Aug. 22, 2021
“There was only one Christian, and he died on the cross.” That was Nietzche voicing his contempt for Christianity’s inability to produce convincing witnesses to their own proclamation. In other words, we couldn’t walk our own talk, which was tantamount to making our God as good as dead.
Here’s another quote: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” That’s GK Chesterton saying something similar, but not exactly the same. He’s not discrediting the faith so much as he’s pointing out our own lack of resolve and determination to live by it over and against the competing demands of our culture. (Demands like looking out for number one before all else, finding fulfillment in our own busyness, solving our problems through violence.)
I know that these aren’t cheery ways to begin a sermon, but the quotes came to mind as I thought about the picture John paints in his gospel passage for this morning. Twice he mentions the challenging nature of buying into the whole notion of a Christian life. First, there’s this confusing talk of eating his flesh, drinking his blood, and abiding with him. When the disciples say, “what you are talking about is difficult” – difficult to do or difficult to understand? (I’m not sure which, but I’m guessing they mean both) – Jesus seems to say, “Oh, it gets more difficult than that!”
Later, when Jesus tells them that this faith thing isn’t something you can do on your own – that it requires God’s intervention and human trust more than the appeasement of God and human achievement – we’re told that many people who thought of themselves as disciples turned back and gave up on the strange new reality that Jesus was bringing to their worlds. It was just too much.
Here’s one of those places, it seems to me, that scripture’s words pretty accurately capture a dynamic that is as true now as it was back then. At least, it’s true for me. Not so much in the sense of a conscious turning away, but in the sense that what I’m asked to trust (what we’re asked to trust) is almost too much. I don’t really have a problem believing in God. It’s relatively easy for me to believe in a transcendent and mysterious God, a creator whose mind, and being, and power, and life, are ultimately beyond knowing; an eternal force that is greater than all of us and greater than all that we can imagine. Where I stumble is when it comes to the notion of this God’s immanence: God’s presence, God’s love, in the moment and in the material and in the little details of my life. How could it really be that this endless force of transcendent truth – God! – could choose to exist as intimate and personal love for each of us, manifesting in our own tiny spans of life through the simplicity of say, the words of a friend, the help of a stranger, the prayers of a church, food for a hungry person, the flight of a humming bird, the beauty of a sunset, a shared vulnerability, or a moment of peace and rest?
What remains difficult is not so much the belief in God as the belief in a God who exists for us as love in such a way that we can live in trust and a sense of faithfulness. Again, I think it’s less the case that we intentionally opt out of this particular kind of a God as we don’t intentionally enough opt in.
And that, in part, I think is because of the nature and demands of the age we are in. We’ve been talking a bit about the characteristics of this secular age that defines our time, about its demand that we keep up with its relentless pace of change, always performing, always busying ourselves with the work of defining ourselves in new and changing contexts. Well, a recent article in the Christian Century adds thoughtfully to the discussion in my opinion. Katherine Willis talks about a book called, “How to do Nothing,” which is less about doing nothing than it is about choosing where it is that we direct our attentions. The secular age is characterized by an “attention economy,” meaning that we are always paying, getting, or seeking attention. “Attention,” writes Pershey, “is one of our most valuable resources, and everyone wants a piece of it: politicians and advertisers, influencers and friends (whatever that means now that we tend to friend people more often than we actually befriend them.)”
The article’s suggestion is that we’ve forgotten the art of doing nothing because of this attention economy. But, what doing nothing really means, if I read it correctly, is the conscious decision to do just one thing. It’s the understanding that focusing our attention in one place can mean that our attention will not be in another. It’s about putting the others aside.
I’m thinking that this dynamic may be a part of what makes it hard for us to maintain a vital faith, why discipleship is challenging, and why poor Nitzche was so discouraged by Christian failures. If we were better at practicing just the one thing, at choosing how and where we’ll offer our attention, maybe we would be better at “abiding in Jesus” (as the gospel says) and allowing Jesus to abide in us. And, wouldn’t it be nice to be better at that? Just think of the difference in our quality of life when we find ourselves doing it. Isn’t life more hopeful, more full of possibilities and love, when we’re aware that it is also full of Christ?
The lectionary does something strange every 3 years. It gives us six weeks in a row of passages from John 6, and in each of those passages Jesus tells us that he’s the bread of life. The repetition may be easier to take when you are one of those churches that follows each sermon with the celebration of communion, where you actually then take that bread into your body as a way of “abiding.” But regardless, it’s quite a bit of John 6.
I have an Episcopalian colleague who gave his church the following practice. He said, “When you come up for Communion don’t have in your mind what it is you’ll be receiving. Instead, bring to Christ’s table all that you are carrying; bring to Christ all that weighs upon your heart and mind. Leave it with him, and then allow yourself as you receive this bread to receive whatever it is that in love Christ wants to give you.”
It struck me as a particularly beautiful approach to celebrating the sacrament, but also as instructions to help us focus our attentions and learn how better to abide. I practiced his instructions as a kind of guided meditation and I encourage you to do the same. Find a quiet place and bring to him your whole self, leave it all on his table, and hear him tell you that he’s the bread of life for you too. Hear him ask you to take him in.
I think what you’ll find is that you’ll receive what you need for that moment. I think that what you’ll find is that your nourishment won’t be the end of it. You’ll be nourished so that you too will be bread for the world. Your abiding and his abiding in you will be one of the ways in which this distracted world will find the love of a transcendent God reaching into the present.
 Katherine Willis Pershey, “What we Behold,” The Christian Century, Aug. 11, 2021, page 12.