IIIM Magazine Online, Volume 3, Number 34, August 20 to August 26, 2001

A Sermon on John 6:16-25

By Rev. Russell B. Smith

Three friends were sitting underneath a tree one Saturday afternoon, staring up at the clouds. One of the friends asked, “If you could only pick one, would you choose to be truly happy, to be the richest person in the world, or to be surrounded by good friends?” One of the friends piped up and said, “That’s easy, I’d choose to be truly happy.” The second said, “I don’t know, what’s happiness if you can’t share it with others? I’d choose to be surrounded by good friends.” The friend who asked the question was silent for a moment and then said, “I’d choose to be the richest person in the world. Then I could buy my friends and then I’d be truly happy.”

While I can’t agree with the conclusion, I think the question points to a much deeper need. There is within each of us, I contend, a longing, a restlessness, a hunger. This hunger has been the fodder for great literature for generations. Thoreau said it best when he said that most men lead lives of quiet desperation. The more contemporary singer Bruce Springsteen captured the idea in his song Everybody’s Got a Hungry Heart. Those of you who are film buffs saw this hunger in the recent film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon where the young heroine searches for something that will complete her, looking to self-discipline, romance, action and adventure. I could list countless examples.

Today’s passage, I believe, illustrates this hunger that is in the heart of people. In John 6:1-15 we saw the miracle of the feeding of the 5000, and we focused on the principles of thanksgiving and abundance. The passage immediately following this one contains Jesus’ famous “Bread of Life” discourse, where Jesus directs the crowd’s attention from physical feeding to spiritual feeding. This brief section is a transition that divides those two larger thematically linked sections. John has clearly kept it intentionally short. While Matthew and Mark dwell on this episode, John skips what we think would be major details – he doesn’t even mention that Peter walked on water. Instead, John keeps his description lean and quick so he can focus on the continuity between the miracle (John 6:1-15) and the subsequent discourse the other side of the lake (John 6:35-59)

In this short transitional passage, however, John demonstrates the hunger that is in the human heart. After the crowds receive physical bread, John shows the spiritual hunger that draws the crowds to seek spiritual bread. He also shows us that Jesus reveals himself to his disciples in a special way.

Let’s begin with the crowds in John 6:22-25. The day after the feeding of the 5000, the crowds awaken. They’d had a taste of the wonders that Jesus could do. They saw Jesus go up on the mountain, and they saw the Disciples row off onto the lake. Surely they would be able to have a little more time with Jesus before he went off after his disciples. When they arose the next day, they may have waited a while. Some probably went up on the mountain to seek out Jesus. That’s when they discovered he’d gone. They knew he hadn’t gone by boat, for the disciples had taken the only boat. They were left with a mystery. When more boats arrive, they loaded up and went searching for Jesus. It is likely that they hugged the coastline, looking for Jesus walking on the shore to Capernaum. Obviously, they didn’t see him. So, when they arrived at Capernaum, they found Jesus and asked, “When did you come here?” At this point, the careful reader will point out that Jesus’ response to the crowd (John 6:26) indicates that they were only seeking food, and that Jesus’ whole problem with the crowd was that they were not spiritually seeking. That may look like a good point at first glance, but it’s not quite true. In Mark’s account of the feeding of the 5000, we learn that Jesus had seen the crowds as sheep without a shepherd, so he had taught them (Mark 6:34) – they had come to him for teaching not for food. The only reason they had gotten hungry was that they had listened to Jesus’ teaching for so long. Also, recall that no one had expected Jesus to feed the people in the first place – the feeding miracle had been a complete surprise. In John 6:26-27, Jesus saw the crowd as spiritual seekers, not as opportunists, so it is not quite right to read his response as meaning, “You’re just coming to me for food again.” I propose that their spiritual hunger is genuine, but immature. Their desire for spiritual satisfaction is intertwined so tightly with their physical needs that there is confusion. So, when Jesus rebuked them in John 6:26-27, it was not because they had no spiritual hunger, but because they had unwittingly let their physical needs blend too closely with their spiritual needs.

There are two main ways of dealing with spiritual hunger. One way is to ignore it, to mask it with ceaseless activity, to fill your life up with “stuff.” It doesn’t matter what the stuff is, so long as there is enough of it, and so long as you keep telling yourself, “This is what I truly want to do.”

