the manna in the desert; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” You have to wonder what would have made them happy. Jesus had just fed 15-20,000 people with five loaves and two small fish, but that wasn’t good enough for them. To their minds, Jesus had merely multiplied what was already there, while Moses had already brought down bread from heaven.

Jesus sets them straight and gives them the proof they’re looking for. First He has to correct them that Moses didn’t give them the manna – God did. Moses had no more to do with the manna appearing than he did with the sun shining or the wind blowing. Secondly, Jesus gives them the proof they demand, but it’s not quite what they’re looking for. In a veiled or hidden way, Jesus tells them: “It’s Me. I’m the proof!” Jesus Himself – the eternal Son of God, born of a virgin, in human form right in front of them – He Himself was the proof they were looking for. That God would take on human flesh out of love for the sinful human race and choose to give life to the world is all the proof those Jews needed – and, we might add, all the proof we need.

Jesus leads them to this in a masterful way. It never ceases to amaze me how Jesus could bring people around to be interested in Him enough to ask for Him. Think about what He did with the woman at the well in John chapter 4. There He got the woman at the well interested in living water, and from there He ended up telling her about Himself as the Savior. Here, He gets the people’s interest by talking about bread, which is all that they were interested at the time. They say, “Sir, from now on give us this bread.”

Jesus’ answer is even more wonderful than their request. “I am the Bread of life. He who comes to Me will never be hungry, and He who believes in Me will never be thirsty.” We eat this bread when He is our all in all – when we need nothing else besides Him, when we’d rather have Him than anything the world has to offer; when He satisfies our deepest yearnings, takes away our fears, comforts our spirits, forgives us when we fall, consoles us with the promises of His Word when the world takes out its hatred of Him on us. When we rely totally on Him for everything and He satisfies us, we will never lack for anything. Ambrose of Milan, a Christian pastor from the 3rd century, put it this way: “You are medicine for me when I am sick. You are my strength when I need help. You are life itself when I fear death. You are the way when I long for heaven. You are light when all is dark. You are my food when I need nourishment.” When you trust in Christ and rely on Him like Ambrose describes, you eat the bread that came down from heaven. Trust in Jesus for everything and in every situation, and your soul will never be hungry or thirsty. Jesus Himself guarantees it.

That’s why we still celebrate Reformation Sunday. Not to beat our chests about being Lutheran, not because we’re better than everybody else and everybody else is wrong, but because of what God used Martin Luther and men like him to give back to the Christian church. The Reformation scraped away everything that obscured Christ, and allowed His people to see Him more clearly again. I can’t say it clearly enough: Reformation Sunday isn’t just a Lutheran thing, it’s a Christian thing, because this is the faith that saves us: faith in Christ the crucified and risen, the eternal Bread that came down from heaven and gives us life here and forever. May you come to Him again and again, and eat the bread of life that gives life to your soul. Amen.