I had a great eighth-grade English teacher. Mrs. Simmons was everything I wanted in a teacher—she was young, attractive, energetic, fun, and seemed interested in building genuine relationships with her students. I really enjoyed every minute in her class, but, as I think back on it, I learned a lot more about Mrs. Simmons than I did the English language. I fell in love (not literally) with the teacher but, in so doing, missed the content of the class.
Today’s gospel lesson (John 6:27-40) has a little touch of admiring the messenger above the message. Jesus claims rather boldly, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” He’s putting himself out there. He’s letting the crowd know that he is the one who has been sent by God to reach out to God’s people. Naturally, they want some proof: “Then what sign do you do, that we may see, and believe you? What work do you perform? Our fathers ate manna in the wilderness…”
That last line about the manna that had come down from the sky while Israel wandered through the wilderness reveals a great deal about the hearts of the crowd whom Jesus is addressing. They remember well Moses—another one sent by God to reach out to Israel—and they recall how Moses had called down life-sustaining bread when God’s people seemed on the verge of starvation. Invoking Moses and his example, the people look at Jesus, wondering what he might do for them.
But Jesus points out that they have fallen in love with the prophet rather than the message he brought: “It was not Moses who have you the bread from heaven; my Father gives you the true bread from heaven.” Moses was a miracle-worker, but he wasn’t the miracle itself. Moses reminded Israel that God would save them, but God’s people got lost in the show-stopping performance of manna from heaven, and they forgot that the bread (and the one who actually sent it) was most important.
Jesus was a miracle-worker. Jesus did amazing things and performed many signs. But, as John’s gospel points out, all of those signs point to something else. If we get lost in the sign itself, we fail to see what Jesus is trying to show us—that God himself has come down from heaven in the form of his Son to give life to the world. I don’t know about you, but Jesus opening the eyes of the blind or loosening the tongues of the mute doesn’t do a lot for me. I have need of salvation, and a first-century miracle show isn’t what gets me to heaven. It’s the message itself—that Jesus came to bring me and the whole world God’s love.