Grace, mercy and peace be unto you from God, our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
The text for this sermon is the Holy Gospel reading from John 6, as well as these verses that follow: When they found [Jesus] on the other side of the sea, they said to him, "Rabbi, when did you come here?" Jesus answered them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 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. For on him God the Father has set his seal." Then they said to him, "What must we do, to be doing the works of God?" Jesus answered them, "This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent." (John 6:25-29, ESV)
Things are pretty gloomy in our nation and world right now as we deal with a pandemic and its accompanying panic, and Lent is an austere season in the Church, but Laetare Sunday is a brief respite of joy. Laetare is the Latin verb from Isaiah 66:10 in our Introit, and it means "Rejoice!" "Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her, all you who love her." That's why we members of the heavenly Jerusalem sing today, "Dear Christians, One and All, Rejoice!" Or as St. Paul puts it, "Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say, rejoice!" So we have much to rejoice in, even now!
There is a lot of talk about a proposed $1 trillion federal government aid package to help families and businesses weather the economic storm caused by the pandemic panic. Whatever your opinion about such a move, there is no doubt it could help put a bit more bread on people's tables for a short time. But I am announcing to you a government aid package that will feed you in soul and body into life everlasting, since it comes from King Jesus, the Bread of Life.
The people in our Gospel reading were enthusiastic about making Jesus their king because they wanted more of the superabundance of food in the wilderness from a few fish and loaves, and surely He would keep on giving and giving and giving if He were their king. Every day would be a feast, and they wouldn't have to lift a finger.
But that is not the sort of King Jesus came to be. His form of government would be revealed on the cross, when He laid down His life as a ransom for the sin of the whole world and the sign posted above Him told the truth: "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews." So while the crowd was coming His way, Jesus slipped away, took a walk on the water, and crossed the lake with His disciples.
But some of the crowd of the 5000 were determined; they worked hard to track Jesus down, and when they finally found Jesus, He saw right through them. He said, "Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves." In other words, they weren't coming after Him because they thought He was the Messiah, the Savior-King of the Jews, but because they wanted temporal government aid, more food, more stuff. So Jesus goes on to say, "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." But after He promised to give them this eternal food as a gift, they asked Him, "What must we do, to be doing the works of God?"
Here is the sad irony of our sinful state: while we want something for nothing in so many aspects of our lives, we automatically assume that we must earn God's grace and favor, we must do something in exchange for eternal life. When Jesus says that He will give them food that endures to eternal life—that He will give them a free and imperishable gift—these typical sinners turn around with a legalistic question, "What happy with us?
Because of our sinful nature, we can do nothing to establish a right relationship with God. As St. James tells us, if you break one commandment, you are guilty of breaking them all, and once you're in that boat, you have nothing to offer God to please Him. In exchange for the nothing we have to offer God, we deserve nothing in return; actually, we deserve worse than that—we deserve punishment in hell because obedience to God is our duty.
So we are helpless to save ourselves. That is why we need divine government aid, we need to be given everything in God's Kingdom, even though all we have to offer is nothing. We need to be saved by the work of God; we cannot be saved by doing the works God has required in the Ten Commandments. So Jesus responded to the crowd around Him, "This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent."
Again, to our legalistic ears, this sounds like we need to do a work for God in order to be saved, it sounds like we'd better get to work believing in Jesus. Now while it is true that the fruits of Christian faith are very active, and that the regenerate believer does actively follow Jesus and confess Him before the world, what we must always remember is that the only reason we have faith to begin with is that it is a gift worked by God the Holy Spirit in us.
Just moments later in John 6 Jesus would say to the crowd, "No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws [literally, "drags"] him. And I will raise him up on the last day" (John 6:44). That's faith: being dragged to Jesus by the Father through the Holy Spirit. Just consider the Small Catechism: "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."
Just consider our reading from Acts about the first congregation at Jerusalem, where St. Luke tells us that as many members joined the church through Baptism, it was actually God bringing them in: "And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved" (Acts 2:47). The Lord Jesus is the Savior, and we are the being saved!
When Jesus says that the work of God is to believe in Jesus, He is actually saying that it is God's work to bring us to faith in the one He has sent, Jesus Himself. Faith is the work of the Holy Spirit in us, since we are helpless to come to Jesus by our own sinful wills. What a gracious God we have! Over against all of our working, all of our doing, all of our striving after food that spoils, Jesus calmly says, "I'll take care of you." He says, "The bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world." Jesus is the Bread of God, the Bread of Life. He came down from heaven to give life to the world by living the perfect life and by giving His life on the cross for the life of the world.
In the life and death of Jesus, we find the full payment necessary to establish the divine government aid necessary to save us. Unlike us sinners, Jesus never disobeyed His Father and He loved those around Him as the Law required. So Jesus actually did fulfill all righteousness through His obedience to the Law.
But that only solved part of our problem. Since God also promised to punish anyone who sinned by damning them to hell for eternity, Jesus did the ultimate work of sacrifice when He Himself took the punishment we deserved. Yes, on the cross He suffered the pain of physical and eternal death in our place. He suffered hell so that we do not have to. But since Jesus answered for sin in His death, sin which is the cause of death, then death could not hold Him, and His Father vindicated the Sinless One by raising Him from the dead on Easter, never to die again.
Now, did you and I contribute anything to the perfect life, death, and resurrection of Jesus? Of course not! We did not perform any works that helped the Father save the world through His Son. In fact, we actively fought against God's work by heaping sin after sin upon the perfect back of the Lamb of God. So when it comes to being given God's salvation, we are completely passive. We cannot do or work even the tiniest part of it.
We do not earn salvation, as St. Paul explains in Romans: "To the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness." Paul specifically says that faith is not a work. Rather, faith is the empty hand into which God delivers your salvation. In other words, faith is the means by which we get everything God has to offer for nothing, on account of the divine government aid He has established in Jesus Christ.
God is pleased with you for the sake of Jesus. The guilt of your sins has been removed. God has justified you, declared you righteous, covering you with the robe of Christ's righteousness in your Baptism. That's all by grace, not by your works. While in this world there are and will be times you suffer in regards to possessions or health or reputation, God's divine government aid gives you everything that He is and has in Jesus Christ, which makes you eternally rich, blessed with everlasting resurrected life, and that's what matters most. "Rejoice in the Lord always! Again, I will say, rejoice!" In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
And the peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.