Sunday, August 12, 2012

A Whole New Way

A Whole New Way
Jn. 6:35, 41-51[1]
For several weeks we’ve been exploring the role of faith in our lives.  Faith challenges us to move beyond believing only what we can see to entrusting our lives to God. It is a whole different way of life that sees the possibility of new life in every death, the possibility of light shining in the deepest darkness, and the possibility of hope in the midst of despair. Faith is a challenge because it takes something of a leap for all of us to really entrust our lives to something like that.  Faith is also a choice.  To embrace faith is to choose to look at reality from the point of view that God is making all things new.  Besides that, faith is also a response.  It is a response to our experience of something beyond us, something that perhaps even strains our ability to understand or even imagine.
Ironically, I don’t think faith plays a very significant role in most of our lives these days.  For all the rhetoric of faith in our culture, I don’t believe it is the primary motivation behind much of what we do.  I think we’re motivated much more significantly by other things.  Things like ambition: we want to succeed, we want to achieve something great.  Or we’re motivated by competition: we want to be seen as better than others, or to see ourselves as better than others.  Some of us are motivated by the desire for prestige, seeking recognition or even fame.  Others are driven by greed: thinking somehow that the quality and quantity of our stuff defines our worth as individuals.  And then there are those who are obsessed with power:  wanting to control our own lives and the lives of those around us.  And many of us are motivated by fear.  We fear being alone, we fear losing our livelihood, we fear losing our health, we fear losing our stability, and so we try to protect ourselves from what we fear in any way we can.
But the reality is that a life motivated by these things is no life at all.  They are relentless taskmasters that always ask us for more and never give us the life we hoped to gain through them. I think that’s one of the lessons Jesus was trying to teach the people of his day and ours through the “Bread of Life” discourse.  In one puzzling verse, Jesus brings this into focus by saying that he’s going to give his flesh for the life of the world (John 6:51).  Some people take that literally and believe that you have to actually eat the flesh of Jesus and drink his blood in order to have eternal life.[2] But I think what that misses the fact that Jesus is speaking metaphorically.  There are many places in the Gospel of John where Jesus talks about laying down or giving his life for the world.  In all of them, he’s pointing to his death on the cross as an event that changes everything for everyone, everywhere.[3]  Unfortunately, we run into some obstacles here as well.  The traditional view of Jesus’ death on the cross is that, by pouring out his life’s blood on the cross to satisfy God’s wrath against us, he makes  it possible for us to live forever in heaven rather than being condemned to hell for our sins. 
But that seems to me to stray far afield from what Jesus is talking about here.  In John’s Gospel, he talks about giving people eternal life, but it is a life that begins now.  It is a full and abundant life here and now.[4]  It is a whole new way of living.  And so I think we have to ask ourselves, from that perspective, how it is that Jesus giving his life for us makes it possible for us to have this life here and now.  For one thing, I think Jesus’ own faith in God that enabled him to endure such suffering for our sakes explodes the false motivations that control our lives. When it comes to ambition, what level of “success” or “achievement” could ever compare with Jesus’ sacrifice of his very life?  And it seems to me that all our superficial measures for competing with each other just fall away when we really comprehend the depth of love Jesus expressed in that one act. Again, when you think about the fact that Jesus gave up his very life, our greed for more stuff can’t even come close to satisfying us.  And then there’s power: it seems to me that Jesus exploded the myth of power by showing what true power is—the power of love that is willing to sacrifice itself for others.  And finally, Jesus’ courageous faith in the face a terrifying death inspires us to overcome the fears we face.
In short, it seems to me that when we seek to follow in the footsteps of the faith that enabled Jesus to give up his life for the life of the world, it frees us for a whole new way of living.  When we embrace that kind of faith, we discover a life that is free from the relentless taskmasters that never deliver what they promise.  We discover a whole new way of living, one that is motivated by compassion and giving, by mercy and caring, by faith and hope and love.  It’s a whole new way of living that is full and abundant and free—a life that is truly worth living.

[1] © 2012 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/12/12 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Ernst Haenchen, John: Commentary on the Gospel of John, 298-99, points out that the letters of Ignatius show that the early church saw this as the only way to “guard against the gnostic heresy that Jesus’ body was only an apparition.”  Cf. also Gerard S. Sloyan, 73.
[3] Cf. John Calvin, Commentary on the Gospel According to John, on 6:51; cf. also Haenchen, John, 294; and George. R. Beasley-Murray, John, 93.  Cf. also Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.2:274, where he refers to Question 76 of the Heidelberg Catechism, which raises the question of eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking his blood, and answers that it means “to embrace with a trusting heart the whole passion and death of Christ” and to be “united more and more to his blessed body by the Holy Spirit.”
[4] Cf. Beasley-Murray, John, 94: “It is characteristic of this Gospel, however, that the emphasis in the passage falls not on Christ’s death for sin but on his death for life.”

