The Struggle of Faith (A sermon from John 6:24-34)
This story immediately evokes questions. When the crowd that had been following Jesus wakes up the next morning and discovers that Jesus is not around, they take off looking for him.
I have to ask myself and I hope you will ask yourself if you are part of that crowd. Every spiritual journey begins with a quest, a search. Every pilgrim that starts a spiritual path is looking for something.
One may begin a spiritual pilgrimage as the result of an inner restlessness, or angst, or emptiness. Or it may arise out of a desire to experience more or be more. The quest may be prompted by a desire to be a better person or part of something larger than myself.
We can begin this journey at any point or stage in our lives. I was already a Christian and serving as a pastor when I began what I now call my spiritual journey. My journey led me to discover Jesus again as if for the first time.
Let me ask you: Are you looking for God? If you are, why? What is it that you want God to do?
How you respond to these questions may just tell you about the kind of spiritual path you are on? I had served several years as a pastor full of certitudes before my certitudes were shattered and I actually began what I now call my spiritual journey.
When the crowd finds Jesus, Jesus questions their motives. Jesus seems to intuit what they are after. Jesus says to them, “You are looking for me, not because you perceive that the works I am doing are signs of what God wants to do in your lives and in the world, but because you had your fill of the loaves I gave you.”
So I ask, “What is it that we want Jesus to do for us? Are we wanting the Christ to increase our bank accounts? Supply our needs and our wants? Assure us of heaven when we die? Make us feel good? What do we expect religion to do for us? What do we count on it for?
Jesus tells them not to pursue the food that perishes, but the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will supply.
This should evoke more questions: What is it that can sustain and support the sort of life Jesus embodied and lived among us? What can nourish and nurture the divine flow of God’s love and compassion in us and through us? What can feed and fuel the grace and truth of the living Word in our souls, in our relationships, in our communities? What can I do to open my heart and life to the Divine Wisdom and Love of the Christ, so that Divine Wisdom and Love enlightens me to see what I would otherwise not see and do what I otherwise would not do and to care for that which otherwise I would not care?
I think it is significant that the One who supplies the food that endures to eternal life, the One who is able to nurture this Divine Love and Wisdom within us is called in our text “he Son of Man.” Why is he called Son of Man? Could it be that Jesus is representative of every man and every woman? Could it be that Jesus is a reflection of what human beings are called and destined to be?
In the movie, Phenomenon, John Travolta plays George Malley. They discover that he has a brain tumor that has spread out like a hand, but instead of destroying brain function it has been stimulating brain function.
Toward the end there is a scene where George is talking to Dr. Willin. He is in the hospital and they want to do brain surgery. Not to try to save his life, because that will not help, but to study him. The surgery will probably shorten his life and there is good chance he will die on the operating table. Dr. Willin tells George that he could be George’s biographer and present him to the world. George says, “That’s not me, that’s just my brain.” And George insists that he might just have something say before his death.
As Dr. Willin persists and as George objects, Dr. Willin tries to tell George that he is not a scholar, but before he can say any more George interjects, “I’ll tell you what I am,” he says. “I am whatever one can be.”
Dr. Willin tries to brush this aside by saying, “Everyone with a malignant, tentacled . .” but before he can even compete his sentence, George again interjects, “No, no, no – that just helped get me here. I mean anybody can get here. I’m the possibility.”
George says, “You have this desperate grasp on technology and this desperate grasp on science, you don’t have a hand left to grasp what’s important. If I had to choose between a tumor that got me here and some flash of light from an alien craft, I would choose the tumor. I would because it is here, within us. What I’m talking about is the human spirit. That’s the challenge. That’s the voyage. That’s the expedition.”
As human beings we need to see and feel and experience what is possible. And sometimes that scares us, like it scared some of the townsfolk in the movie. They couldn’t fit George Malley into their clearly defined categories. We need a model, an image, an incarnation of the human/divine spirit to show us what is possible. That’s what Jesus gives us as the Son of Man, as the fully human one. Jesus breaks apart our clearly defined categories and definitions of what is possible. Jesus shows us the human potential when energized by the life of God.
Stories about Jesus like this one in our sacred text reflect the faith of the Johannine community. This story expresses the meaning Jesus had for John’s church. They believed that Jesus incarnated the grace and truth of God. They believed that the Christ Spirit that filled Jesus and inspired his works lived in them – in their community and in their personal lives.
