Passing Through While Holding On
In the Collect for this week we pray that "we may so pass through things temporal that we lose not the things eternal." All people are passing through things temporal, the here and now, but only the Christian can pass through time while holding on to eternity. But it's a struggle.
The struggle comes from the fact that when faced with temporal problems we calculate. Like Philip we know how many mouths there are to feed and the cost of the bread needed to feed them. Like Andrew we know what resources we have on hand to do the feeding. Calculating is how we deal with temporal problems. Only irresponsible people don't do that. Only lazy people don't pay attention to numbers, facts, and options.
But what happens when things don't compute? What happens when our calculations leave us bankrupt? There's Andrew punching numbers into his calculator. We have this many thousand people. Bread cost this much per loaf. Then his face falls. "Where could we buy bread for this many people? Even if there was such place we'd need 8 months salary to buy it!" And there's Andrew inventorying their resources. Checking what they have with what they need. His face falls too. "One boy has 5 barely loaves and 2 cooked fish, but how far will this go among so many?"
As we pass through things temporal, we will run into problems: health, wealth, job, family problems. Being responsible people we start calculating, and we find our resources insufficient, our plans unworkable. The temporal presents us such a big problem that it stops us dead in our tracks. We're no longer passing through temporal things; we're mired in them.
Picture a hand opening up and letting go. That's Philip, that's Andrew, that's us letting go of things eternal. That's despair. All we know is the temporal problem before us. We see nothing eternal. The sunlight of eternal bliss, eternal salvation, the eternal God is blocked out by a temporal problem that is so huge to us because we don't have the resources to deal with it. You can tell this is what's going on in the text because although the One whom they confessed to be Son of the Most High and Messiah is standing right next to them, they don't turn to Him with their temporal problem. Nor do we. When our calculations show that we don't have the resources to address a temporal problem, well that's it. There is no answer, no hope, only despair.
To despair is to deny the eternal. To despair is to say that the temporal, i.e. the temporary is eternal. And despair doesn't stop with feeling bad, depressed, hopeless. No, it moves on to doing shameful, wicked things. A man despairs of his financial problems and steals. A woman despairs of her marriage problems and cheats. A teen despairs of his grades and gives up on school. A person despairs of their sinfulness being forgiven and gives free reign to their sins.
Despair shouts at us that we're alone in time with our problem. The eternal Christ shouts even louder that we're not alone. He is here with us. There is no temporal problem or situation you face that the eternal Christ doesn't already know what He's going to do. Though the temporal has morphed into an ugly beast permanently blocking your road to eternity, it doesn't look that way to Christ. In fact, according to the text, Christ is the one who pointed the ugly beast out to Philip and Andrew. They had been blissfully passing through temporal things happily listening as Jesus taught a Bible class. Then Jesus brought up the food problem. A problem He knew they couldn't solve. A problem He knew He would solve for them. Jesus had brought the problem up to test Philip.
There's a game going on here. It's the game fathers and mothers often play with children. The parent presents a problem to the child to see how or if the child will solve it. When the child is young, it's hiding the object under a towel. When they're older it's "stealing" their nose. The eternal God does the same with His children only we have trouble believing it's really a game. We don't see that He's in control of it as much as we are when we play with our children. That's because He hides not our blocks but the bodies of our loved ones in the ground. He "steals" not our nose but our health. Yet He knows what He's going to do. He knows this temporal loss, this temporal pain is not His eternal answer. He brings it to us so that we might learn to turn to Him.
See those huge temporal things that are blocking your way - those temporal problems, pains, difficulties, afflictions that have made you let loose of things eternal. Throw away your calculations, your assessments, your conclusion that this is no joke; that God can't be playing with you now; that this is too serious to be a game.
