“What can Jesus overcome for you?” Sermon from John 6.1-21

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Aksionov was a merchant in the city of Vladimir, Russia. He was a well-respected man of the town, and people who knew him liked him. He had his flaws. For instance, he was prone to drinking too much but he didn’t get violent or anything when he drank. He was just an ordinary person.

One day, Aksionov decided to go to a nearby town fair as a business venture. The morning of his departure, Aksionov’s wife pleaded with him not to go. She said, “I had a nightmare in which your hair turned gray and you looked terrible.”

He waved his hand. “I’ll only be gone a few days. Don’t worry. Nothing bad will happen.” And, he left.

Along the way, he met another merchant and they decided to travel together. The fair was more than a day’s journey away, so that evening, they stopped at an inn, and after checking in, they dined together and drank pretty heavily. Late in the evening, they retired to their rooms.

The next morning Aksionov woke and didn’t wait for his traveling companion. He gathered his things and set off.

Not long after he left, a police officer came up to him and asked him about the merchant with whom he had been traveling. Aksionov said he hadn’t seen him since the previous night. The officer then explained that someone killed his traveling companion. Aksionov was shocked! They asked if they could search his bag. He said, “Yes, of course!”

The officers found a bloody knife.

Aksionov screamed, “That’s not mine!”

They arrested him despite his pleas of innocence. He went through a trial and sentencing. After a flogging, he was allowed to see his wife. Indeed, the stress of the arrest, trial, and sentencing had been almost too much for him. His hair had begun to turn gray.

He spent the next 26 years in Siberia. While serving his sentence, Aksionov became a well-respected prisoner. He mediated disputes between other prisoners and showed how light can penetrate darkness.

One day, among the new arrivals was a prisoner named Makar Semyonich. Semyonich seemed to be evil even by the standards of a Siberian prison. Aksionov overheard Semyonich telling of his exploits and bragging about how had gotten away with so much before eventually getting caught. It seemed like their paths had crossed before, and Aksionov figured out that Semyonich had killed the other merchant and framed him.

Aksionov struggled with what to do with this information. His rage burned for the 26 years he had been in Siberia. Each night for two weeks, he would lie awake and pray for God to calm his troubled heart.

One day Aksionov noticed some dirt under a shelf. He bent down to look and Semyonich crawled out muttering, “Just you keep quiet, old man, and you shall get out too. If you blab, they’ll flog the life out of me, but I’ll kill you first.”

Aksionov looked at his enemy, “You killed me long ago.” He looked around and said, “As for telling, maybe I will, maybe I won’t—only God can tell.”

The next day, some soldiers noticed the dirt and the entire prison erupted. Guards were searching everywhere, questioning everyone, trying to find the culprit. The Governor of the prison questioned different prisoners, and at last, he turned to Aksionov, who he knew to be a just and honest man, “You are a truthful old man; tell me, before God, who dug the hole?”

Aksionov thought about it and knew they would kill the one who had been trying to escape. He also thought about his suspicion and realized that he didn’t truly know if Semyonich had killed his fellow traveler and framed him. Finally, he said, “I cannot say, your honor. It is not God’s will that I should tell! Do what you like with me; I am your hands.”

That night, Semyonich came to Aksionov. He confessed having killed the fellow traveler and begged for Aksionov to forgive him. He cried out, “Ivan Aksionov, forgive me! For the love of God, forgive me! I will confess that it was I who killed the merchant, and you will be released and can go to your home.”[1]

Everyone has difficulties. Everyone faces bad days. As we come out of this pandemic, we can see how sometimes people have a really rough 15 months. When we hear about Jesus feeding thousands of people or walking on water, we can receive the message that God can overcome our problems. That’s the point of John’s stories. That’s the point of all the signs and miracles in John. Whatever we face, God can overcome it.

The problem comes from the way we read these biblical miracles. We find it harder to see the divine potential than to see Jesus solving a problem by flipping a switch. They were hungry and he fed them. We are susceptible to a sort of theological transference, and we apply the same notion to our situation. If he could feed the hungry, he could fix my problem, as I understand it.

Transference is the psychological principle of applying an experience from one situation to another.[2] It becomes theological when we read the story of a miracle, like Jesus feeding thousands or walking on water, and we apply it directly to our lives. Yet, the miracles of John were all about John’s purpose of showing that Jesus is the savior of the world. Jesus is capable of overcoming everything—even death.

In Tolstoy’s story “God See the Truth, But Waits,” we could join Aksionov in his frustration over losing 26 years of his life in a Siberian prison. We could lament God’s apparent absence when Semyonich appeared to get away with framing Aksionov for so many years.

That wasn’t the point. Aksionov was the same person before and after he went to prison. Thus, in prison, he made it a better place.

Each one of us can grow where we are planted. We can be the miracle those around us need to see. We might not be able to walk on water. Instead, we can live out our calling no matter where it takes us. Jesus fed those people because he was there and they were hungry. There’s more to it than that—there’s always more going on in John. The simplest explanation isn’t a bad explanation though.

For us, when we find obstacles to shining in the darkness, Jesus can overcome them and then shine through us. We are participants in God’s presence and work in the world.

In Tolstoy’s story, in the end, Semyonich confessed even though Aksionov protested. The authorities believed him and ordered the prison officials to release Aksionov. When the order arrived, Aksionov was already dead.

We don’t know how the story of our lives will turn out. We don’t know if we will get to see the fruit of our labor. All we can do is live in faith, trust that God is God (& we’re not), and be God’s hands and feet in the world.

Christ overcame the power of death and lives within each of us. We know that love is more powerful than hate. And, we can shine in the darkest moments of this life.

God is love. Love overcomes all and shines in the darkness. Amen.


[1] Leo Tolstoy, Walk in the Light & Twenty-Three Tales, trans. Aylmer Maude and Louise Maude (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1928), 69ff.

[2] Merav Rabinovich and Lea Kacen, “Transference in View of a Classical Conditioning Model,” The American Journal of Psychology 125, no. 2 (2012).

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