Fourth Sunday in Lent

The Rest of the Story

Saint John 6:1-15

The Rest of the Story was a Monday-Friday radio program hosted by the late Paul Harvey from the early 1950s until 2008 in which Harvey would tell a story—well two stories, neither of them being all that remarkable on their own, but when connected could be quite amazing. One such story was of a barn in rural England that was built from oak timbers recovered from an old sailing ship. Barn-builders back in the 17th century often took old, decommissioned ships, disassembled them, and put them back together, upside down, so that the ship’s keel became the ridge at the top of the roof. Interesting, but not incredible—not until Harvey tells the rest of the story.

Three years before it was turned into a barn, the ship was used one last time—this time for transporting people rather than cargo. Setting sail from Plymouth, England, it took a group of Puritans seeking religious freedom to the New World. They were the Pilgrims of American folklore, the ones who, as it was taught to generations of American school children, celebrated the first Thanksgiving with their new Native American friends. And the ship that brought them was called the Mayflower. That’s the rest of the story about the old barn made from a ship, still standing in the English countryside.

For Paul Harvey’s American audience that was an amazing connection, but for us here today? Well, maybe not so much. What, then, does this old radio story have to do with today’s Holy Gospel? Nothing actually, except that what we have before us in the feeding of the five thousand is like that initial story about the barn. It’s interesting, but there’s more. Actually, the miracle that our Lord Jesus performs with only five barley loaves and two fish is more than just interesting; it’s astounding! It shows us not only the divine power of Jesus at work, but also His great compassion for those in need. However, the rest of the story takes things to an even higher level, dealing with a matter of eternal importance. The rest of the story relates directly to your salvation and life without end, and there is nothing more important than that. The rest of the story, dear friends, is what it’s all about.

The rest of the story is hinted at in a comment made by the people whom Jesus had fed—the people who had eaten their fill of the barley bread and fish and watched afterward as twelve baskets of leftovers were gathered up. Saint John tells us that, “When the people saw the sign that he had done, they said, ‘This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!’” We’re not told what they meant by this, only that when Jesus hears them say it, He perceives “that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king,” and so He “withdrew again to the mountain by himself.” He leaves them in a rather secretive way, not even telling His disciples that He’s taking off. One moment He’s there; the next He’s gone, with no one the wiser.

The next day, the great crowd of people that Jesus miraculously fed and who called Him “the Prophet” and wanted to take Him by force and make Him king, discover that He’s no longer with them. They figure that He’s gone back to Capernaum, from where they had all begun the previous day, and so that’s where they go to look for Him. And when they find Jesus back in Capernaum, they ask Him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” to which Jesus responds, “Truly, truly, I say to you”—which means, pay attention, for this is important—“you are seeking me not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not labour for food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.” Okay, dear friends, here we go! The rest of the story begins now.

When they called Jesus “the Prophet who is to come into the world,” they were referring to prophecy spoken by Moses, who told the children of Israel that God would raise up a prophet from among the people—a prophet like him. Now, by this, Moses meant that this one who would come would proclaim God’s Word and shepherd the people in the way of righteousness and salvation. The five thousand, however, don’t remember Moses for that sort of thing. What they remember about him is the manna, the bread that came down from heaven that he gave to their ancestors to eat in the wilderness. Just imagine, they thought, having full bellies and not even having to work for it! That’s the kind of Moses they want Jesus to be—one who will fill their bellies!

When Jesus tells them that He will happily give them a greater food—“food that endures to eternal life”—it’s like they don’t even hear Him. They want food for their bellies. Period. That’s all they’re concerned about; that’s all they want. And they’re not alone in this. This is where sin directs all human thought and desire—to our bellies—to the things of this world, rather than to the things of God that make for our salvation. And this is true, even for believers like you dear people. Your Old Adam—your sinful human nature—cares not a whit for “the food that endures to eternal life.” It wants only “the food that perishes”—the things that gratify the desires of the flesh, that keep us from having to suffer want or pain, and that selfishly blind us to the need of others. And so, there is a part of you and every other Christian person that wants Jesus to be the kind of Moses that fills our bellies and makes us happy in our earthly lives.

This is why certain preachers these days are so popular, able to fill huge auditoriums with thousands of people hanging on their every word. It’s because their every word is about satisfying the wants and desires of the flesh—exactly what the Old Adam wants to hear. Oh, it’s all presented in a very religious sounding way—God features prominently in the preaching. But if you listen to what is said and compare it with what God actually says in His Word, you’ll see there’s a big difference. You’ll see that, for the one true God, earthly blessings are not the whole story—they are not the end all and be all of what our dear Lord God is about. For that you need the rest of the story. For that you need to hear why God sent His dear Son to this world of sinners.

Throughout His earthly life and ministry our Lord Jesus has compassion on the sinful people of this world. Those who came to Him with their bodily afflictions He heals; those who are held captive by demons He sets free. As we see with the five thousand, and again at another time with four thousand, He gives them food to eat because they’re hungry. He has compassion on them. At the wedding in Cana, He even provides the wine! The love and compassion that He has for these poor people, however—for all the world’s poor people afflicted by sin—does not end with bettering the condition of their lives here on earth. The healing and feeding all points to the Word that He proclaims to them—to the good news of the kingdom of God—the good news that their Father in heaven loves them, too, and in His great love, He sent His Son to be for them—for us—for you and me—“the food that endures to eternal life.”

To the people from Capernaum, Jesus says, “Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread,” referring to Himself—“this is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” Jesus gives Himself to be the world’s life-giving bread by offering Himself up on the cross as the one true sacrifice to pay the world’s debt of sin. When He tells the people to eat of this bread that He is, He is simply telling them to believe and trust in Him so that they will not perish, but have everlasting life. But this isn’t what the people of Capernaum hear from Jesus; they hear Him say that they should eat of Him like earthly food, which, of course, would be cannibalism. And so they reject Jesus. Saint John tells us that, “After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him.”

One might think that Jesus did not act very wisely with all that He said to the people of Capernaum about eating and drinking His flesh and blood. If this were merely a metaphor for having faith in Him, why not just say that? Why risk turning the people away with such easy to misconstrue words? Well, the answer is in the rest of the story.

First of all, as Saint John tells us, Jesus knew from the beginning that many there in Capernaum did not believe in Him. They followed after Him because of the miracles He performed, rather than the truth of the Father’s love that He proclaimed. He, therefore, was not risking anything when He said to them, “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” When the offended unbelievers depart from Him, Jesus asks His disciples, the Twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” Simon Peter answers Jesus by saying, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” They know that Jesus would not lie; they know that what Jesus says is true, even if it is difficult to understand, or runs contrary to human reason.

The second and final piece of the rest of the story is that, even though speaking about eating His body and drinking His blood was, at the time, a metaphor for having faith, Jesus is here pointing to a time when it would be much, much more than a metaphor—when He would give to His Church the holy Sacrament of the Altar in which, through faith, we sacramentally eat and drink His true Body and Blood—sacramentally, meaning in a way that is absolutely real and true, but beyond our understanding. Our reason may want us to doubt it, but our faith says, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” In the Sacrament, you behold by faith the salvation that Jesus earned for you on the cross with His innocent suffering and death, and how He gives this eternal blessing to you through His Word and Sacraments. As Paul Harvey would say, “And now you know the rest of the story.” In Christ Jesus, our true bread who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. Amen.