Text: John 6:1-21
How do you make sense of the world when the world is filled with so much senselessness? I have thought of this question as I have tried to take in some of the top news stories of this year, especially as of late. You know the stories. A 24-year-old Ph.D. student in neuroscience walks into a crowded movie theater in Aurora, Colorado and opens fire killing 12 and wounding dozens more. The reason? No one knows. And we will probably never know what caused James Holmes to act out such rage and violence on others. Is there any way to make sense out of such senseless violence? Or the news of a senior church official of one of the largest Christian denominations in the world who covered up sexual abuses by priests under his supervision – endangering hundreds, if not thousands, of children over several decades. And we know that he is not alone. How does one make sense of such senseless abuse of power and privilege? Then there are those church officials within our own brand of Christians, the Baptists, calling for society to round up all the gay people and put them behind electric fences and keep them there until they die – all in the name of religion and Christian belief. Not to mention the news this week in which the CEO and president of one of our nation’s largest restaurants, a self-described devoted Christian, proclaimed that legalizing gay marriage will bring down the wrath of God on our nation – again, all in the name of his Christian beliefs. How do you begin to make sense out of that kind of thinking? Or the unfolding news of athletic and university officials at a highly respected university covering up a decades-long scandal of sexual abuse so as not to damage the image of a football team and its coach. You really can’t make sense out of such actions. Hunger. War. Gun violence. Child abuse. Elderly abuse. Environmental abuse. And maybe above all, a pervasive greed that, at least in my mind, creates violence, abuse, hunger and war. How do we make sense of the world when the world is filled with so much senselessness?
In some ways it feels important to name these events in our worship, if for no other reason than to acknowledge that they are a part of our reality. But it also feels important because it seems that the church should have something to say about what is happening in the world. After all, if what we do here on Sunday morning is not relevant to the rest of our week maybe we should question why we are here. I don’t mean that to sound harsh, just honest. Karl Barth had it right, I believe, when he said that one should “read the Bible in one hand, and the newspaper in the other.” It is a powerful image. And yet, it is such a difficult assignment. Barth further challenged his students, “The Pastor and the Faithful should not deceive themselves into thinking that they are a religious society, which has to do with certain themes; they live in the world.” Indeed, we live in the world – a world that often seems out of control.
In recent weeks I have had two conversations in which part of the dialogue went something like this. “Pastor, I don’t know what I believe any more. I don’t even know if I believe anything, especially when it comes to God. I just can’t make sense of what is happening in the world and where God and religion fit into it all.” In both conversations I could feel the honesty of the confession. There was a place in my own heart and soul where the words resonated. How do you make sense out of chaos? As a person of faith, I left those conversations with the questions “Where and how do belief and faith intersect with the world? And are these two the same?”
Theologian Elaine Pagels poses an interesting question concerning belief and faith. It is printed on the front of today’s worship guide. She writes, “When and how did being a Christian become virtually synonymous with accepting a certain set of beliefs.” It is an insightful question. From history, we know that Christianity survived brutal persecution and flourished for generations – even centuries – before Christians formulated what they believed into confessional statements and creeds. Although the apostle Paul, about twenty years after Jesus’ death, stated “the gospel,” which, he says, “I too received” (that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures; that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day), it was more than a hundred years later that some Christians, perhaps in Rome, attempted to consolidate their group against the demands of a fellow Christian named Marcion, whom they regarded as a false teacher, by introducing formal statements of belief into worship. It wasn’t until the fourth century, after the Roman emperor Constantine himself converted to the new faith – or at least decriminalized it – that Christian bishops, at the emperor’s command, convened in the city of Nicaea, on the Turkish coast, to agree upon a common statement of beliefs – the so-called Nicene Creed, which defines the faith for many Christians to this day. Listen to it:
I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.
Who, for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.
And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceeds from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets.
And I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.
The Nicene Creed was written in the year 325 and since that time people of faith have been fighting over right belief.
