“The Work That Is Not a Work” (John 6:22-35)
Question: When is a work not a work? Answer: When it is faith. Faith is “The Work That Is Not a Work.”
This seeming riddle is not so puzzling when you understand what is meant by “faith” and “work.” And we’ll explain that today as we explore the Gospel reading from John 6. There the crowd asks Jesus, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” And Jesus answers them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” Friends, when you properly understand these verses, you will know what I mean when I say, “Faith is the work that is not a work.”
Here’s the setting for our text. Jesus had just done the feeding of the 5,000, providing food for that huge crowd from just five loaves and two fish. The crowd thought that was pretty cool. They liked getting free food. They thought, “Let’s make this Jesus our bread king!” But it was obvious to Jesus they were missing the point of the miracle. So he withdrew. Jesus did not come to be a bread king, a political-economic worldly king, which is what they wanted. Jesus had something more important in mind.
Jesus and his disciples crossed over from where the miracle took place to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. But people from the crowd searched and managed to track Jesus down. They came seeking Jesus, but not for the right reason. That’s where we pick up the story.
Jesus begins by telling the crowd, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” Jesus’ miracles, especially in the Gospel of John, are called, “signs.” And the thing about signs is, they are supposed to point you to something else. In this case, the “sign” of Jesus feeding the 5,000 was intended to point them to something about who Jesus is and what he came to do: to see that Jesus is the divine Son of God come in the flesh and that he is ushering in the kingdom of God among them, a kingdom of blessing and abundance, providing for all of their needs, both physical and spiritual. “If he can meet our physical needs in this obviously divine way, maybe we should take a closer look at who this man is and listen carefully to what he has to say to us spiritually. Why, he must be the Messiah!” That would have been a true reading of the sign. But the crowd was not catching the meaning of the sign. They missed the point and the purpose of it. They were only thinking of somebody who could give them plenty of food. “You are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.”
Jesus continues: “Do not labor for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you.” In other words: Look, you guys went to a lot of effort to track me down and find me over here. All for some perishable food that won’t last beyond a day or two. But I’ve got something better and more lasting than that that I want to give to you. I’ve got eternal life to give you, something only God can give. I wish you were as interested in that as you are in filling your belly.
What about us? What are our top priorities? Are we Americans more interested in prosperity in worldly terms–a chicken in every pot–or in seeking first the kingdom of God and his righteousness? Even we Christians can act sometimes like functional atheists, always seeking after stuff and the concerns of this life, and ignoring God’s call to repentance and faith and following Jesus.
So Jesus calls the crowd’s attention, and our attention, to what we should be seeing and seeking. He says of himself, the messianic Son of Man: “For on him God the Father has set his seal.” All that Jesus has been doing–preaching repentance, teaching on the kingdom, healing the sick, doing signs of abundant provision, such as at the wedding at Cana and in the feeding of the 5,000–all of these things were demonstrating that God the Father has set his seal, his seal of approval, on this man Jesus. Don’t you get it? Don’t you see?
Well, then the crowd begins to realize Jesus has something to say to them about God. Duh! So they ask him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” Their question betrays their mindset. They are thinking in terms of doing works in order to gain favor from God. It is a works-righteousness mentality, assuming that we are capable of pleasing God by our own efforts, as long as we know what to do and put our minds to it and try real hard. If we’re good enough people, we can get God on our side and get good things from him.
Jesus has to cure them of this commonly held yet mistaken notion. So he takes their mention of “works” and turns it on its head, to give a completely different understanding than the “earning God’s favor by one’s doing of works” law concept they were laboring under. He tells them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”
The people in the crowd said they wanted to do works that please God. And yet they were not recognizing and receiving Jesus as the heaven-sent Savior. That is what will please God. And that sort of a “work” is not really a “work” in the sense that they were using the term. Faith in Christ is really giving up on our own works as a means of salvation. Faith in Christ is trusting in his work, Christ’s work, as the only work that will truly please God. Are you beginning to see what I mean when I say, “Faith is the work that is not a work”?
Look, this is the teaching of Scripture throughout. Your own works will not save you. You could not do enough, or pile up your works high enough, to overcome and offset your sins. Jesus himself taught this when he said, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” You need a better kind of righteousness than you can generate. St. Paul teaches the same thing, most famously in Romans 3, where he says, “By works of the law no human being will be justified in God’s sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.”
In fact, just before our text in John 6, at the end of John 5, Jesus tells the Jews: “Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father. There is one who accuses you: Moses, on whom you have set your hope.” If you are setting your hope of eternal life on your own works, on your own keeping of the law, on your own goodness, you are looking in the wrong place. That won’t cut it. Your works won’t work.
The only work that will work is the work God does for us in Christ. “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” He it is–Jesus–he it is who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. As the manna came down from heaven and sustained the life of the Israelites in the wilderness for forty years, in an even greater way, the Son of God, Jesus Christ, has come down from heaven as the Bread of Life who gives life–real life, new life, eternal life–to all who trust in him.
Trusting in Jesus to supply your greatest need–that is faith. It is the work that gives up on one’s own works as the way to earn salvation. Only Christ’s work on the cross does the job. He gives his flesh, he sheds his blood, for the life of the world. This is the only thing that will take away your sin. Christ’s resurrection, and his return on the last day to raise up your body–this is how you will have eternal life.
And this gift is received by faith. Jesus says to you today: “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” Jesus satisfies your deepest need. This is the only way you will live and not die. It is by receiving Christ by faith. “Whoever comes to me,” Jesus says, which is the same as saying, “Whoever believes in me.”
Coming to Jesus for God’s gift of eternal life–that is faith. And you would not be able to come to Jesus unless that too were a gift, which it is. “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him,” Jesus says a little later in John 6. Not only is forgiveness a gift, so is the faith that comes to Christ and receives that forgiveness. St. Paul writes: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” You see, the whole thing is a gift, from start to finish, both the forgiveness and the faith.
And this faith–the work that is not a work–this faith is created in you, and is nurtured and strengthened in you, through God’s working in Word and Sacrament. The Holy Spirit uses these means of grace to do his faith-giving, faith-building work in you. That is why Luther is right when he begins his explanation of the Third Article by saying, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to him, but the Holy Spirit has called me by the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.” Dear Christian, nothing can be more important than that you continue to come to Jesus and be built up in your faith through these gospel means.
And so we ask, and now we understand: When is a work not a work? When it is a work that God does, when he gives us faith in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, by whose work on the cross you and I are fed with the bread of eternal life.