Like many of you, I’m continuing to reflect on the tectonic philosophical and moral shifts in our culture crystallized in the Supreme Court decision to legalize same sex marriage—and what that decision means not only for our religious liberties, but for our evangelism, discipleship and mission as followers of Jesus Christ.
Four weeks ago I quoted Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission who stated that there will be a new generation of “refugees” from the current metaphysical-sexual expression culture that we now live in. Yes, there will be refugees—because turning in on yourself and pursuing your own sexual desires as a fundamental liberty never ends well. (See Romans 1:18-32 for a picture of what that looks like). Such a culture cannot keep its promises of personal happiness and fulfillment for individuals whose needs and cravings will inevitably be at odds! Sexual and relational brokenness, desperate loneliness, divorce, broken families, spiritual and emotional wounds will increase with the ever-accelerating sexual revolution which has been blessed by the highest courts of our land. Not only that, but abortion as a gruesome method of birth control and fetal tissue extraction and euthanasia at the other end of life will also increase as the exaltation of personal desires trumps traditional biblical values on the sanctity of life.
In a culture where it’s all about me and my choices, where the bottom-line world view is that the self is the only thing that can be known, and where freedom of sexual expression, self-interests and narcissism reign supreme, here’s the question: what do we as a church, as followers of Jesus Christ, have to offer to those who will be refugees of this new metaphysical-sexual expression regime?
JESUS says to our culture, “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 6:34-35 NIV) But it’s not only Jesus’ promises that we have to offer hurting people—it’s the WAY Jesus relates to the same kind of people we find all around us today. Consider the context of this story: Jesus is in the Synagogue in Capernaum facing the same sorts of people we find in our culture:
- Some of them were materialists: Like people around us who are only concerned about themselves, what they can taste, touch, feel and see that will meet their needs. Jesus was addressing a crowd of people who were there because he had filled their stomachs with bread and they were looking for a free food supply to satisfy their cravings
- Others were sensationalists: Like people around us who are never satisfied with the latest entertainment or thrill, but are always craving more. They had just seen and experienced the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000 with a few loaves and fishes, but now they were craving more miracles.
- Still others were the “Selfie’s”: Always preoccupied with themselves, so they ask Jesus “what must we do to do the works of God?” They were turning the camera away from Jesus and totally back on themselves.
This story is about Jesus—not only WHO he is, but HOW he draws people to himself! While John 6:24-35 contains some of the most profound teaching on the significance of Jesus Christ, it also contains at least four lessons for us as we face the refugees coming our way—four ways we can reach out to hurting and needy people just as Jesus did:
First of all, JESUS TOUCHES OUR DEEPEST NEEDS
“When they found him on the other side of the lake, they asked him ‘Rabbi, when did you get here?’ Jesus answered, ‘I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you…’” John 6:25-27 NIV
Note how Jesus discerns that they are hard-working folks looking for a free food supply and a political messiah who can rid them of their hated Roman overlords. They are materialists, lacking an awareness of the higher and deeper needs of their hearts. Even the manna they recall from the Exodus was only given to sustain the physical bodies of their ancestors.
But Jesus goes past their question and gets to the deeper need. He calls them to come up higher. He tells them what they really need. The true blessing God wants to give them is not on the material level at all. It is food that will endure to eternal life, that will nourish a life that will never end—the gift of Jesus Christ and life in Him!
Jesus loves to start with a felt need like food or water, and then call us higher to see what we are really looking for—This is exactly what he did with the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4. She was looking for water that would never run out. Then Jesus redirected her by asking her to bring her husband to the well. Seemingly out of nowhere, Jesus touched her deepest need—looking for love in all the wrong places. Jesus touched the pain of serial relationships with multiple partners that have all failed. Then Jesus tells her that he alone can satisfy her need with a “spring” of love, acceptance and forgiveness that will never run dry! And for a culture that is looking for love in all the wrong places, isn’t that exactly what people need to hear?
Here, just two chapters later, Jesus is at it again, redirecting this crowd away from food that will perish to the food they really need–to the food that will fill the hole in their soul: “You are looking for the wrong kind of food. What you really need is food that will last—food that will endure to eternal life!” How often do we become distracted by so many good things, that we miss the very best that God has to offer us? Here, Jesus is telling us how we and our culture will find “the bread of life” that will fill the hole in our souls. At the intersection of God’s deepest love for us, his deepest good for the Kingdom and us, and our deepest need—that’s where we will find the Bread of life. You see, that’s how Jesus helps us: he touches that deeper need and leads us to ask the right questions!
Secondly, JESUS CHALLENGES OUR FALSE ASSUMPTIONS
“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. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” John 6:32 NIV
Jesus challenged and then corrected three false assumptions the crowd revealed in their hunger for “bread from heaven.” First, he calls them to dig deeper and realize that the source of the manna was not Moses but GOD. Secondly, he challenges their false assumption that the giving of the bread of heaven was in the past. Jesus points out that God is actually present with them right now, right there, offering them true bread from heaven in the person of Jesus himself! Finally, Jesus points out that the bread of heaven is not simply manna for the people of Israel but Bread that gives life to the whole world.
What do people actually KNOW and BELIEVE about Jesus? I remember working in a law office in New York with a paralegal who spent about 30 minutes telling me about the love affair that Jesus had with Mary Magdalene and how they went off together after he revived in the tomb and lived happily ever after. When I asked him where he got that information he replied, “From a movie I saw a while ago.” So I asked him very gently whether he would be interested in hearing the real story of what happened to Jesus. It was a wonderful opportunity to share about Jesus—who He really is and how he had changed my life.
