Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: Struggling with the Puzzle

A man took his son fishing one day. After a few hours in the boat with not much to do, the son started asking his father some questions. "How does the boat float?" he asked.
The man thought about the question for a moment, and then said, "I don't really know, son."
"Well, how do fish breathe underwater?"
The man scratched his head. "I guess I don't know the answer to that one either."
"Why is the sky blue?" the boy persisted.
The father replied, "I really don't know, son."
The boy started to worry that his father was getting upset at all the questions. "Do you mind me asking questions, Dad?"
His father immediately reassured him. "No, of course not, son! If you don't ask questions, you'll never learn anything!"

At exactly what age do you remember beginning to ask those tough questions to your parent or guardian? Were you five or six years old? Perhaps the first word out of your mouth once you could actually put short sentences together was, “Why?” So what happens to us between the age when we wonder and question, and the age when we stop looking for answers? Is it because we know everything there is to know? Is it because someone told us there were no more answers?

What may be challenging advice to most adults comes naturally to children, as author and illustrator Stuart Hample discovered when he began to visit elementary schools, asking children to write to God with their questions. The resulting small book, Children’s Letters to God, first published in 1966, became a phenomenon. It has sold more than a million copies worldwide, spawning sequels and a television special. And when Stuart asked children to write down their most burning questions for God…here’s what a few of them asked.

Dear God, Did you mean for giraffe to look like that or was it an accident? Norma

Dear God, How come you didn’t invent any new animals lately? We still have just all the old ones. Johny

Dear God, I am an American. What are you? Robert

Dear God, Instead of letting people die and having to make new ones, why don’t you just keep the ones you got now? Jane

Dear God, I bet it is very hard for you to love all of everybody in the whole world. There are only four people in our family and I can never do it. Nan

And so we find a similar discourse in our gospel text today. In fact, over this sermon series we will engage some difficult questions from John’s gospel for much of it is about questions posed by the first Christians. In John’s gospel Jesus makes long speeches about himself. He often uses language that is highly symbolic, indeed psychological. Everything he says seems to point to something else. In our scripture text this morning Jesus has just performed the miracle of the loaves and fish; and then, to avoid the crowd who want to make him a king, he escapes to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. The crowd follows him and then begins to ask him a series of questions all of which seem designed to allow Jesus to talk about himself. This is a hallmark of John, making some heavy-duty theological statements about who and what Jesus is all about. It was John's way of responding to a church in crisis, a church experiencing severe conflict and persecution, his way of saying to them that the source of their faith is greater than any power that will ever confront them in the world. And if they are content to make Jesus the source of their deepest nourishment, they will never be hungry or thirsty.

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." John 6:35. This is one of those passages where biblical scholarship really helps us. The Greek language, for instance, makes more precise distinctions than English does; and there are three Greek words for life used in the New Testament: bios, psuche, and zoe. The word bios, from which our word "biology" comes, refers to life in its various earthly manifestations. Because we are living organisms, we have a bios or life, just like plants, animals and mother earth herself. Psuche refers to the soul and mind. It’s the root word for “psyche and psychology,” and is the immortal part of us. The part that does not die. Our consciousness. Zoe on the other hand refers to "the philosophy of life".

When Jesus says, "I am the bread of life," zoe is the word he uses. "The living bread" Jesus is talking about is the inner food that is filled with the philosophy of life itself. It is the same word John uses when he writes in 1:4: “In him was life, and that life was the light of all humankind.”  John is talking about the "living philosophy of life" that can fill the soul and that leads to eternal life. While a bios, a purely natural, living organism perishes, zoe is the eternal life that never perishes.  Jesus defines this interpretation in 8:4 “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” And perhaps the most significant reference comes from 4:6 when Jesus summarizes his own identity “I Am the Way the Truth and the Life.” Jesus says he is the meaning of life—his way is the philosophy of life. One of the important things to remember is that in John’s theology of Jesus, eternal life begins now. This theme appears again and again. If we fill ourselves with zoe, a philosophy of life that nourishes the soul, we become a part of something that never dies.

Now, some of you might be wondering, why should it take so much work to understand Jesus? Why can’t we just take his word at face value? Jesus even tells the crowd in verse 27 of our text today, "Don’t waste your energy striving for perishable food. Work for the food that sticks with you, food that nourishes your lasting life, food the Son of Man provides." The kind of life that Jesus talks about here, eternal life, takes work. The inner treasure it yields does not become available to those who will not work for it. Eternal life is inner work, the kind of psychological faith it takes to face oneself and what your soul needs. The kind of work that is the innermost work we all need to do before our faith really comes alive.

It is simply not enough to say, "I believe in the Lord Jesus Christ; and, therefore, I know I am saved." Believing in Jesus also means working out your salvation. The apostle Paul even said it, “Therefore, my beloved, . . . work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure. - Philippians 2.12. Do you really think that on judgement day, as you stand before Christ, God will be satisfied just because you said some magic words but did nothing to live it? Do you think that God records just the moment when you believed and disregards the rest? When your entire life is flashed before God on that day will you be happy with what God sees? Will God be pleased with what you’ve done throughout your life to work out your salvation?

And just what is this work that we need to do? If we take Jesus’ word at face value, then that hard work is the work of making meaning of your life. According to Jesus, the meaning of life comes from following his example. Committing ourselves to the same work that Jesus did—receiving the same knowledge of life that God gave to him, and that he shared with us. If our Creator brought us into being, then God must have had a reason for doing so.

If we can ask the question, “Why am I here?” then there is an answer to that question for you. But you have to answer it for yourself. Many have tried to answer that question. There is a multi-billion dollar industry around self-help books and resources to help folks find answers to that question. Most of the arts and humanities visualize and interpret that very search and its discovery. And some might even think that is the purpose of religion. Perhaps that’s how you view church—a self-help treatment center where you hope to get cured of the symptoms from NOT knowing or caring or taking seriously the meaning of your life. And as I shared last week, that is the biggest mistake a church can make. Treat the symptoms and not the source of your questions. Ultimately your answer is up to you to discover. No one else can do that for you.

This week's gospel is a reminder that there is a life available to each and every one of us. It’s that same philosophy of life that Jesus embodied. That life is available now to anyone who wants it. But it means engaging that inner journey in search of deeper meaning. Jesus gave us the tools for the spiritual journey. But those tools have to be used in order to produce the work that leads to the understanding. Are you willing to do the work? If you are not willing, then your life will reflect your spiritual state of being. “The good person out of the good treasure of their heart produces good, and the evil person out of their evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” Luke 6:45 That’s how you will know if you’ve discovered the meaning of your life. For you are what comes out of your mouth. May God have mercy on all of us, and may God’s grace abound in spite us.

(Excerpts from Barry J. Robinson’s sermon, “Working for Your Dinner” for August 3, 2003 – www.fernstone.org. Other resources: www.spiritualityhealth.com)