The sixth chapter of the Gospel of Saint John articulates perhaps the most poignant difference between a follower of Jesus Christ and a member of the throng along for the free lunch. Six is really about the inherent difficulties of faith and the true blessings that true faith carries. The events in this chapter present a splendid dialogue between Jesus and his worldly and fickle following and between Jesus and his trusted (and not-so-trusted) apostles. It is all about faith vs. works, flesh vs. spirit, needs vs. wants. It is about how superficial we become in the face of the Lord’s intervention in our lives.
The chapter begins on the heels of Jesus’ miracles at the pool of Bethesda and more healings around the sea of Galilee. A crowd gathers around the mountain and Jesus feeds all 5,000 of them with only five loaves of barley bread and two fishes. The remains are gathered so as not to waste any food. (This is one of the many nice subtexts in the biblical narrative, and take heed, America: don’t throw away good food!)
Late that night the apostles leave, crossing the Sea of Galilee on boat, but run into a storm. Jesus saves the evening, waltzing out into the middle of the lake and calming the storm. Then, he delivers them immediately to their desired shore (actually, it was more like he delivered their desired shore to the boat in the middle of the water, but go ahead, read it for yourself…). These were perhaps his strongest, most ardent miracles in this phase of his ministry, but they were only for the purview of his chosen. Perhaps this is how God really works. He saves his best for the small group that really believes, not for the doubting masses.
In the morning, the horde he fed by the mountain finds him again, pinning him down in Capernaum. But now Jesus delivers some straight talk to them. They were clinging to him because of their bellies, not their souls, he says. Food, money – outward satisfaction – these are the strongest attractions for a prophet. And perhaps justly so. Perhaps Lord Jesus knew that the common man won’t accept much more than a few material staples before the faith runs out. The fact that those enticements were brought about completely miraculously, and represented the work of the living God, come in the flesh to save Israel, didn’t even compute to the masses. They simply were not interested in the mystery of the miracles. They just wanted the food. Go after the food that doesn’t perish, Jesus tells them, but his advice falls on deaf ears.
They respond by asking him how they can do those kinds of miracles for themselves. The Master cannot be tricked, however, and nudges their question into a more important subject matter: Forget about the “works,” per se, it’s faith that matters. “Sure, we believe you,” they say. “Just show us one more of those miracles so we can be sure we believe you.”
Now Jesus again diverts their trifling into the main point of everything: salvation. He puts his miracles into context, explaining to them how the manna from Moses’ day had its contemporary miraculous equivalent in – well — him, standing in their midst. He tells them: I am the bread of life. Eat me and ye shall have the most amazing “work” that God could ever give you: everlasting life. For most of his disciples, this is the last straw. Many of them quit following him. This is what happens when we rely on our own intellects.
The apostles stay. They were his chosen, after all. Simon Peter sums it up perfectly, uttering perhaps the most endearing endearment to his Lord that any Christian could ever utter: “Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life.” He couldn’t have said it better. Where do we go after we learn about the truth of Jesus and eternal life? Absolutely nowhere but to Him!
And then, the last little nugget of this precious little chapter: Judas, the betrayer, remaining on the scene, getting ready to turn in the Savior who knows already what he’s up to. Judas, as we all know, was one of the chosen, too. And his place among the apostles, as well as his place in this narrative of miracles thus far, says much about our own body of believers all over the world. For every good and faithful group of Christ followers, there is a Judas, subverting the Word, passing off like one of us but inwardly harboring selfish and evil intentions, just like, perhaps, the mobs of followers who by know were making their way home away from the Messiah forever.