I remember a conversation between two of my high school friends. We had gotten back together a few years after college, and one asked the other, “Are you happy.” “Oh sure, I’m working hard and playing hard.” “But are you happy?” “Yeah, I go to a lot of parties” “You don’t get it, are you happy?” “I told you – I have lots of fun.” What we had was a failure to communicate. My friend wasn’t reflecting on whether this ceaseless partying activity brought satisfaction or not.

If we are willing to sit back and go with the flow, then the world will supply us with a never-ending stream of entertainment, and we can allow our lives to be consumed with diversion. We could endlessly fill up our time with sporting events, amusement parks, bar hopping, and television. Those with more cultured sensibilities could endlessly fill up their time between with Pops concerts, opera, and museums. Don’t get me wrong – none of these events or entertainments is intrinsically wrong. There is a needed place for recreation and entertainment. However, our culture has succeeded in elevating entertainment to an idol. We need to avoid getting caught up in the hype and flash that lure us to spend more time and energy on recreation. The terrible irony is that those who spend their energies pursuing recreation, as though life were some great fraternity party, wind up totally bored halfway through their life. The old recreations don’t give the adrenaline rush they used to. These people wind up shuffling through the same routine, hoping that something will come along to excite them out of their stupor. When you make entertainment and diversion your god, you will spend your life not being entertained.

The other way of dealing with spiritual hunger is to pursue a solution. That’s what the crowds were doing, in their own way. They followed Jesus because he had the words of life and because he worked wonders. However, as we’ve seen, the crowds were immature. They recognized their spiritual hunger, but mixed it up with their physical hunger. They were lost in the dark, looking for something they couldn’t find.

Now look at the disciples in contrast. They were in the boat in the middle of the lake when a storm kicked up. Even though they were experienced boaters, this was still a dangerous time. Then they saw Jesus walking on the water. They were afraid. So, Jesus told them “Don’t be afraid” and stepped into the boat, then they arrived at the shore. We can derive lots of meaning from these few verses: Jesus has command over the very elements, the wind and the sea obey his orders; Jesus has the capacity to calm hearts that are afraid. However, there is one point that I believe is most important to the story: this was a miracle for the disciples’ eyes only. No one else saw him walk on the water; no one else heard him calm the storm – no one but the disciples. The crowds were on shore, wondering where Jesus had gone; the disciples in the boat saw him in a special way.

The point is that Jesus grants to his disciples special revelation in order to strengthen their faith. Now, at this point you might say, “Where’s my special revelation? If Jesus does this with his disciples, why doesn’t it happen to me? Why doesn’t God appear so that we all believe in him?” That’s a reasonable question.

The special revelation that Jesus gave to his disciples in this account was a physical appearance. However, later in this gospel Jesus talked about sending the Holy Spirit, promising, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever – the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you” (John 14:16-18). At that time, Jesus also told them, “It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.”

In the midst of the storm, the disciples weren’t ready to understand. So, Jesus did some work to prepare their hearts by giving them a small, special revelation. This is frequently the pattern. We receive a taste of Jesus, and this makes us hungry for more. Then Jesus takes us deeper and we get hungrier. To put it another way, Jesus is refining the appetite of his disciples. The crowds will gobble up anything. Blend the spiritual with the worldly and serve it up, and be quick about it. But Jesus was teaching his disciples to be connoisseurs. He’s teaching them to relate to him as a person, and he’s progressively revealing more of his power as God.

So, the crowds show us that people have a general hunger and seek Jesus. The disciples show us that Jesus refines the hunger in the hearts of his beloved.

What does this mean for us? First of all, we need to figure out what our hunger desires. C.S. Lewis, in his spiritual autobiography Surprised by Joy, discusses this hunger. He tells how his passion for literature prepared him for a passion for Christ. The sense of abandonment of self he felt as he pursued literature prepared him for the greater abandonment of self as he pursued obedience to Christ. Do you know what you hunger? We’re not so much hungry for comfort food or leisure activities as we are for wholeness and peace and purpose. These are the things that only Christ can offer. Then ask yourself, “How hungry am I? How much do I want Christ who offers wholeness and peace and purpose?” Pray to be hungry. Immerse yourselves in the Scriptures to become get hungry. Sharpen your appetite through exercise: pray; search the scriptures; perform deeds of love and compassion. You see, everybody has a hungry heart – but we need to make sure our hunger is for that which nourishes. You think about that. Amen.