Some people go to church week after week and often leave vaguely unsatisfied. Some people, when a famous preacher rents a stadium or coliseum, will drive many miles to attend the meeting. Does everyone leave happy and satisfied? Is that even the point?
What do we want from a church service or other similar gathering? Is what we want the same thing Jesus wants to offer?
Feeding of the 5000
Jesus hadn’t intended to minister to a crowd. He wanted to find a quiet place where he could grieve for the murder of John the Baptist, and where he could hear his disciples’ reports on what they accomplished when he sent them out two by two. But of course a crowd came anyway.
Jesus’ ministry sometimes seems like a long stream of interruptions, where he took care of people’s needs instead of whatever he had planned. Late in the day, they were hungry, so he had to feed them, too. The feeding of the 5000 is the only miracle recorded in all four gospels.
They all describe how the disciples rowed across the sea and left Jesus by himself, too. Of course the crowd went to Capernaum to find him. John 6:22-35 records a very strange dialog.
The crowd, knowing nothing about the miracles that had happened overnight, were surprised that Jesus had gotten to town before they did and asked him when he had arrived.
Jesus was not as glad to see them as they were to see him. He said that they looked for him not because they had seen signs of God in action, but because they had had an unexpected good meal.
He told them not to work for food that only satisfies for the moment, but for food that endures for eternal life. He told them that eternal life was a gift of the Son of Man, and that God the Father had set his seal on the Son.
The crowd very properly asked what kind of work he meant, but the only thing they knew about work was works of the law. They wanted to hear some religious task they could perform and receive eternal life as a reward. Jesus told them that the work of God is to believe Jesus.
And here’s where it gets weird.
What did the crowd want in Capernaum?
These are people who had flocked to hear Jesus preach, and he preached all day. They could have left at any time, but they hung on every word until they got hungry, and then he showed his compassion by producing more than enough food for all of them out of next to nothing. But somehow they didn’t take it as a sign from God!
So when Jesus said the work of God was for them to believe him, they asked what sign he would show them. Their fathers had eaten manna in the wilderness for 40 years. Jesus had only provided one meal. How could he top Moses?
And when Jesus told them to seek the true bread from heaven that God, not Moses, had provided, they were still thinking of filling their stomachs. Jesus told them that he himself was both bread and water from heaven, and whoever came to him would never hunger or thirst again. He would satisfy the deepest longing of their soul, but as long as they were fixated on their stomach instead of their soul, they could never get it.
The Bible doesn’t record what Jesus had preached to the crowd the day before, only that they had interrupted him and he had fed them bread and fish. Whatever he preached obviously didn’t register at all, and the more he tried to explain what he meant, less willing they became to hear him out. By the end of the chapter, even long-time disciples decided to call it quits (John 6:60-71).
Do modern Christians want what Jesus offers?
There is only one good reason to come to church or to go to a coliseum or stadium to hear a preacher. And that’s to have an encounter with the living God. We get that encounter by actively seeking it with our whole heart and entering into worship. Entering into worship simply means giving God our entire attention and waiting expectantly for him to make his presence known.
Enjoying singing the hymns or listening to the other music is a byproduct. Benefitting in any way from the sermon is a byproduct. Any good conversations we have with other members of the congregation is a byproduct. Anything else that happens in Sunday school, in the hallway, in the parking lot is a byproduct.
Too many of us are too much like that crowd. We care more about what to eat, what to wear, what comfortable furniture to sit on, what technological marvels to entertain us—all kinds of mere stuff—than we do about doing the work of God, which is to believe in Jesus.
Nowhere does Scripture tell us it’s good enough to believe that Jesus existed or to agree that the Bible stories and some set of doctrines are true. Believing Jesus means actively living according to what he still teaches through Scripture and through speaking to our hearts.
Believing Jesus is hard work, much harder than simply agreeing with a set of statements, much harder than coming to church and taking part in its activities, much harder than trying our best to be a good person between services. That’s undoubtedly why we so easily slip into the same mindset as the people who followed Jesus to Capernaum.
We want simple explanations, simple tasks, something we can do with little trouble, confident that it’s good enough. Then we want to be left alone to enjoy ourselves. God doesn’t offer that. Will we continue with him, anyway?