In our story from John’s Gospel, the people find Jesus in Capernaum, and they’re trying to figure out what this Jesus is all about—what it would mean to believe in him, and what it would mean to follow him.
So they ask Jesus, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing?” (v. 30)
The people aren’t just going to trust anyone, any prophet or rabbi or miracle-worker that passes through town. The crowds want to make sure they know what this guy is about, what he cares about, who he works for, why he does what he does. To wonder about his motivation, if he’s trying to manipulate them, if he’s trying to use them, using them in his quest to become a celebrity preacher, to amass political power, to use them to start a revolution and set himself on the throne.
The people want to be sure. They’ve been duped before. Led astray by other leaders. They want to make sure they won’t make the same mistakes again. Is this Jesus trustworthy? Is he working for God or himself, or for someone else? What’s going on with this man, wandering from town to town, speaking truths about God, such mysteries?
So they ask him, to make sure they’re doing their due diligence before committing their lives to him. They ask Jesus for a sign, something that shows that he’s on God’s side.
Show us a sign, they say, “that we may see it and believe you?” A sign: a work of God, a divine act, a glimpse of heaven on earth, a flash of revelation before their eyes—something, anything, that they may see and believe, because they want to, they really want to, they want to believe, to have faith, to have a reason for hope, for hope in a world full of despair, full of tragedy.
The people want to believe, they do, so they ask Jesus for a sign. Confirmation that what they are feeling about him is true, that their feeling is from God. “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you?”
I wasn’t here last weekend, last Sunday, because I was in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania for the Mennonite World Conference, a gathering of Mennonites from around the world.
One evening, after a long day of workshops and meetings, I went back to my hotel and watched some soccer on TV for a while. Then I went on a late-night walk along godforsaken streets in suburbia, and I found myself in a local establishment, sitting by myself, minding my own business, when someone showed up at my table and said, “Hey, what’re you doing? Are here by yourself, all alone?” Yes, I said, sort of embarrassed.
She looked at me with pity in her eyes. “Well,” she said, “that’s just not right, because it’s my birthday, my 21st birthday, and I’m sitting over here with my mom and my boyfriend, celebrating, and you should join us, because it’s my birthday.” She stood there with a sash hanging on her shoulder, a sash with battery-operated lights blinking out the words “happy birthday.” And she wore a tiara on her head—princess, it said, in plastic diamonds.
I like birthdays, so I decided to join her for her birthday party. It was great. I stayed there with them until way too late, talking about everything, everything from how each of them—mom, daughter, and boyfriend—got their felonies, to what Roman Catholics believe about baptism.
The mother got her felony after a series of DUIs, the last one because several years ago, after a night of drinking, she parked her car on a train track, wanting to end her life, but the police got to her before a train did. She told us how glad she is that she’s been able to live this long, long enough to see her daughter turn twenty-one. She said that her daughter’s name came to her in a dream, when she was pregnant—Dakota. But it’s spelled funny on the birth certificate, because she didn’t know how to spell it—and as she tells me this, she shakes her head and looks away, so full of guilt and sadness. But Dakota just gives her a hug and tells her how much she loves her.
Dakota got her felony by stripping copper wire from abandoned buildings, to make some money, to pay bills or support a habit, I don’t know, I didn’t ask. Dakota’s boyfriend got his felony, he said, “for the manufacture and distribution of a controlled substance.” I didn’t ask which controlled substance, but I couldn’t help do some guessing, in my head, because their lives sounded so much like a subplot in Breaking Bad.
It took them a couple hours to ask the question—this is the question that changes every conversation for me. “What do you do?” Well, I said, I’m a pastor. They looked a little puzzled, nodding their heads, then the mother jumped in with a kind of confession, a religious confession, “I’m Catholic,” she said, “and I was going to baptize Dakota when she was born, but I never did get around to it, but I think she should be baptized, right? even though I guess it doesn’t matter that much to God, because, as you probably know, if you’re born of a Catholic mother, then of course you’re automatically a Catholic. But I still think she should be baptized, don’t you?”