Do we believe that? Do we believe that the Spirit that indwelt and empowered Jesus is the same Spirit that lives in us? The Apostle Paul apparently believed this too. He said, “It is no longer I who live [that is, the egocentric I, the little I, the false I] but it is Christ [the cosmic Christ, the Christ Spirit] who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20a).
Perhaps there were those – some maybe within the community, certainly some outside of John’s community that questioned this. Their questioning, as well as ours, is represented by the questioning crowd in this story. They wanted Jesus to perform another sign – as if one more sign would somehow lead to faith. They do not see and they do not believe. And they do not see and do not believe because they do not want to see or believe. Faith is a choice.
What hinders us – what hinders you and me from seeing and believing in the Divine Spirit, the Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Divine Advocate, the Really Real that is within us? What prevents us from realizing the image of God that is our human potential? What blinds us from seeing and prevents us from trusting the innate goodness that dwells within the human spirit and realizing the possibility of living and manifesting that goodness in our souls? - in our relationships – our marriages, families, friendships? – in our work and the projects that we endeavor to pursue? What prevents us from tapping into this inherent goodness and expressing this goodness.
Faith is a choice. And there’s always an alternative.
The late Fred Craddock tells about the time he was in Israel. He was in Bethlehem and he heard a Jewish man explain the Christmas story. They were standing in the Shepherd’s Field. This was in the lower part of Bethlehem, where a housing project now stands. The man speaking to their group said that on a clear night, if you look up toward the city you can see a bright star and it looks like its standing over the houses. That’s what happened at Christmas.
Craddock comments that he was mixing Matthew and Luke; he wasn’t really an expert in all of this. But he went on to explain to the group that this is how people got confused and thought there was a star over the house where Jesus was. When he finished Craddock said, “Well, that’s one way to look at it.”
Then the man said something very interesting. He said, “I know that’s just one way to look at it. When I was in school, the rabbi explained everything in the Bible two different ways. When he would come to a miracle, he would explain it in two different ways, and his reason was this: If something happens and you can’t explain it another way, then God didn’t do it.” (I like that!)
Craddock says, “God doesn’t paint you into a corner and say, ‘Now, you weasel, you don’t have a choice,’ so that the weasel will say, ‘I don’t have a choice. I believe.’” Craddock says, “There’s always an alternate route if one chooses not to believe. And some do, of course.” There is always an alternate route. Always.
Faith is a choice. I have found that we tend to believe what we want to believe. So let me ask you today, “What is it that you want to believe?”
Some would teach that the human spirit is irreparably evil. That we are totally depraved. That we have no choice but to act selfishly, to harbor greed, to be jealous and envious, to undermine and tear down each other.
Do you believe that? Do you want to believe that? You have a choice you know.
I choose to believe in the goodness of the creation and the goodness of the human spirit. And I believe that because I choose to believe that. I choose to believe that the Divine Spirit infuses the human spirit and the human spirit is inseparably bound to the Divine Spirit who gives life to our bodies and animates our souls.
I am not blind, however, to the way the human spirit can be deceived, deluded, and go off track. I am not blind to the evil that humans can do to one another and the rest of creation. I am not blind to the ways my own ego can lead me astray and mar the image of God that I am. But I choose to believe that such waywardness is not who I am, nor is it who you are!
Will you believe? Just because you are a Christian who practices Christianity doesn’t mean you are a believer. I was a pastor before I was a believer in the possibilities of the human spirit.
The unbelievers in our text – in this Gospel story – appeal to their religious tradition and scriptures. They claim Moses who gave their ancestors manna in the wilderness. And yet they are blind to the bread from heaven that is right in front of them, which they refuse to eat.
Sisters and brothers, I believe that the very Life that sustains the world, the very Love and Goodness at the heart of all that is, dwells in you and in me. I believe such Goodness constitutes the heart of the human spirit.
I invite you to believe. I invite you to eat this Bread from heaven. I invite you to practice this goodness and realize the potential for grace and truth, for love and justice, for healing and wholeness that resides in the Son of man, that resides in every man and every woman, in you and in me.
Our gracious God, give us the insight and understanding to know and claim the goodness that is inherent to who we are as human beings created in your image. May we find the courage to trust that through your grace and strength we can realize and fulfill our human potential – that we know God’s grace and truth and express the unconditional love we have come to experience in Christ.