By Will Brown
Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you seek me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of man will give to you” (John 6.26f).
“You seek me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” This word of the Lord is a convicting one. I get pretty exercised about how various ideologies tend to usurp the Lord’s rightful place in our consciousness, as the object of our striving. Instead of devoting ourselves to the arduous search for the Lord’s face, instead of allowing his transcendence to beckon us, we assume that we already have him figured out, that he is just like us, and his priorities and mission are just like ours.
We tend to be first and foremost broad-minded, modern people, and only later and in a subordinate way are we his disciples. One sees this tendency in the reduction of Christianity — and I mean even in the calculation of those of us who purport to be Christians — to an insipid system of tolerant do-gooding, a mansion in the ever-expanding jurisdiction of liberal civilization.
It is important for me to note that when I use the word liberal, I am using it in the older and broader sense that encompasses both sides of the American public discourse, embodied by Republicans just as much as Democrats — who are joint heirs of Enlightenment political philosophy.
About this liberal order, and the inner logic that inclines it toward becoming the all-encompassing mediator of every relation, the Catholic political philosopher Michael Hanby wrote:
Too often we are content to accept the absolutism of liberal order, which consists in its capacity to establish itself as the ultimate horizon, to remake everything within that horizon in its own image, and to establish itself as the highest good and the condition of possibility for the pursuit of all other goods — including religious freedom. (First Things, February 2015)
Insofar as Jesus is popular in our time and place and even, if we are honest, insofar as he is popular with us, he is popular because of what we mistake him to be: a kind of validator of our bourgeois sensibilities, one of the many authorities from whom we learn of our inalienable right to autonomy and self-determination — and, by implication, of the right of others to autonomy and self-determination.
Our national religion has become what sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton have called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Its central tenet is that God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as is taught by most world religions; and the central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
“You seek me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” This misconception of who Jesus is and what he does naturally infects our approach to the blessed sacrament as well.
Bishop Tony Clavier his written:
Jesus has become a Pill. Rather than centering a Christian in a counter-cultural sense of the ‘otherness’ of the Eucharistic offering, the revived Sacrament often seems to reinforce the concept that I am at the center of all things, I am who I decide to be, and God sits around waiting to shower me with approval and grace, whatever grace is. (Covenant, July 22, 2015)
The truth, by contrast, is that Jesus is the bridge across what Gothold Lessing called the “ugly, broad ditch,” indeed the infinitely broad and ugly ditch separating us from God, separating us therefore from blessedness, happiness, fulfillment — in short, life. Jesus said, “No one comes to the Father but by me.” And as Paul says in today’s epistle, “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all.”
Jesus came so that we could have life, and have it in abundance. And there is no life apart from him. Nor is there any right to life, nor any but vain hope for life apart from him. He must become the object of our striving, our quest, our desire. And the only authentic approach to him is the way of humility and repentance. We have to recognize the dire straits into which we have piloted the vessels of our lives, and where the world and the devil conspire to leave us shackled and wrecked. We have to come to terms with our starvation, of our desperate need for the waters of life and the bread from heaven, the nourishment that we cannot provide for ourselves.
But Jesus has come so that we might have life. “I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst.”
We are swiftly becoming a society of spiritual infants — helpless and immature, as vulnerable to our ancient and rapacious enemy as the unborn who are crushed and picked apart and sold for profit in America’s abortion mills. We would do well to recognize the words of the letter to the Hebrews as addressed to us: “You need milk, not solid food; for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their faculties trained by practice to distinguish good from evil” (Heb. 5.12ff).
What is the antidote? It is to learn to seek Jesus for his own sake, because he is truth, beauty, and goodness; to cultivate a willingness to be surprised by what is revealed in him and to have our preconceptions broken down and remolded in a heavenly fashion; to think little of ourselves and much of him: to make the sentiments of the Prayer of Humble Access ours today and always:
We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy: Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his Body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us.
The Rev. Will Brown associate rector of All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Thomasville, Georgia.