The next day the crowd that had stayed on the other side of the sea saw that there had been only one boat there. They also saw that Jesus had not got into the boat with his disciples, but that his disciples had gone away alone. Then some boats from Tiberias came near the place where they had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks. So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus.
When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures 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, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, “He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’ ” Then Jesus said to them, “Very 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 that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”
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. But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away; for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me.
And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.”
‘What must we do to perform the works of God?’ say those who chase after Jesus in borrowed boats. Commentators gleefully pounce on their failure to grasp Jesus’ teaching on discipleship.
But is not this self same longing to perform ‘the works of God’ nurtured in the Church today? We assess, and are assessed by the mission we’re involved in, the project we are undertaking, and our connections with the surrounding community. In such ways we gauge of the health of church. Jesus’ answer “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent” places in doubt our primary tests of discipleship.
Jesus’ would be followers are not being stupid, or awkward when they ask their question. We should accept that they are willing to work hard at what will please God. But what will please God turns out to be altogether simpler and much more difficult. It is accepting a relationship with him that continually feeds us, gives us life: a relationship we do not earn or deserve. It is offered, in love, as a free gift to all who will accept it.
When we try to quantify and measure the faithfulness and health of a church, or any body of believers, the tests we are accustomed to use must be secondary. They are pointers to the effect that faith in Jesus Christ has – ‘signs’. They can be wonderful in their variety, and inspiring in their vigour. But they should point back to the primary source of our life together, our relationship with the one who truly nurtures us, Jesus Christ, the one in whom ‘we move and live and have our being’.
Gracious God when I am oppressed by things I meant to do, or failed to do, remind me of what you have done for me, on my behalf; and let your life in me nurture my failing spirit, give courage for living, so that I may know the work of God within me. Amen
The Rev’d John Young is a retired minister of the Synod of Scotland and a member of Giffnock URC