Let me ask you: What is more serious than eternal death? What is more serious than an eternal problem? Yet, what did God do? He sent His only Son into time, into your temporal world, to deal with your eternal problem. You were going to hell. No, if's, and's, or but's about it. That's the only place you could go. Every broken commandment sentenced you to an eternity of suffering and death. Only by keeping the commandments perfectly could you step out of hell. Only by paying for sins could you make it to the next level.
But by struggling to keep the commandments, by suffering to pay for them, you only went ever deeper into the quicksand of hell. You had no answer, no hope, no faith that you could solve this eternal problem till God the Son stepped into your time, your shoes, your commandments. He lived every commandment perfectly, and willingly took as His own the suffering, the dying, and the damning that you owed. He solved your eternal problem. Broken commandments can't accuse you; they've been kept by Jesus. The debt of your sins can't weigh on your conscience; it's been paid by Jesus.
Now then, does the God who came in flesh and blood to deal with your eternal problems abandon you to temporal ones? Paul says that the God who gave up His only Son for us graciously gives us all things. Can't you see the grace in this text? What were the thousands of people thinking when they followed Jesus to a remote place? What poor planners they were not to take food for themselves or even their children! Yet, Jesus graciously took care of the temporal problem they bought on themselves without lecturing them that they should've known better.
And what about the calculating disciples? Jesus saw to it that their temporal problem worked for them, as Paul says it does, a far more eternal weight of glory. Here they were in all seriousness showing Jesus how things couldn't possibly work out; here they were ignoring the eternal One who came to save their bodies and souls; here they were despairing over the temporal problem. Despair hurts. Yet, Jesus was just playing with His children. Quickly Jesus solved the temporal problem and provided a leftover basket of food for each of the despairing disciples. In a problem they were helpless and hopeless to solve, the eternal glory of their God in Christ was revealed. I think they laughed.
They were taught an important lesson. Better to grow in the grace of holding on to the eternal rather than in getting better at calculating the temporal. The disciples' temporal calculations didn't lead them back to the eternal Christ. They could only conclude, as we do, their problem was hopeless. But Jesus kept speaking didn't He? Despite their misbelief, despite their unbelief Jesus said, "Have the people sit down." There's a solution for how to feed thousands of people. Just have them sit down. What sort of solution was that? But the disciples did as Jesus commanded.
All 4 Gospel accounts of this miracle note the disciples did what Jesus told them. This is significant for us; that's why all 4 Gospels point it out. While passing through this world, confronted with temporal problems we can't solve, handle, or face, follow the commands of the eternal Christ. And right here is where many of you stumble. You think the commands I'm referring to are the 10 Commandments. They most certainly are the Commands of the eternal Christ. And so you think, "My temporal problem will be solved if I just follow these eternal commands." Now it's true. When faced with a problem follow the revealed Word of God. However, it's wrong to say, "My temporal problem will be solved if I just follow the commandments." That's the same as saying, "I'm saved by good works."
No you're not. You're saved by Christ. The commands Christ specifically left those He saved are not the 10 Commandments. The 10 Commandments He left for all. That's why you can find them posted in public places. The commandments Jesus specifically left in time to those He has saved for eternity are the commands to baptize, to absolve, and to commune.
We're faced with the temporal problem of family fighting, and we despair of our sinful nature ever to make things work. Retreat to the baptismal command that assures you the sinful nature you can never conquer has been drowned in your Baptism. We're faced with the temporal problem of our sinful worrying making everything worse. We despair of being anything other than a worry-wart. Retreat to the absolution the Lord has commanded you to hear and know that though you can see nothing but a worrier, God sees nothing but a holy child. We're faced with the problem of sickness, age, and death, and we despair of life because we don't see or feel any life in us. Retreat to the command to commune often, and know that Jesus gives you life and salvation in and by His Body and Blood.
Friend, these 3, tangible, physical things - Baptism, Absolution, and Communion - are the eternal things you are to hold on to as you pass through this temporal life. The Christian life in this temporal world is a constant going to and coming from these 3 things as we move ever closer to the eternal world. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Pentecost X (20060813); John 6: 1-15