Karen Armstrong in her book, The Spiral Staircase argues that our world doesn’t need more religion or belief but rather what our world needs is more faith and more compassion. She writes that religion and belief is about certainty and certainty makes people heartless, cruel, and inhuman. She argues that certainty closes our minds to new possibilities; it makes us complacent and pleased with ourselves. But kingdom living is about faith and compassion; about love and forgiveness, about grace and mercy, about uncertainty and mystery; about staying open and receptive to God’s continuing revelation.
In the end of her book Armstrong concludes, “Our task today is to mend our broken world; if religion and belief cannot do that it is worthless. What our world needs now is not belief, not certainty, but compassionate action and practically expressed respect for the sacred value of all human beings, even our enemies.”
Practicing religion and focusing religion on right belief has us killing one another—in body and in spirit. More and more, practicing religion isolates us from our fellow human beings. It is far too often what stands in our way of loving God with all our hearts, with all our souls, and with all our minds; and loving our neighbors. But when we move beyond belief into faith our hearts open to the possibility of listening to one another and respecting our differences. Living into faith – the uncertainty, the mystery, the unknown – teaches us to live open to the possibilities that God is dwelling in unexpected places in unexpected ways. Authentic faith – the kind of faith that says we can love and respect one another without having to share the same set of beliefs – offers us the opportunity to practice compassion, forgiveness and reconciliation.
And so we have the juxtaposition of belief and faith. This morning we heard the familiar stories of Jesus using five loaves and two fishes to feed the multitudes, and Jesus walking on water to calm the disciples’ fear in the midst of their chaos. If we approach this text from the standpoint of beliefs, we almost immediately begin trying to make sense of them. Was the crowd actually smaller than the reports, and so the food was sufficient? Was Jesus performing a miracle and somehow multiplying the bread? Was the miracle that there was enough food among the people and Jesus used the boy to inspire the others present to share? Was there a sandbar in the water that Jesus actually walked on? Or did Jesus overcome physical laws to make a point on the stormy night in question. This is the kind of thinking that has led to incredibly intricate pseudo-scientific theorizing to try to apply our current-day, Western rational mind to the events of the Bible. It is the pursuit of belief, and the drive to make sense. And the harder we gallop down the road of rationalization, the further we get from the meaning of the story.
I want to suggest this morning that the alternative to making sense is making meaning, and that making meaning is more about faith than belief. Elaine Pagels, in her book Beyond Belief, writes, “When I found that I no longer believed everything I thought Christians were supposed to believe, I asked myself, ‘Why not just leave Christianity – and religion – behind, as so many others have done?’ Yet I sometimes encountered, in churches and elsewhere – in the presence of a venerable Buddhist monk, in the cantor’s singing at a bar mitzvah, and on mountain hikes – something compelling, powerful, even terrifying that I could not ignore, and I had come to see that, besides belief, Christianity involves practice – and paths toward transformation.” Practice, not of religion and belief, but of love and compassion.
I will confess to you that I have no wisdom this morning for you, regarding making sense of the senselessness of the world. I cannot make sense of the chaos. For me, the question is not can I make sense of things but rather can I make meaning or find meaning in the midst of the world’s senselessness? What does our faith tell us about the senselessness of our world? Here is what I believe it tells us. I believe it tells us that in all things, God is with us. I believe it tells us that beyond what we can prove – touch, see, smell, taste and understand – there is a presence more powerful than hate and violence and bigotry and that presence is love and compassion. I believe it tells us that mercy and forgiveness heals the soul while revenge and judgment destroys the spirit. I believe that our faith, not our belief, reminds us that we do not bear our suffering alone. It tells us that love and community are at the very center of the faithful living, and that beyond our belief we are called to love God, one another and be community to one another. It is our faith, not our belief, that offers us the reassurance that when we experience the horrors of human powerlessness, we can expect to see God in unexpected places doing unexpected things.
Our faith need not be thoughtless or shallow or ignorant or untested. But hear this: you don’t have to have belief in order to live into faith. You don’t have to make sense of the senseless in order to find meaning in this world. There is a place beyond belief where God transforms our broken world and where our faith brings wholeness. That is the good news for our day.