Asking the Right Questions. (A Sermon on John 6:24-35)

When the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they got into these boats and went to Capernaum to look for Jesus.

When they had found him on the other side of the sea, they asked him, “Rabbi, when did you get here?” Jesus replied to them, “Truly, truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate the loaves and were completely satisfied. Do not work for the food that perishes but for the food that lasts 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?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God: to believe in the one whom he has sent.”

So they said to him, “What sign are you going to do so that we may see it and believe in you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, just as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'” Jesus said to them, “Truly, 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. For the bread of God is the one who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

Then they said to him, “Sir, give us this bread all the time.”
A wise person once told me that what you see in life depends on what you are looking at, and that what you hear depends on who you listen to, just as the answers you get depend largely on the questions you ask.

Now I do apologize for beginning my sermon with such a ponderous set of philosophical axioms, but in truth I actually want to use those questions to introduce the even more obscure German philosophical concept of ‘fragestellung’, which I think translates roughly as ‘the putting of the question’. According to some of the great German thinkers, it’s the ‘fragestellung’ – ie. the way you pose the question and the position of the questioner – that is all important in determining the answer you get.
And while I’m not in the habit of calling upon the fathers of continental existentialism at this time on a Sunday morning, I did think we might need some help in understanding why Jesus responded with such aggression and even sarcasm to a group of people who asked Him a very simple question – namely, “When did you get here?”

It was the first of a series of questions that a throng of people posed to Jesus, as recorded in this Gospel reading from John chapter 6.
Jesus, it appears, was trying to put some distance between Himself and the crowd that was pursuing Him, and so as darkness fell after the great feeding miracle, He withdrew quietly into the hills and, while the crowd slept, He crossed the lake.

The crowd though, it seems, outsmart Him and track Him down. They find Him and ask, “Rabbi, when did you get here?” Jesus responds with sarcasm, “You guys are only here for another feed!”
Admittedly, that’s my translation of John 6:26. Your Bible probably reads: “Truly, truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate the loaves and were completely satisfied.” but I think it amounts to much the same thing.
“You’re here because you ate your fill!”, says Jesus – the implication being that they are looking for another free lunch, or, possibly, the other way of interpreting this being that they’d come back not so much for food as such but rather to see another fantastic miracle of a similar standard. Either way, it seems that Jesus treats their return with some degree of contempt!
This is not the Jesus we are used to, is it? The Jesus we are more familiar with is the Jesus who speaks of the Kingdom of God as being like one great big party to which everybody is invited – the rich, the poor, the slave, the free, blacks, whites, Jews, Greeks, males, females, gays, straights, the good, the bad and the ugly! But not here! ‘What are you doing here’, Jesus says. ‘It seems that you’re just here for the show!’
Admittedly, of course, Jesus did have the best show in town. If you were a rural peasant living out in the backwoods of Galilee, you wouldn’t get many opportunities to see something like that! Jesus was the best show in town!

That’s part of our problem for us, of course. We, the church, are no longer the best show in town – not for 21st Century Sydney-siders at any rate. There was a time when the Sunday service at the local village church, with all its pageantry and colour, was the best show in town, but nowadays we cannot compete, and that despite our excellent musical team (and first-class preachers )..

Our Pentecostal sisters and brothers tend to do a little better than us in this regard of course – putting on a slightly more dynamic show. Even so, it is hard in this day and age to compete with the level of entertainment that can be streamed directly into your living-room, let alone with the standards of performance available at the theatre, and maybe that’s a good thing, as it seems that Jesus really wasn’t interested in functioning as an entertainer.