I had no idea how what to say, how to respond. Luckily Dakota took over. She looked at me and said, “I don’t understand how you can believe in God.” Then she told story after story of misery, a lament for her own life, a life that could have been full of joy, but now seemed to float barely above the tragedy of it all—like being abandoned by her father, like the death of her younger brother, a heroin overdose, like the fact that her mother is an alcoholic, as Dakota told me with her mom sitting next to her, her mom looked at me with an embarrassed smile.
And then Dakota says something that’s straight from our Bible passage today, straight from John’s Gospel, when the people ask Jesus for a sign, so that they can see and believe.
There, sometime after midnight in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, down the street from my hotel, I found myself in the Bible, listening and watching, for what God might do, and hoping that God was listening too.
“What work are you performing?” the people ask Jesus, in the story—and that’s exactly what Dakota said to me about God. Look at my life, she said, what does God have anything to do with it?
It wasn’t that she didn’t want to believe in God. It wasn’t that she wanted to deny God. Instead, Dakota said, “If I’m going to believe in something, I need it to be shown to me, a sign or something.”
This is basically what the people are asking about Jesus in our Bible passage: “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you?” A sign, so they can see and believe. That’s what Dakota wanted, too. A sign. So she can believe, despite how bad everything is for her, for her life.
As she was talking, something shifted. She shifted from talking to me, to talking to God; from complaining to me about God, to actually talking to God with all of us there listening in, overhearing her conversation with God. “If there is a God,” she said, “then please God, just show me that you’re doing something in my life, something good, something that isn’t messing up my life.”
Her words became a prayer. She sounded like the Psalmist, like she was reciting a verse from Psalm 51: “Let the bones that you have crushed rejoice… Let me hear joy and gladness” (Psalm 51:8)—the bones you have crushed, the Psalmist says; the life you have messed up, Dakota said to God. I didn’t know what to say, to her. I don’t know what to say now, to you. All I know is that I hope God heard her that night, that God will give her a sign.
We all want a sign, don’t we? A sign that says that this life we have, this life full of tragedy and joy, full of love and hurt, full of kindness and heartache—that this life is where God has found us, a sign that God is with us, that God has been with us all along, and will be with us tomorrow and the day after that, month after month, year after year. And not just be with us, but that God will do something, as Dakota begged God; that God will let us hear joy and gladness, as the Psalmist prayed.
“What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you?” the people ask Jesus, “What work are you performing?” (v. 30)
Jesus gives an answer, here in our passage. But it’s an answer that baffles the people in the story. Even the disciples are baffled by Jesus’ response. Later in our chapter, it says, that “because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went with him” (v. 66). You can’t blame people for giving up on Jesus. There seems to be lots of good reasons to give up. Even disciples give up. Why haven’t you given up?
“I am the bread of life” (v. 35)—that’s what Jesus says to the people, when they ask for a sign. Jesus offers his life, his life as food, as sustenance, as provision, as our strength to live, to go on with this life—his body as life, flowing through our life, just like when we eat bread, and the food becomes part of us, making us who we are.
What have you seen of God’s life?—in a friend, in yourself?
There are no simple answers, no easy solutions to our lives, to the lives of our friends, no straight-forward answer for Dakota—or if there was, God sent the wrong person, because I didn’t know what to say; I didn’t know what to do, other than listen to her life and listen to her offer a grievance to God, and asking for a sign, for joy and gladness, pleading with God that the crushed bones of her life will someday rejoice.
“I am the bread of life,” Jesus says. God is bread, God is life. God has given us bread, God has given us life. Now God asks us to give ourselves to the lives we have, because God has already given life to ours, and in our lives, in us and around us, we find signs of God, signs of hope and grace, signs of gentleness and peace, signs of love, because that’s what God does in us, that’s what God is, that’s what God feels like. Our lives are full of God. We have been filled with the bread of life.
“Each of us was given grace,” we hear in Ephesians—grace, we’ve been given grace, “according to the measure of Christ’s gift.” We are full of the gifts of Christ; each of us, it says, abounding with “all humility and gentleness,” as we “with patience hold one another in love” (Ephesians 4:2-3, 7).
“I am the bread of life,” Jesus says. God is bread, God is our life, filling us and holding us, with love.