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24 So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus. 25 When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” 26 Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 27 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. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.” 28 Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” 29 Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” 30 So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? 31 Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, “He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’ ” 32 Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave 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 that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” 34 They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” 35 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.
Come, Holy Spirit, our souls inspire, and lighten us with your celestial fire. For if you are with us then nothing else matters. And if you are not with us, then nothing else matters. Be with us we pray in the name of your Beloved. Amen. (A Barbara Brown Taylor Prayer)
Four. Four. That is the number of questions that the crowd asks Jesus in today’s gospel. Jesus has just fed the 5,000 people, and afterwards, the crowd of people wanted to make him king. So he fled away to a place to pray. But the crowd searched him out and they start to ask him questions. Four, in fact, throughout the reading:
Jesus, when did you come here?
Jesus, what must we do to perform the works of God?
What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you?
What work are you performing?
Four questions in 12 verses. Which means that over 30% of today’s gospel contains questions.
As you get to know me, you will come to learn that I love questions. I love when people ask questions. And I love to ask questions myself.
But hasn’t always been the case. It can be hard to ask a question. It can be vulnerable. Because it reveals that you don’t know something. You run the risk of looking stupid, which was always my greatest fear.
Now, I realize that this could easily become a sob story for me, but that’s not why I tell it. It is simply the truth. I was teased in high school for asking too many questions. By both students and teachers. Now to be fair, I think it was all in good fun for them. It wasn’t personal. But like water over a rock, it wore me down. And so I always felt nervous to raise my hand, but I also knew that I would never understand if I didn’t. I would never pass the test if I didn’t ask the question. So I did. And at times, I paid for it in laughter and jokes.
Now, if I may, one of the most affirming moments of my life was when my high school math teacher, who wasn’t shy about poking fun at the number of my questions either…he said to me on the last day of school, “You need to know that your questions got everyone else through this class.” And in that moment, I felt proud of my questions and no longer ashamed.
The thing that stands out to me about today’s lesson is the four questions that the crowd asks and the courage that it took to ask them.
Did you know that 16% of the verses of the gospel of John have questions in them. The most out of any gospel. And in fact, Jesus’ first words (and first words are important) are in the form of a question – “what are you looking for?” he asks two disciples.
So the crowd has found Jesus and they start to ask him questions. And truth be told, Jesus’ response is a little harsh. And a lot confusing. It can even sound like Jesus is scolding them.
The crowd asks, “Teacher, when did you come here?” and Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 27 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. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.” Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” 29 Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”
This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.
Here’s a question: but what if I don’t believe in Jesus, or more rightly, what if I struggle to? Or what if your kids or your spouse or your grandkids or your friend struggles to believe in Jesus? What does that mean for them?
Can we ask those questions?
A couple of weeks ago, I was meeting with a couple that is getting married this fall. They are a young couple in their 20s. Both were raised in the church, but they don’t go to church anymore. But they kind of want to. They just don’t know if they would be welcome in church.
You see, they have questions. They believe in God. They believe there is goodness in the world. They believe that Jesus was a good man. Inspiring even. But they’re not so sure about the miracles thing. They, like that big crowd, are seeking after something. They want to find a church. They just don’t know if it’s okay to, like that big crowd, have so many questions.
This past week, Mike and Julie and I attended an event at Luther Seminary title: Rethinking Confirmation: Signs of Hope in a World of Change. While the conference was quite good, it was our time in the car together that was most interesting to me. You see we drove with Pastor David Weeks and Jeremy, the youth director, both from St. Peter’s Lutheran in town. And on one of the drives, we started asking questions. Faith questions. What do you believe happens during a baptism? Are you made into a child of God or were you a child of God 5 minutes before the water started flowing? Do you believe in heaven and hell? Who gets to go and how do you know?
Two things stood out to me: First, before any answered the question, someone had to ask if it was a safe space to be honestly. We were a car full of Christian ministers and we weren’t certain we could be honest at first. The second thing I noticed – we didn’t all agree.
Topics like baptism, salvation, the afterlife, and a carload of ELCA church workers didn’t all agree.
Jesus said, “This is the work of God, that you believe.” But we didn’t all agree on our beliefs. So, are we believers? Do we believe? Do we believe the right things? Who was right?
Now, I have no doubt that I was right about everything, but it’s them that I’m worried about, you know?
But seriously, it was a wonderful experience – to be so openly and respectfully honest with our questions and doubts. That safety to be honest and to ask questions – it fed me in a way that real bread cannot. It didn’t just give me energy… it gave me life for the day. I am the bread of life, Jesus says and he was with us in that car. Lord, give me that bread always.
Here is what I do know: in the gospel of John, “to believe” in Jesus is not about believing in information about Jesus. To believe in Jesus is not to believe unquestionably in his miracles or everything we say in the Apostle’s Creed.
Belief isn’t something you have to muster up in your brain and convince yourself of before walking into church. In the gospel of John belief is not something you do, but rather belief is a gift given and it is the gift of a relationship with God.
And the fact that the crowd is able to ask questions and engage in dialogue with Jesus is a symbol of that relationship. And the fact that Jesus is willing to say harsh things to them is a sign of the relationship, because we usually only say hard things in relationships that we trust. The crowd keeps wanting proof, signs, so that they can believe in their brains, but they get a dialogue and a relationship with Jesus instead.
And that is what you have too. A dialogue and a relationship with Jesus. Even if you don’t believe it.
A couple of years ago, in my former parish, I decided to have an “Ask the Pastor” sermon. The week before, I invited people to email me a question that they always wanted to ask a pastor. On Sunday morning, I handed out note cards and people could write down questions. And then during the sermon time, I opened them up and did the best I could.
And I was stunned. Close to 40% of the questions had something to do with what happens to an unbaptized child who dies. That was a deep question that so many of them were living with.
I suspect you are people with questions – important questions – buried deep within you.
Maybe you have questions about communion because you don’t really get it.
Maybe you have questions about Jesus feeding 5,000 and are we really supposed to believe that?
Maybe you have questions about homosexuality and same-gendered marriage and this Reconciling in Christ group that has started at St. John’s.
Maybe you have questions about prayer because yours go unanswered.
But maybe you feel nervous to ask your question because you don’t want to look dumb. Especially in a church so packed full of retired clergy and professors. Well, let me tell you something… they have questions too. Or maybe you are afraid to ask questions because you are a clergy person or a retired prof and you don’t want to look like you don’t know anything at all. Well let me tell you something, honest questions from you would come as a breath of fresh air.
Today’s gospel story – a dialogue with Jesus – began with a question. I wonder what kind of conversations we might have in the presence of Jesus if we began asking our questions. So consider this your permission slip. Seriously. You can ask questions here. Email them to me or Pam or any of our staff. Or write them on a note and slide them under our door. Or be brave and ask it to your table at coffee hour or in a small group gathering. Let’s make St. John’s into a safe space to ask our questions, just like that great big crowd did. In fact, we just might miss a conversation with Jesus if we don’t.