Good News for Secular People

John 6:1-21, July 25, 2021

It’s been a few weeks since I’ve preached on Sunday morning. I’ve missed it, but it’s given me a chance to do a little reading. I’m working my way through a big book by Canadian Philosopher Charles Taylor called A Secular Age. It’s like 800 pages but I hope to finish it before the next pandemic. 

Taylor’s main thesis is that we are now officially living in a secular age in the West, an age when belief in a transcendent God (or in anything beyond what we can see and feel) is not just less popular but actually more difficult than it used to be. 

500 years ago it was almost impossible to doubt the existence of God, but now it’s almost impossible not to.

It’s what can make it hard for us modern people to believe in stuff like bread from heaven and walking on water. We either deny it outright or we try to explain the miracle away with calculations of the calorie density of unleavened bread or the nocturnal viscosity of the Sea of Galilee. We seculars are conditioned against taking a story like this at face value. 

Apparently it used to be easier. 

It used to be that everybody believed. God was a given. But then (kind of because of the Reformation but especially after the birth of liberal democracies) things changed to where you could believe in God, but it was a private matter. It became a matter of choice. More recently, this belief-as-a-matter-of-choice thing has resulted in people leaving church behind to search for God elsewhere, or to no longer search for a God who seems not to have been there in the first place.

Now Charles Taylor and others are saying that even us people in church aren’t so sure we believe. In a Secular Age whether we’re outside the church or inside the church, we may all be anxiously wondering together, “Is there something, or is there nothing, and what does that mean for me?”

And it’s bad timing. We’re in anxious times these days, times when we could really use some good news to believe in, something to satisfy our hungry hearts. 

These two miracles (called signs in the Gospel of John) are presented side by side. Two signs given to two different groups: those outside (the crowd, the masses) get bread from heaven they can taste and see, and those “inside,” (the disciples) get a bonus sign, Jesus walking toward them on the water in the middle of a storm.

Both are times when anxious people got Good News. News of a self-disclosing God whose nature it is to come to us, to show up, in the midst of our hunger, anxiety, fear, and doubt. In stormy, rising waters, in the valley of the shadow of Death, here’s a God who gets his feet wet, who comes to us in person, who knows what we need, and shows up to get it to us even if it means he himself has to put bread in our mouths just to keep us going. 

I got a call this week from a friend from college. I’ve know him and his wife and their family since I was 19. I sang at their wedding, I officiated her brother’s wedding. I had heard that her father Dan was sick. My friend said, “Hey, do you think you can come over? Dan’s not doing well and the family would really appreciate it if you could come say a few words.” 

As I arrived Dan’s wife met me in the driveway. It had been years since we had seen each other and, to my great pleasure, she said I looked great. 

“Look,” she said, “Dan’s not religious. You know that, He doesn’t, wouldn’t want anything like last rites. We’re not Catholic and he’s really not a believer. But, the hospice people are telling us he’s near the end and I just feel like it would help him if you would say a few words.” 

Inside they tell me that he’s unresponsive but that yesterday he started saying he was “ready to go home.” He wanted to go home but he just “couldn’t find the door.” He’s not a religious man, but they noticed he seemed kind of anxious, and they were too, and “maybe if you could just say a few words,” they said. “Not meaning like, religious words, but, just tell him it’s okay. Tell him… he can go.” 

I had brought my prayer book with me. Luckily it was pocket sized. 

“Dan,” I said, trying to avoid religious language, “It’s me, Drew. Remember me? You were the first dad I ever played beer pong with in college.” 

I stumbled through the encounter, eventually getting to the words the family wanted, “Dan, your kids want you to know they love you. You had a hell of a run, and they’ve got more than enough happy memories to last them a lifetime. They promise that your grandchildren will remember you. They want you to know, it’s okay for you to go now.” 

We all started crying a bit. 

“I know you’re not much of a churchgoer, Dan, but if you were I’d promise you that you’ll get to be with them again some day. All of us will.” That line fell pretty flat. 

“I guess what I mean to say, Dan, is… you have nothing to worry about. It’s okay. Don’t be afraid.” For a moment it seemed like his breathing changed.

I said goodbye. We all wiped our tears and hugged, and I departed. And then, within an hour, Dan was gone. 

On that day when Jesus took the bread and broke it and gave it to them he was a living remembrance of the bread from heaven which was given in the wilderness in Exodus. Heavenly bread given when the people needed it most. But Jesus breaking the bread in John 6 is also an anticipation of the Eucharist, communion, which commemorates Christ’s death and how he gave himself up for us. 

For centuries, through cultural changes, the rise and fall of empires and civilizations the church has met at least weekly if not daily, with varying levels of belief and faith, to come again to this table and receive this gift. We gather together and, well, we say a few words. We take bread, we bless it, we break it, and and we give it to one another. We’ve done it all these years because deep down we know, we are all a bunch of anxious hungry people living in the shadow of death, with more questions than answers. 

Thankfully, ever since that crowd in Galilee the grace that Jesus gives is always given for free, regardless of whether the recipient believes. This grace, this bread, this word, it’s not contingent upon believing. In fact his recipients hardly ever believe until after they’ve received, and even then they usually don’t believe very well. 

This is Good News for anxious people living in a secular age. People like us who need someone to walk through the storm and get close enough to us to say a few words, and put bread in our mouths, to satisfy our hungry hearts in ways that are harder to deny that they are to question, in ways that, even for a moment, give us enough faith, hope, and love, to be at peace.

I don’t really know if any of the words I said made any difference for Dan, but assuming that we are all a little or a lot like Dan, I’ll end by saying a few more words only this time they are not mine. They are the Lord’s. To one and all he offers this invitation and promise: “Take. Eat. It is I. Do not be afraid.”

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