Much of what people think they know about Jesus is incorrect But how will we be able to challenge and correct their misinformation unless we ask and listen as carefully as Jesus did– and correct as lovingly and carefully as he did?
Thirdly, JESUS INVITES US TO TRUST AND BELIEVE
“Then they asked him, ‘What must we do to do the works God requires?’ Jesus answered, ‘The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.” John 6:28-29 NIV
At this point Jesus and Paul stand side by side. Both maintain that every person is justified by faith apart from observing the law (Romans 3:28), and that it is “by grace we have been saved through faith, and not by works” (Ephesians 2:8)
But instead of looking to the giver and the gift, these people were looking to themselves, to what works they could do. That’s only a few steps removed from what Justice Kennedy wrote in another opinion back in 1992, when he said that the essence of personal freedom is being able to define your own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and the mystery of human life. In the secular world of Oprah and Ellen, even self-help becomes the right to keep yourself in control.
Sometimes it’s not much better in the Church. We all want to do something to make ourselves right with God—or if we are far from God, to make peace with our own unease. Somewhere in the midst of trying to please God we lose sight of and lose trust in God’s sovereign graciousness. So we turn back in on ourselves and start looking at ourselves, our own role: what five steps we need to take to do X, what ten qualities we need to exemplify in order to be Y, what 20 truths we need to practice in order to please God. Suddenly, it’s no longer about Jesus, it’s all about us. We become “spiritual selfies,” and the church becomes all about us instead of being all about Jesus and his Great Commission!
But Jesus says it is not many works that God requires but only one work: “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.” (John 6:29). Jesus calls all of us to a “believing IN” that engages our heart in a radical act of surrender to himself as the one sent by the father, God’s unique Son, who alone offers God’s grace. It’s what we call saving faith. It means that we personally must come to the end of ourselves and trust in Christ alone with the same kind of trust we would find in a child towards his or her parents.
Often, this will be a hard work. Think of the way Jesus lovingly dealt with Peter in this Gospel and elsewhere: challenging Peter’s assertion of unfailing loyalty that came out of his own self-centered pride, allowing him to fail, and then graciously and lovingly restoring him at the end of this Gospel (see John 21). Ultimately Jesus will have to bring us to the same kind of end to which he brought Peter—the end of pride, self-sufficiency and arrogance. If we want to do that one work which is necessary—to believe and trust in Jesus Christ with our whole heart—then we must be willing to let Jesus lead us to the end of our selves.
Finally, JESUS RELENTLESSLY POINTS US TO HIMSELF
“’Sir,’ they said, ‘from now on give us this bread.’ 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 6:34-35 NI
When Jesus says “I, I am the bread of life,” he is saying that he alone is that staple of life that fills the hunger in every human heart. If he were in Asia he would have said “I am the rice of life,” in India “I am the Chiapatti of life,” in East Africa, “I am the Ugali of life,” But to these people he is saying “I alone am that staple, that essential ingredient that makes life worth living.”
When Jesus says (literally) I, I am the bread of life,” he is saying “My Father wants to give YOU more than manna for a day! That’s why he goes on to say “He who comes to me will never go hungry and never be thirsty” (John 6:36). “Never” means there is not even a remote possibility that you will ever again hunger or thirst.
This is the first of the “I AM” Statements in the Gospel of John. Elsewhere Jesus says “I am the light of the world” (8:12; 9:5), “I am the gate for the sheep” (10:7), “I am the good shepherd” (10:11, 14), “I am the Resurrection and the life” (11:25), “I am the way, the truth and the life” (14:6), and “I am the true vine” (15:1, 5). In this and every “I am “ statement, Jesus is calling attention to himself, saying in no uncertain terms, if you want the fulfillment of the teaching, just look to me. I’m all you need. If you’re in a place of darkness, I AM the light you need… If you are facing a hopeless situation or the fear of death, I AM the resurrection and the life…If you are lost I AM the Good Shepherd who will lead you home… If you are searching for answers to the questions worth asking about life I AM the Truth… If you are desperately lonely and without meaningful relationships I AM the vine that will connect you to the most fulfilling relationships you will ever know.
What are we to do with someone who says, “Oh by the way, the truth you’ve been seeking, the God you’ve been waiting for—look no further. Here I am!” What are we to do with Jesus? Shall we dismiss him as a dangerous megalomaniac? Is he raging lunatic deeply out of touch with reality? Or is he exactly who he says he is and exactly as he presents himself—as the one whom God has sent to us, the one and only bread of life.
Do you see how much we have to offer the refugees who will be coming to us?? JESUS! The only one
- Who touches peoples deepest needs
- Who challenges and corrects our false assumptions about reality and God
- Who lovingly invites us to surrender, trust and believe in Him alone
- Who relentlessly points all hurt and needy people—including us– to himself as the answer to all our needs and desires!
Jesus says “He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.” All he asks of us, refugees or not, is to come to him—however needy we may be. All he asks is that we open our hearts and minds to receive the Good News that he brings, that when we feast on Jesus we will never die, we will never hunger, we will never be empty or unsatisfied.
Isn’t THAT the truth our culture so desperately needs to know?
The Rev. Canon Phil Ashey is CEO of the American Anglican Council.