August 12, 2012 – Beliefs or Belief

To listen to a recording of this sermon, click here: beliefs or belief

This summer has seen some terrible acts of violence and hatred against people of faith in our country. On July 4th – on the day we all celebrate our freedom from tyranny – a man set fire to a Muslim mosque in Joplin, Missouri. This took place during the month of Ramadan, which is a particularly holy time in Islam, a time of prayer and fasting, ending in the celebration that is the Islamic equivalent of Christmas. On August 5th, an even more tragic event took place in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, when a gunman opened fire in a Sikh Temple. Six people were killed. There are all kinds of things wrong with these acts, first of all the most basic principle that hatred is evil, and that it is wrong for one human being to harm another person. We might make exceptions for self-defense or extreme situations like warfare, but in our hearts we recognize evil when we see it. In fact, that’s why those kinds of things are exceptions, because it is a basic principle of being human that we treat one another with decency and respect. And these violent acts are all the more hateful, in a country that stands for freedom and human rights – it is a betrayal of all that we claim to be if people’s lives and property are in danger when their beliefs offend someone else’s beliefs.

That much is clear, I think. But since these things happened in places of worship, it brings up another question that is particularly important to us as Christians. The victims of these crimes, Muslims and Sikhs, come from religious traditions that are strange and unfamiliar to us. The Muslims share some common roots with us in looking to Abraham as their spiritual ancestor, though Islam was not founded until the 600’s by a man named Mohammed who claimed to be a prophet. The Sikh religion has its origins in India, and combines some aspects of Hinduism and Islam. Most of us know pretty much nothing about Sikhism, but it is actually the fifth largest religion in the world. Unless we live with our heads buried in the ground, we can’t help but be aware that there are all kinds of belief systems in the world around us. And most religions, including Islam and Sikhism, claim that they offer ways to salvation. But as Christians, we claim that we have the only real way to salvation. As Christians, we believe in the one who said, with no apologies or exceptions, “I AM the way” and “I AM the truth” and “I AM the life – NO ONE comes to the Father except through me.”

So here’s the question – are we part of that mindset that rejects all people who don’t conform to our set of standards? Is Christianity just one among many ideologies, playing King of the Hill with all the other belief systems in the world to see who comes out on top? Who is the most convincing? Who can get the most converts – whether by being the most attractive, or by bullying the rest into joining us? I hope you will have already guessed that the answer is “NO”. And the reason is this: when Jesus talks about faith, and about belief, it doesn’t have anything to do with having the right set of rules or the right political agenda. Belief is not a system at all, in fact. Belief is something that has to do with our whole selves, and it is exactly what Jesus is talking about in the gospel reading today.

First of all, the reason we misunderstand what belief is nowadays is NOT because the Greek word meant something different, and the translation just doesn’t do it justice. That would be too easy! No, the people Jesus was talking to misunderstood things just as badly as we do. You notice, we’re still continuing on with that important event, when Jesus had fed the multitudes. As I mentioned before, this was a really important couple of days, and it gets a lot of attention in the gospels, especially John’s gospel. The day after the miracle happened, people were lining up to see more. We’re reading in chapter 6, and the crowds have followed Jesus and the disciples to the other side of the Sea. And there takes place a very significant conversation – significant for the crowds, and also significant for our understanding – about belief. The people come to Jesus and they want to know how to sign up: “What do we need to do?” And Jesus’s answer was just as hard, and just as important, for them to understand as it is for us. In verse 30 Jesus says, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”

And the people reacted just like any normal person would – they said, “OK, so do something to convince us.” “We want to believe, what are you going to do to prove yourself?” It’s pretty easy for us to see how silly this is, when these people have just seen Jesus feed a crowd the size of Potsdam with a few loaves and fishes. But if we are honest with ourselves, I think we have to admit that we’re pretty good at forgetting God’s gifts no matter how much he has done for us, and asking for more proof before we are willing to “believe” him. But the problem, as Jesus shows them, is not that they require too much proof in order to believe. The problem is that they think believing is a matter of being convinced, a matter of knowing the right creed, a matter of following the right set of rules. They missed the most important part of what Jesus told them: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” The belief Jesus is talking about isn’t belief in a set of rules or a religious system. He is talking about belief in a person, and not just any person, specifically belief in him.