‘You guys are only here for another feed’. It’s a harsh response to what seems to be a rather innocent question, but it’s the position of the questioner that is important here – the fragestellung. The answers they get from Jesus will depend on the questions they ask, and the problem is that they are asking the wrong questions because they are there for all the wrong reasons.
Now, as I say, I think we have to assume some level of sarcasm on the part of Jesus, as I’m sure that not all those people were all there only for the sake of getting another free feed. Indeed, I imagine that most of them were there principally because their friends were there.
That’s how most of us have ended up here in this church, isn’t it? We followed our friends? And I’m not suggesting that this is something that we need to feel ashamed of either. It’s sorta natural.
Of course that won’t account for everyone, and indeed there may be some here in church this morning who are here because God spoke to them and said, ‘Get ye up and go ye to Dulwich Hill’ just as there may be some people listening to the online version of this sermon who reached it by Googlling ‘I want to hear a really solid sermon’, but that’s not likely to account for most of us. For most of us it is most likely that we are here because we’ve followed family or friends.
Mind you, I think it’s clear too that some people do come to Jesus because they are looking for solid wisdom and rules to live by. And indeed, that had to be a part of the agenda for the crowd who were chasing Jesus in John 6, for the first question they ask Him (after the seemingly innocuous ‘How long have you been here’ ) is “What must we do to perform the works of God?”
Perhaps that was their real agenda – their deeper reason – for following Jesus. Perhaps, for many of them at least, they weren’t simply looking for another free feed but really wanted someone to tell them how they ought to be living their lives – what rules they should be following in order to please God, as indeed I think it is a very natural human hunger to want to be told what to do.
I appreciate, of course, that once we human beings reach our teenage years we tend to rail against being told what to do as much as we can, though of course one of the great ironies is that some of us who rail against the rules most violently do so by joining highly structured gangs where junior members are told exactly what they can and cannot do!
Human beings do seem to find security in straightforward rules and boundaries, and perhaps most especially in this day and age when the possibilities for life are so great and when so many things are up for grabs.
Once upon a time, it would have been straightforward to me as a young man to know what vocation I was to pursue in life. I would have followed on in the trade of my father (and become the village smith!). Or as a woman, my prospects would have been reasonably straightforward. I might have not known exactly who I was to marry, but the path of marriage and motherhood would have been non-negotiable and beyond my control, as quite possibly would have been my choice of life-partner.
Nowadays we have enormous freedom of choice, not only over how we choose to live our lives as women and men, but in terms of how we understand ourselves as women and men. And while we really appreciate that freedom and don’t want to return to the bad old days, at the same time, I am sure that the rise in popularity of more legalistic religious systems in our culture is an indication of the fact that there is something in each of us that just wants to be told who we are and what we are supposed to be doing!
I do believe that this is part of the reason for the increasing popularity of Islam in our world today. Of course an understandable contempt for the corruption of Western civilisation also plays a role, but I would suggest that one of the most attractive things about Islam is that it gives you a very straightforward set of rules to live by. It tells you exactly who you are and how you ought to live!
Judaism, which was the religion Jesus’ disciples were familiar with, does the same. It just has even more rules and regulations! And if you were a God-fearing Jew, the chief role of your Rabbi would have been to tell you, when you weren’t sure what to do, exactly what you should be doing.
And so the crowd ask Jesus “What must we do to perform the works of God?” and Jesus, notably, refuses to dictate to any of them what they should do, beyond telling them that what they should do is believe in Him!

And again the real issue here is the fragestellung – the ‘position of the questioner’ and the ‘putting of the question’. For of course there is nothing wrong, in itself, with asking Jesus how it is that God wants us to live, but if where you are coming from in asking that question is that you are looking for a straightforward set of laws and rules to live by, then it is not the right question, for that is not what Jesus was about. That was not what Jesus came to give. That is not the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ!

For what was it that Jesus came to give us? If it wasn’t a set of rules and more than it was a free feed. What did Jesus come to give us? He came to give us Himself!
“I am the bread of life”, says Jesus, “The one who comes to me will never become hungry, and the one who believes in me will never become thirsty.” (John 6:35)
And this is what we need to grasp, for this is the point of demarcation between Jesus and any number of other religious teachers, as this is the point of distinction between the Christian faith and any number of religious systems, for what Jesus gives us is not a new set of rules or a free feed. He gives us Himself, and so the Christian life is not a life lived according to a new set of laws but a life lived in mystical union with Jesus, where He enters into us by His Spirit and becomes our food and drink, so that He might live His life through us.
And it is quite possible that we will never really grasp this if we allow our relationship with Jesus to be dominated by our own set of questions – ‘how do I become successful?’, ‘where do I find happiness?’, ‘where do I get a free lunch?’ – or if our ‘fragestellung’ is such that our perception of Jesus is always twisted around our own agenda.
For what you see in life depends on what you are looking at, and what you hear depends on who you listen to, and the answers you receive depend on the questions you ask.
“I am the bread of life”, says Jesus, “The one who comes to me will never become hungry, and the one who believes in me will never become thirsty.”

First Preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, August 2009.

Rev. David B. Smith

Parish priest, community worker,
martial arts master, pro boxer,
author, father of four.

About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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