A grade school aged boy figured out the whole Sunday School thing when he realized the answer to every question the teacher asked is “Jesus.” “Who is the Good Shepherd?” While his peers sat in ponderous silence, the boy shot his hand in the air and blurted out “Jesus.” The next Sunday: “Who walked on the water?” “Jesus.” The Sunday after that: “Who was born in a manger?” “Jesus.” You can see how this little boy was starting to build some confidence, so imagine his confusion when the teacher said, “Who can tell me what is gray and furry, has a bushy tail, lives in a tree, and gathers nuts for the winter?” The little boy raised his hand and said sheepishly, “Well, I know the answer has to be ‘Jesus,’ but that sure sounds like a squirrel to me.”
That old story came to me this week as I sat in the church’s resource room leafing through some old Sunday School curriculum. I happened across a book titled Instant Bible Lessons, which are aimed at children ages 5-10. Checking the table of contents, I noted lessons with such titles as “Don’t Pout–Pray!,” “The Path of the Proud,” “Cheerful Chores,” and (my favorite) “Pin the Hair on Samson.” And then, at the bottom of the page, was this line that caught my eye: “Answer Key…….page 95.”
Why, I thought, does life not come with an answer key; a page to which you can turn and have everything you want to know laid out right there before you? Why do good people suffer? Or, I want to have faith that everything will be OK, but how do I let go and simply trust? Or, what exactly am I supposed to do to be a good person and what does God think when I do not do it? It sure would be nice to have a page 95 to give us the answers to these and other questions.
Over the last four Sundays we have been reading from the 6th chapter of John’s Gospel. It begins with the account of Jesus feeding the 5,000 with just a few fish and a couple of loaves of bread. As the chapter unfolds it chronicles an on-going discussion between Jesus and those who at the meal, between Jesus and local religious authorities, and between Jesus and his own disciples. Each conversation is a kind of search for an answer key: Why does the food have stop? Where does Jesus get the power and authority to do these things? What does this miraculous event mean? And with each interaction, the conversation grows more tense until we find at the end of today’s reading most of the people who had been chasing Jesus around the lakeside decide following him is not worth the effort. Getting a free meal was nice. Not getting easy answers is frustrating as frustrating can be. His audience wants everything wrapped up in a nice, tidy package with a little gold bow on top, but life doesn’t fit neatly into a box and the bows we tie always seem to come undone in the face of our experiences.
More and more I am convinced that we begin our religious life on a quest for certainty but over time develop the spiritual capacity to live with ambiguity, nuance, and mystery.
There are two different ways people try to find certainty through religion. One involves manipulating the bible. This approach takes a verse from this Gospel, and phrase from that letter, and a bit of a psalm, and a dash of a proverb, and a healthy smattering of Paul, strings it all together, and holds that it then proclaims God’s truth through a sequential unfolding of a logical progression that is clean, clear, concise, and certain.
I warm to this approach like I would warm to a person who takes a handful of shells, stings them on necklace, holds them up, and says, “Here is everything you need to know about the beach.” Well, not really. Where is the sound of the waves, the smell of the salt water, the feel of the sand, the warmth of the sun, etc.? When confronted with the absurdity of certainty, this person will say, “How dare you attack my string of shells? Can’t you see that every one of these shells came right from the beach itself? How can you not see the entirety of the beach in what I have created? You must not be a true beach person and you certainly will not get to spend eternity at the beach after you die.” Have you ever met a person who uses the bible in a similar fashion?
There is another way a person might try to achieve certainty through religion. It does not involve the bible, but rather what I call ‘soft, cheesy theology.’ This approach draws upon statements of belief that sound nice and offer comfort, but when thought through are fraught with problems. Do you want some examples? “God always answers pray, but sometimes we don’t like what God says.” “God never gives you more than you can handle.” “When God closes one door, God always opens another.” I could go on, but you get the idea. You may even use some of them yourself. We like these sayings because they are sure and safe. They give us confidence and certainty in uncertain times and situations. But in their own way they reflect reality about as well as the string of shells reflects the beach.
For many religion is a safe harbor of self-made certainty – a certainty that either has to be defended at all costs or kept out of the light of thorough examination. But there comes a time when we let go of the need for certainty and begin to embrace the notion that we find God best as we let God be God – a Holy Being beyond explanation.
The lead character in Lucy Montgomery’s book Emily of New Moon understood well how to do this. Montgomery writes this about her:
It had always seemed to Emily, ever since she could remember, that she was very, very near to a world of wonderful beauty. Between it and herself hung only a thin curtain; she could never draw the curtain aside – but sometimes, just for a moment, a wind fluttered it and then it was as if she caught a glimpse of the enchanting realm beyond – only a glimpse – and heard a note of unearthly music… And always when the flash came to her Emily felt her life was a wonderful, mysterious thing of persistent beauty.”
Whenever I think of this passage I think that I want what Emily had… a belief that beauty is everywhere and very near to us all the time, an ability to wait on mystery to reveal itself to us, and – most important of all – the absence of need to quantify and explain it all. She was comfortable simply to let life be what it is and not to demand it be what it is not.
St. Peter was a great deal like Emily, at least as far as he accounts in today’s reading. After the masses pack their bags and leave, Jesus turns to his small band of committed followers and inquires if they too are going to walk away. Peter speaks for all of them: “To whom would we go? You have the words of eternal life and we have come to believe that you are the Holy One of God.” Notice that Peter does not say, “Who else is going to give us free food? Notice he does not say, “Why would we go someplace else when you hold the Answer Key from page 95?” He says, “You have the words of eternal life.” In what Jesus has done and through what Jesus has said, Peter has caught a glimpse of the ‘enchanting realm beyond.’ He does not need to have it explained to him. He does not need to describe it to others. He merely needs to abide in it and with it.
We begin our religious journey in life looking for certainty and over time develop the capacity to live with ambiguity, nuance, and mystery. We learn that finding God is not so much about finding answers as it is discerning a persistent Presence who is always with us. We learn to trust in this Presence and to depend on it. This, I think is, what Jesus offers in the bread and the wine.