10th Sunday after Pentecost

  1. Pentecost 10.21 “The Great Difficulty of Doing Nothing, Pt. II” John 6:22-35

Last week, I tried to persuade you that glory (not humility) is the essential element of heaven’s joy and that we should all be glory hounds, chasing IT with all our heart, soul, and mind like James the Greater did. I felt like many of you were unpersuaded. The week before, I tried to convince you that doing nothing is the essential key to Christian faith and that it is surprisingly difficult to do nothing. I also felt like there were some reservations in the congregation on the soundness of that hypothesis.

I get that those two sermons seemed more than contradictory. How can doing nothing ever make you great?! That seems impossible! And yet that is precisely my takeaway from our Gospel this morning (which actually is the aftermath of the feeding of the 5,000 from two Sundays ago). Today I want to get you pondering “the incredible beauty (and great difficulty) of doing nothing” as a life goal for yourself. My thesis is simple: that the most glorious of the saints are so because they are the best at doing nothing—basically just leaving everything to Jesus and his love.

How confident are you that you will succeed in persuading us of this, Pastor? Well, not very! But that’s OK. The hypothesis is not mine but the Lord’s; and he didn’t get a very high initial take rate on it himself, as we shall see not just today but the next 2 Sundays as well, which continue this narrative. But the Gospel is like this—like an ear worm. It gets in and bugs us and we fight it and reject it, and struggle with it, until we wake up one day and go “Oh. I get it. I think I actually believe this, now.”

In our Gospel today, the incredible beauty and great difficulty of doing nothing meets a skeptical audience—who really shouldn’t be skeptical. The “next day” here in the first verse of our reading is the day after Jesus fed 5,000+ with five loaves and two fish and had 12 big baskets of leftovers. I like leftovers!

Despite witnessing this beautiful and impossible miracle first hand, they still doubt. The crowd can’t figure out how Jesus got to the other side of the sea without a boat. Even though Sherlock Holmes would see that, when the impossible is eliminated (there was no boat, and no way to swim or walk there in time), that the improbable, but obvious, answer that he walked on water (or aperated?) must be the truth, they do not see that. Because they won’t believe what their eyes see and their ears hear in Jesus.

And yet, they’ve chased him because they’d like more free food and more miraculous signs. Because they believe and yet; they don’t believe. Which means they’re just like you and me. They know he multiplied the loaves and fish miraculously. In their hearts, they know he must have walked on the water or just magically aperated. They know, deep down, he is the LORD who can do anything. But they don’t give up and grab onto him for dear life! They don’t like being out of control. They don’t like feeling stupid. They don’t like being like little kids who depend on mom and dad for everything.

So they ask Jesus to explain himself. (This, by the way, is a very bad idea even though we try it all the time!). “Rabbi, how did you get here?” they ask. Jesus answers: “Truly, truly I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw the signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food which perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.”

Did you notice the lovely little paradox Jesus sneaks in there, like an ear worm, to mess with our minds? “Work for the food that endures…” and yet, “the Son of Man gives you” this food for free. So, do we work for this food, or is given us by Jesus, for free? Well, yes! Go ahead and try your best: labor, and fret, and plot and plan and hurry and scurry and work your fingers to the bone and then you’ll see it is all fruitless, all hopeless, all a tremendous waste of time. And then, at the end of your rope, despairing, utterly defeated, you are ready, empty handed and hearted, to receive the free gift of Life that Jesus is…

But they are hard cases. They don’t register the paradox and ask for its resolution. They seize on the work part and go: “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” Jesus answers: “this is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” (!)

I’ve never really had trouble with a paradox. I think I’m one of those strange people, who—unless I can’t really make logical sense of something, won’t think it’s a holy, divine, or worthwhile thing. The idea has to be just beyond my grasp to be really appealing to me. I figure, with Luther, that if I could understand it, logically, rationally, it’d hardly be a divine work, now, would it?

So, I find Jesus’ answer a perfectly sensible one. “The work that saves is not yours, but entirely 100% God’s work—that you believe in him whom he has sent!” When you find yourself believing Jesus and his love, you’ll realize it’s nothing you did, but a pure gift that just snuck up on you from behind and grabbed you, heart, mind, body, and soul.

So: we believe that we are justified by grace alone, through faith alone, for Christ’s sake alone, with no works of our own. And yet, when we quit working and simply trust Jesus, tremendous things are done in and through us! As Jesus says: when we quit working and God starts working in us by faith alone, we do even greater works than Jesus did during those 15-36 months in ancient Israel. And yet it is not we who do the doing, but the Spirit of Christ in us.(!)

But the Capernaum crew is a tough bunch. They go, “What sign do you do, that we may see and believe you?” Like the five loaves, two fish feast for 5,000 wasn’t enough for you? Or the obvious miracle of crossing the sea with no boat and no Olympic swimming didn’t register either? They suggest a repeat of Moses’ miracle of providing manna in the wilderness.

Jesus sighs and goes, “Moses didn’t do that. God gives you the true bread from heaven—which is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world!” And they finally go, “OK! Give us this bread always!”

And Jesus says, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.”

How beautiful, yet incredibly difficult it is to do nothing but believe!

Jesus gives himself all away, his very body and blood, hidden under the bread and wine of the Sacrament. And how many believe it is what he says? The medicine of immortality? The very bread of Life? How much do you believe it? How often have you shied away from just taking it as he gives it, from fear and doubt?

Believing and doing nothing is the hardest and yet most beautiful and glorious thing! And I can’t do it. You can’t do it. We believe and yet have a whole heap of unbelief, right?

Well, yes, but it’s OK. In the struggle for this glorious, do-nothing Faith, we wear ourselves out; but, in our exhaustion, in despair of ourselves, faith sneaks up and gives us eternal life in Jesus and Peace surpassing understanding guards our hearts and minds in him. Amen.

About Pastor Martin

Pastor Kevin Martin has served six Lutheran congregations, beginning in 1986 as a field-worker in Trumbull, Connecticut, and vicarages in Arlington, Massachusetts and Belleville, Illinois. He has been pastor of congregations in Pembroke, Ontario and Akron, Ohio. Since 2000, he has served as pastor of Our Savior Lutheran Church, Raleigh. Pastor Martin is a lifelong (confessional!) Lutheran (even though) he holds degrees from Valparaiso, Yale, and Concordia Seminary St. Louis. He and his wife Bonnie have been (happily) married since 1988, and have two (awesome!) adult children, Bethany and Christopher. Bonnie is an elementary school teacher. The Martin family enjoy music festivals, travel, golf, and swimming. They are also avid readers and movie-goers.

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