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Perishable Things

Perishable Things
Jn. 6:24-35[1]
Last week we talked about the difficulty of putting our faith in a God that no one has ever seen and a Savior whom none of us ever met in person.  I think the challenge we have with believing in things “unseen” is one reason why we tend to put our faith much more easily in other things.  Things we can see and touch.  Things like career, finances, family, relationships, and our own ability to control our lives. Unfortunately, life has a way of reminding us that our faith in those things may not be rewarded in the way we expect.  When it comes to our career, most of us these days can expect to experience a significant disruption in our career at least once in our lives.  Finances are no more reliable.  We entrust our life savings to financial institutions who engage in what is basically a sophisticated form of gambling, and may wind up losing our shirts.  And people—whether our family or our spouses or our children or our friends—are all flawed and fallible and imminently capable of letting us down when we most need them. 
In a very real sense, most of the what we invest our faith in fall under the category of “perishable things” that Jesus talks about in our Gospel lesson for today.  After feeding the 5000 with five loaves and two fish, he and the disciples crossed the lake, only to find that the crowd had followed them there.  When they approached him, he abruptly accused them of seeking the “food that perishes.”  In a sense, he said they followed him not because they were trusted in him and in God’s cause of peace and justice and freedom in the world, but because they had a good meal.  In the dialogue that follows, it would seem that they were looking for a repeat of the miracle of manna in the wilderness.  It would seem that they believed that if Jesus could give them the manna from heaven like Moses did, then he must really be the Messiah.[2] It’s hard to tell whether the crowd was even aware of the miracle that had happened the day before.[3] What they did understand was that it was Jesus who fed them, by whatever means. 
But Jesus was constantly aware of the dangers of faith that is based on tangible results.[4]  Whenever you get whatever it is you asked for, it’s only a matter of time before you begin to wonder, and then you need something more to bolster your faith.  I think that’s why Jesus was so harsh with the crowd.  He was aware that they weren’t looking for the new life of God’s peace and justice and freedom.  They weren’t following Jesus because they believed he was bringing them this new life.  They were following him because they were looking for some kind of visible confirmation so they could believe.[5]
But Jesus called them to a completely different kind of faith.[6]  He called them to “Throw your lot in with the One that God has sent” (Jn. 6:29 MSG).  That means throwing their lot in with God’s cause.  It’s the same kind of the faith that the three young men displayed when they confronted King Nebuchadnezzar and refused to worship his statue.  In effect, they said to him, “Our God is able rescue us from the fiery furnace, but even if he doesn’t we will not worship you” (Daniel 3:17-18).  They had “thrown in their lot” with God’s cause in the world.  They weren’t about to give that up for the sake of anything or anyone.
That kind of faith is not easy. It’s very much like Abraham and Sarah setting out on a journey without even knowing where you’re going.  That kind of faith without external props can feel incredibly uncertain. It deals with “things hoped for” and “things not seen” (Heb. 11:1).  It’s impossible to wrap your hands around that kind of faith and get a firm grip on it.  It’s no wonder most of us prefer to place our faith in something concrete, something we can see and touch.  But at the end of the day, all those seemingly reliable objects of our faith fall short.  They all let us down.  And we really shouldn’t be surprised at that.  Because those “perishable things” that we put so much of our faith in simply lack the ability to satisfy our deepest need.  What we need is the life that only God can provide.
I think Jesus knew that we all have a tendency to put our faith in things that ultimately cannot satisfy the deepest longings of our soul.  St. Augustine said it this way, “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”[7]  The only “bread” that can truly satisfy our hunger is the life that God offers us.  And the amazing truth is that when we take the risk of “throwing in our lot the one whom God sent” to carry out God’s cause in the world, we find that somehow we experience a peace, a freedom, a quality of life that none of those “perishable things” can possibly provide.  When we take the risk of faith and begin to quiet our restless hearts, we find the life God offers us truly satisfies us in ways we may never have expected.

[1] © 2012 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/5/12 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Cf. G. R. Beasley-Murray, John, 98.
[3] To some extent, it would seem that only Jesus and his disciples knew what had happened. Cf. Gail R. O’Day, “The Gospel of John,” New Interpreters Bible IX:599: “The crowd does not recognize the sign that has been enacted before them.”
[4] Cf. O’Day, “Gospel of John,” New Interpreters Bible IX:611; cf. also ibid., 576: “The person who interprets a miracle solely as a miraculous act will remain transfixed by and limited to the act itself … .  Jesus could be revered, perhaps even believed in on account of that act, but only as a miracle worker.” On the contrary, “it is not the miracle per se, but the glimpse of the presence of God at work with and in human experience that can lead to faith.”
[5] This is somewhat problematic in John’s Gospel, because one of the main emphases in the Gospel is that Jesus works miraculous signs so that people might believe.  I think  Stephen Fowl “John 6:25-35,” Interpretation 61 (July 2007): 315 puts it in perspective well when he says, “the signs challenge those who see them, hear about them, and ultimately read about them, to look beyond the miracles that are performed to the one who performs the miracles. … Signs, rightly understood, deepen and strengthen belief in Jesus. They are gracious gifts. Like many gifts, however, they are not always received in the right ways.”
[6] Cf. Gerard S. Sloyan, John, 73: “This chapter is about believing without seeing (v. 36), about coming to God through Jesus and being assured that trust in him cannot be misplaced (v. 37).” 
[7] Augustine, Confessions, I.1; cf. John Caputo, On Religion, 15, 29, 127, where he discusses Augustine’s statement from the perspective that faith always involves an element of being restless and “unhinged.”