We Believe Because It Is True

By Mark Michael

“Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” St. John 6:68

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Her name was Rachel. She had quick dark eyes and long dark hair. She sat at the desk in front of mine in Professor Price’s lectures on the poetry of Milton. She was clever at reading poetry, seemed to know everything about Greek mythology, and I desperately wanted to ask her out on a date.

The lectures were just before lunch, and in the warm North Carolina spring, most of us would grab our sandwiches and look for a place to sit out on the quad. This day, I walked right by Rachel on the quad, still too nervous to say anything, and she asked me if I would join her for lunch. It was a wonderful lunch. We talked about Milton’s “On the Morn of Christ’s Nativity,” which had been the lecture’s topic, and we talked about the crazy professor and the beautiful spring. Her eyes sparkled, and she was laughing, and I was thinking to myself—“Yes, this is going very, very well.”

I had just finished saying something about the poem when she gave me the oddest look. “You really believe this stuff, don’t you?” she said, and she laughed, but to me, that laugh was entirely different than the ones that came before it. I didn’t quite know what to say. Was I to go on and tell her that, yes I believed it, that it was more important to me than anything else in the world, that in fact I was planning to spend the rest of my life as a pastor? I had assumed she was one of us. She seemed to know the Bible well enough to understand Milton’s poems. But the look on her face told me that she found it baffling—how could anyone bright enough to study in this university actually believe in this outdated, irrelevant God? You couldn’t really belong here, she meant, and read His Book and profess His Creeds.

I remember how incredibly lonely I felt in that moment. If she wasn’t a Christian, was anyone else in that class a Christian? Did everyone on my hall think me as much of a fool as she did? Did I really belong in this big, important university? The conversation sputtered out rather quickly. I don’t think I ever looked into those sparkling eyes again.

I imagine that many of you have found yourselves in that moment. You have felt alone in your faith. Maybe someone told you that they didn’t see how you could be a Christian and study science or be a Christian and treat all people with respect. Maybe your loneliness was of a different sort. You experienced some awful tragedy and everyone else around you was saying: you see, if God was real, he wouldn’t let that sort of thing happen. Maybe it was one of those “bad things happening to good people situations,” like the one described in our Psalm. Maybe you had been praying for a long time for something very good, healing for a person who desperately needed it, or reconciliation in a broken family. And nothing happened, nothing at all, things just got worse. And you wondered—is this just me talking into empty space? Is God out there, does he understand this mess, or am I simply, terribly alone?

Jesus’ disciples found themselves in much the same place in our Gospel lesson. This is our fifth and final installment of the sixth chapter. You might remember that the chapter began with a great crowd gathered around Jesus. He had fed them loaves and fishes and they were ready to hear his message. But it hadn’t been a popular message. He had talked a strange talk. He called himself the Bread of Life, he said he was greater than Moses, that he would give his flesh and blood for people to eat. That crowd, there well may have been thousands of them, had gradually melted away. People just shook their head at that sort of talk. “The man’s crazy,” they thought, “just another kook who tries to put on a big show.” Twice Saint John tells us that some of those who left were disciples. Not just faces in the crowd or passive bystanders. They were disciples, those who had been following Jesus, who had believed that he was really something special. But all this talk of flesh and blood and living bread, it was just too much.

But the 12 did not go away. They felt lonely, to be sure, abandoned by all those people who had shared with them in the excitement of the first days of Jesus’ ministry. They felt a bit lost, perhaps, uncertain of where this Jesus might be taking them. But they did not go away. Jesus asked them, “Are you leaving too?” And Peter stands up and answers him back, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Peter doesn’t say that he totally understands these words or that he knows where his Lord is leading him. But he knows enough to put his trust in this crazy preacher, knowing that Jesus comes from God and that, ultimately, he will not lead him astray.

Peter shows us what true faith is like. Faith is not an easy thing. It will not always make your life happier, and you won’t always feel close to God, and it will not always help you make sense of the world. Anyone who tells you otherwise is either a liar or awfully inexperienced. Joshua was wise to warn those Israelites in our Old Testament lesson about how hard it would be to serve the Lord. We do not believe because it makes life easier. We believe because it is true. With Saint Peter we confess, “There is nowhere else to God. These words, as hard as they may be, give us eternal life.” As Jesus said, “These words that I have spoken to you are truth and life.”

But such and truth and life can only be seen by the heart moved by the Holy Spirit. “It is the Spirit that gives life,” Jesus says, “the flesh is useless.” Faith comes through God’s work in us, not through our own efforts. When Jesus talks of the flesh here, he means the human beings acting on their own strength, trusting only in their own experience and knowledge. On our own, we cannot stand. “All flesh is grass,” said the prophet, “the grass withers and the flower fades.”

Martin Luther said it well: “I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy, and kept me in the true faith.”

God has poured out his Spirit on us, to enlighten us, to make us holy, to keep us in the true faith. Through the Spirit, he gives us the capacity to hold fast to the truth, to see life and meaning in the most difficult words and the most difficult times. In those times when we feel most alone, we are never really alone. God is there beside us, patiently waiting for us to turn back to him, to give him room to show us what we really need to see.

“If one reaches the point where understanding fails,” wrote Thomas Merton, perhaps it is simply a reminder to stop thinking and start looking. Perhaps there is nothing to figure out after all. Perhaps we need only to wake up.”

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The Rev. Mark Michael is rector of St. Francis Episcopal Church in Potomac, Md., and editor of The Living Church.

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