This week’s guest devotion is from Rev. Olav Panchu. Rev. Panchu, head pastor of St. John’s Congregation in Saratov, graduated from The Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne in 2001. He was ordained in 2002 and has served as the congregational head pastor since 2004. Currently, he studies in a doctoral program offered by Concordia Seminary in St. Louis. The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Ingria in Russia (ELCIR), of which St. John’s Congregation is a member church, is a sister church body of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS), and the LCMS supports projects with this sister body, and specifically with the congregation of St. John’s.
Rev. Panchu says: “The coming of Christ to the region of Saratov in the 1990’s was the answer to the spiritual search we had been in even in the Soviet era. Incidentally, the coat-of-arms of Saratov has fish in it (three sterlet under a crown), which for us was a symbol of the sudden coming of Christ and of His teaching as well as the miracle of feeding 5000 people before the Passover. The new time for St. John’s Congregation and for our other congregations started with the arrival of clergymen and theologians from the LCMS. They preached and taught as no one had preached and taught before them. And it was a miracle. Christ always defends the truth, and with it He always counters the world and many false traditions, including church traditions, which claim to be holy, but are really not.”
–By Rev. Olav Panchu, ELCIR
After this Jesus went away to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, which is the Sea of Tiberias. And a large crowd was following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing on the sick. Jesus went up on the mountain, and there he sat down with his disciples. Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand. Lifting up his eyes, then, and seeing that a large crowd was coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he would do. Philip answered him, “Two hundred denarii worth of bread would not be enough for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are they for so many?” Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” Now there was much grass in the place. So the men sat down, about five thousand in number. Jesus then took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated. So also the fish, as much as they wanted. And when they had eaten their fill, he told his disciples, “Gather up the leftover fragments, that nothing may be lost.” (John 6:1-12 ESV)
But it was not only believers in Christ that sought Him.
When they found him 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. Do not work 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 ok the Father has set his seal.” (John 6:25-27 ESV)
Christ speaks fundamental truths about human life. He says that many live in a state of hunger and thirst—the hunger and thirst of our souls. Those are the hunger and thirst from the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3 ESV). He who hungers in spirit seeks spiritual things, while the worldly person is hungry for this world. The world lives by passions, but the Bible teaches that “to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. (Romans 8:6 ESV).
The thoughts of the flesh result in our bondage in passions, in our corruptibility and mortality. The Lord says that those who believe in Him will live by Him. Why have the saints of the Christian Church throughout its history been fighting those who try to instill in their minds fleshly thoughts and love for this world? “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but… against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 6:12 ESV). Our Lord knows that we will perish if we do not receive eternal life. Luther always said that the spiritual foundation of our life is our faith in Christ, which is expressed in loving our neighbor and in the ministry of the Church.
Why does Christ say these mysterious words, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you” (John 14:27 ESV)? Christ warns that a person who does not live by Christ, that is, does not think about Him or communicate with Him in prayer or serve Him or receive Holy Communion, will lose their faith soon and the Holy Spirit will depart from them, which means spiritual death for such a person. Christ tells us that He is the one who is everything for us and He will spiritually feed us with Himself. This is how Cyril of Alexandria explains it in his commentary on the Gospel of John: “In the wilderness, the manna fed only the Jewish people while there are countless peoples in the universe. The true Bread of Life which came down from heaven has the power to feed the whole universe and give it a perfect life.”
Many people suffer on this earth not from fulfilling their Christian duty, but from being engrossed and obsessed with this world. Luther writes that in Holy Communion the wolf is swallowed up by the lamb. How does the Lord feed us in the Eucharist and prayer? Why does the prophet David say in the psalm, “In God alone my souls finds rest” (Psalm 62:1, translation from the Russian). As we unite with Him spiritually, we change. Experiencing those spiritual changes, the Apostle Paul says, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20 ESV). We do not learn from an angel or from man or from a book, but from Christ and His work in us because He is meek and humble in His heart and mind and way of thinking, and that is how we find rest from our inner struggle. The Lord also warns against trusting our souls too much either. “If anyone… does not hate… even his own life,” (Luke 14:26 ESV), they will lose that life and won’t obtain the life everlasting. Jesus was in such close communion with His Father and dedicated Himself to doing His will to such an extent that His Father’s words became His food and drink for every day. Jesus was sustained by hearing and seeing what His Father desired, and this resulted from Jesus spending a lot of time alone with Him in prayer.
Christ is the center of our church. Luther taught that if we keep Christ behind the curtain of traditions, saints, and rituals, the Church dies. We need to have our faith and our spirit strengthened, and so Christ distributed bread and fish, which symbolized Himself. As Christ shared His life, so we Christians should share our life because we all are spiritual fishermen. As we receive the Sacrament of Baptism by “water and Spirit”, we are born for a life with Christ, and as we receive Holy Communion, we are mysteriously fed by the Bread which came down for us from heaven. This way, all things we read about in Scripture that happened centuries and millennia before us, become our life.
Let us Pray: “O God, You see that of ourselves we have no strength. By Your mighty power defend us from all adversities that may happen to the body and from all evil thoughts that may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.” (Collect of the Day for the Second Sunday of Lent, One Year Lectionary, as found in The Lutheran Service Book: Altar Book, p. 871).