You know what it means to believe in a person. It has very little to do with knowing the right facts about the person, it has nothing to do with what you do for the person, but it has everything to do with who they are, If you believe in a person, you trust them; you put your confidence in them, you know you are safe with them in every way. If you really believe in a person you would even put your own life, and the lives of the people most dear to you, in their hands. That is the belief that Jesus is calling us to – not to the right religious system, not to the right religion at all, but to a complete trust in the person that came from the Father to bring us life, to complete trust in him. Belief in Jesus means knowing that if we have everything in the world that we could possibly want – but not Jesus – we have nothing at all. But if we have not a single thing in the world except Jesus, we have everything. That’s what it means to be a Christian.

Jesus has two things to say about this work of belief we are called to. And the first thing is that we don’t do this work all by ourselves. In fact, we can’t believe in him at all, Jesus tells us, unless the Father first brings us to him. In verse 44 Jesus says, “No one can come to me unless the Father draws him.” Before we make any decision, before we know anything about Jesus, the Father is drawing us, because he loves us, because he is gracious to us. The word for “draws” means more than just “leads”, it also means “pulling” or “dragging”; it’s the word that is used for dragging a heavy fishing net, and it’s the word Luke uses in Acts when Paul and Silas are “dragged” before the magistrates in Philippi. Before we can do the hard work of trusting Jesus, God our Father has done the heavy lifting of bringing us near to him. I recently saw a cartoon about the famous poem we’ve all seen called “footprints.” You know how the poem goes, how Jesus says that when there were only a single set of footprints in the sand it was because he was carrying us. Well, the cartoon took it from there – in the cartoon, Jesus said, “and you see that long, deep rut in the sand? That was when I dragged you, kicking and screaming.” There may be some truth in that cartoon, I think. But the one thing we can hold onto is that we have neither the right nor the responsibility to judge who will or will not come to Jesus. Our work is to believe in the one whom the Father sent, and to rest all our life in his hands. And that is enough for us to do.

And the second thing and final thing I want to bring out from this passage is this: when the people came to Jesus they were seeking the kind of security that they thought he could provide, freedom from hunger, healing and comfort. But they had no idea what Jesus was offering them. And I think much of the time we have no idea what he is offering us, either. Twice in this passage, Jesus says, “I AM the bread of Life.” What Jesus has to offer us is very different from rules or systematic theology. Physically speaking, bread is the stuff that nourishes us, it’s what keeps us alive. Without bread, we have no strength, no health, no growth, no life at all. Human beings were not created as automatons, self-sufficient, self-powered creatures; we were created to be dependent on the rest of creation to sustain our life. Without our fellow creatures of grain and oil and salt we could not survive. And in a greater, not a lesser, way, as new creations in Christ we depend for our lives on all that he gives us. Without Jesus we have no strength, no health, no growth. But when Jesus offers us eternal life, he doesn’t just mean more of the same, this life with modifications, this life stretched out endlessly. Eternal life isn’t about quantity so much as quality, and eternal life isn’t primarily about the hereafter – it’s also about the here. Jesus is the Bread of Life, nourishing us NOW, sharing his life with us NOW. In verse 47 Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life.” Not “whoever believes WILL HAVE eternal life” “whoever believes HAS eternal life.” Just like our physical bodies store up the nourishment from our temporal bread so that we can draw upon it for all that we need to do, the nourishment we have in Jesus is there now and always for us to draw upon, so that we are growing and living by his power, and not by our own strength. We don’t always remember to draw upon that power, and we so often wear ourselves out trying to keep living according to our old life and strength that are passing away. But Jesus is there when we are ready to come to him, and not only passively waiting for us, but the Father who loves and pities his children draws us to him in his grace and mercy.

And for that reason, he gives us all the reminder of his gift of life: the bread that we share every time we come together as his body. In verse 61, Jesus tells us, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” From the very moment the Son of God was conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary, it was his good will and pleasure to give the gift of real life to his creatures. He put on our humanity – really –  so that we could put on his divinity – really. He came to us with that purpose of love. And the Father drew us to him with the purpose of his love. And the Spirit makes his home in us with the purpose of his love. And when we come together we do just as we are going to do in a few minutes: we come to the table as adopted children of the Father, to share the nourishment of the flesh of the Son, made present to us by the power of the Holy Spirit. The Eucharist is both reminder and truth. In the Eucharist we remember the once-and-for-all gift of the Cross even as we are mystically present with the Risen Christ. Jesus is the Bread of our Life, the source of all our strength and all our health and all our growth. And the work the Father has for us to do, the one thing necessary, is this: for us to believe in the one whom he has sent.

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