"When Jesus then lifted up his eyes, and saw a great company
come unto him, he saith unto Philip, Whence shall we buy bread, that these
may eat? And this he said to prove him: for he himself knew what he would
do" (John 6:5-6).
In this weekís collect and lessons, we encounter Chapter Four of the
ancient Churchís course of Lenten study. The first chapter taught us about
Christís sacrifice of himself for the sake of his Fatherís glory and for
our salvation. The second chapter laid out for us the fact that only a
life of sacrifice for Christís sake is a proper and sufficient response
on our part to the self-sacrifice of the Son of God.
Last week, in the third chapter, we learned that the vows of Baptism
commit us to worshipping only the One True God, who never changes. We also
learned that such worship is only possible when we have been cleansed of
the devilís influence in our lives, so that we are set free by the grace
of God to serve him alone in all things public and private.
These lessons were not meant just for the time of Sunday service. They
were intended to be the special focus of our prayers and meditations throughout
the week, so that each week leads us deeper into the Christian Faith and
closer to keeping a Scripturally informed and purposely holy Easter.
And so, this week, we are expected to consider the cost to us of our
salvation. What did we do to deserve Jesus Christís death and resurrection?
What must we pay to receive the benefits of the one sacrifice, once offered,
of the Son of God on the cross? The "short answer" to both questions is
"absolutely nothing." The "long answer" is the same, but understood in
a deeper humility.
Todayís Gospel is St. Johnís account of one of the times when our Lord
Jesus Christ fed a great multitude. It is important to notice as we think
about this Gospel that St. John provides the detail, "And the passover,
a feast of the Jews, was nigh" (6:4). The Passover, after all, was more
than an earthly meal. It represented the supernatural Covenant of life
between God and his Chosen People, and in particular the liberation of
the Israelites from bondage in Egypt on the night when the angel of death
"passed over" Godís people and took the first-born of the Egyptians.
At the Passover, the main food was the flesh of a sacrificial lamb,
whose blood also marked the doorways of the Israelites to set their houses
apart from those of the Egyptians. The Passover was a prophetic meal, and
not and end in itself. The meal spoke for God, not only in recalling the
Exodus from Egypt, but also in promising the manner of mankindís liberation
from sin and death. The early Christians recognized, under the guidance
of the Holy Ghost who descended upon them at Pentecost, that the Passion
and Resurrection of Jesus Christ were the fulfillment of the Passoverís
ancient prophecy of life.
For example, St. Paul wrote "ÖChrist our passover is sacrificed for
us: Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with
the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity
and truth" (1 Corinthians 5:7-8). He meant, of course, that the Lordís
Supper is the Christian Passover meal, the prophetic meal of a new and
eternal life in Christ, to be continued until the Lord returns in glory.
But he meant as well that Christian life depends in general on the historic
and supernatural realities that give meaning to the visible rites and ceremonies
of the Holy Communion.
The Holy Communion is more than magic, and greater than magic could
be. The Holy Communion is the making visible of the saving love and grace
of God. Likewise, then, the miraculous meal fed to the multitude was both
more than food and more than magic. It, too, was the making visible of
the saving love of God and of the power of Godís grace. It, too, was a
prophecy of the saving death that should come and of the spiritual food
that would be fed by Christ to the multitudes of his believers foreveróhis
own sacred Body and Blood.
Thus, the Body and the Blood of Christ are both the means of salvation
and the visible signs (or "fulfilled prophecies") of salvation. If this
is true (and it most certainly is), then we can learn the cost to us of
salvation by learning the cost of the bread that Jesus Christ fed to the
multitude in the wilderness. How much did they pay?
Our Lord looks out over the multitude with his disciples and asks, "When
shall we buy bread, that these may eat?" This is a "teaching question,"
and not a "catering question," since our Lord already knows what he is
going to do. He is testing his disciples to see if they understand what
is happening, and as usual they donít. The Cross, the Empty Tomb, and the
Descent of the Holy Ghost are all still in their future. Thus, Philip informs
our Lord that two hundred days wages ("two hundred pennyworth") wonít buy
the bread that they need.
And that is the point. In the middle of the wilderness (representing
this fallen world of sin), the Son of God is going to feed the multitude
by a free gift of bread that represents the eternal life that he offers
in himself. With the Father and the Holy Ghost, but otherwise on his own,
Jesus Christ will give the men what they need to live, not just today,
but forever. To take the bread that Jesus Christ offers, trusting in him,
is to make visible the gift of faith. Christ doesnít force his bread down
the menís throats, but he gives them the grace to accept freely his gift
Jesus Christ, whether in the prophetic act of feeding the multitude
or in the fullness of the salvation that he offers by his death and resurrection,
retains all of the initiative and all of the authority. He pays, personally,
the entire price of eternal life. All that remains for the multitude or
for us to do is either to take, eat, and live; or to refuse to take, refuse
to eat, and choose to die.
The self-sacrifice and obedience that Christís own self-sacrifice and
obedience calls from us are not the "price" or the "means" of our salvation.
They are the result of our salvation. The multitude ate because Christ
made it possible. We live because Christ makes it possible. Freed from
sin by the grace of God in Jesus Christ, we become able for the first time
in our lives to live as we ought to live, to the glory of God and with
a decent care for one another. Our good living is a benefit that we receive
from Christ, and not something that comes from within us that allows us
to "pay Christ back" for Calvary. A few moments thought, moreover, will
teach us how ungrateful and insulting it would be even to suggest to Christ
that living as we ought to live, as he enables us to live, is some kind
of "tit for tat" that cancels out his agony and death.
Our Collect today reminds us of what we truly deserve from God: that
we "worthily deserve to be punished for our evil deeds." We can never place
God in our debt because we will always owe him either the debts of sin
and death, or the debts of eternal life and salvation. He will always remain
God, and we will never replace him. Nor can Godís Law, which teaches us
how to use the freedom that he has given us by grace and the sacrifice
of his Son, be perverted into a list of good works that place him in our
As St. Paul teaches in todayís Epistle from Galatians, the Law of God
is intended for free men and not for slaves. The Law of God describes the
freedom of those made just by grace through faith. Those who have been
freed from sin by grace will act as Godís commands, or repent as sin their
failures to do so. Those who remain in sin can only have the Law in the
bondage of their will, so that the Law offers them only condemnation for
not being what God created them to be. And it is a sinful delusion to believe
that we can keep the Law of God before God gives us the grace to do so,
before we have received the benefits of Christís one sacrifice for the
sins of all men.
This week, then, our Lenten study is to major in grace, gratitude, and
freedom. We are to purge our minds of any thought that God owes us anything
when we live according to his will, because such living is Godís gift to
us and not the price that we pay for admission into his kingdom. More even
than this, we are to remind ourselves, in every way that we can think of,
that every good thing in our lives has been made possible by the agony
of our Savior. Thus, we keep the Law of God, not as the regulations that
govern slaves, but as the kindly guidance of a loving Father in heaven
who desires every good thing for us and from us, so that we can live with
him in grace and happiness forever.
Please note: These sermons are offered for your meditation.
If you wish to use them for some other purpose or republish them, please
credit St. Andrewís Church and Dr. Tarsitano.