The theme of my sermon today is mystery. The quest for knowledge and understanding has formed part of human history since man first walked the earth. Yet the mystery of faith remains. As St Paul writes in his letter to the Corinthians, now we ‘see in a mirror dimly and only when the kingdom comes will we ‘see face to face’. He writes that our knowledge is only ever partial and will come to an end. What abides is faith, hope and love; and the greatest of these is love.
We learn then from St Paul that the mystery of faith far outweighs knowledge. What is the meaning, though, of this expression ‘mystery of faith’? In his book entitled ‘Mysteries of Faith’, Mark McIntosh writes that our aim should not be ‘to be clever or well informed but to be drawn into God’s life’. We need, he says, ‘to see our lives as taking place within God’s life’. Formation, he explains, means to be ‘transformed by the Spirit of Christ in prayer, worship, service and mission and be inhabited by his life as the meaning of our lives’. When this happens, he says, then you can communicate with life at a deeper level and become more neighbourly.
My interpretation of this view is that when our formation is ongoing (and it is a life-long journey) we are in tune with that which is mysterious. Mysterious because it is beyond our comprehension but by seeing our lives as taking place within God’s life we are liberated from the narrow confines imposed by non-belief and free to be fully human and deal better with one another. This freedom rests not in knowledge but in love.
This does not mean that learning is unimportant. The learning required, for example, by the medical profession has led to the treatment of life-threatening diseases and has recently produced the mighty weapon of the vaccination to defeat Covid. The subjects learnt at school can help us towards fruitful employment and the pleasure of hobbies and interests. Travellers seek knowledge of other peoples and places and history is important in offering us both encouragements and warnings. There is also the joy of learning a new skill and the gratification of receiving an award for your achievements. If, though, we want the promise of eternal life becoming a reality in the present, then we need, in our quest for knowledge, to recognise the activity of God and realize that at the end of the day the knowledge that really counts is knowledge of the love of God.
This recognition of the activity of God in our lives is what Jesus, in today’s Gospel reading, is conveying to the crowd. When he affirms that he is ‘the bread of life’ and says: ‘whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty’ he is revealing the activity of God in him.
Unfortunately, the Jewish audience do not heed his words. As far as they are concerned, Jesus cannot have come down from heaven as the son of Joseph whose parents are known to them. Here is an example of the confines to knowledge imposed by non-belief. Jesus answers their lack of belief in him by saying that they need to respond, as McIntosh expresses it, ‘to the call to communion with the Word’. If they do so, then they can have eternal life. Eternal life granted by the bread that comes down from heaven and is offered, not as the manna in the wilderness which their ancestors ate and then died, but in his flesh which is the living bread.
Here we find in this explanation a foreshadowing of the Last Supper when Jesus breaks the bread and gives it to his disciples saying: ‘Take, this is my body’. Before the Last Supper, according to John’s Gospel, Jesus washes the feet of his disciples. It is an act of humility and concern for others that demonstrates the interaction in earthly life that occurs when life reveals itself as taking place within God’s life. The disciples are amazed that their teacher and Lord should wash their feet because they do not yet grasp the mystery of faith.
The word ‘mystery’ appears many times in our worship both yesterday and today. It features in hymns and the affirmation in our liturgy: ‘Great is the mystery of faith. Christ has died, Christ has risen and Christ will come again’. Here we have the mystery of the Resurrection which we express in our worship to affirm the greatness of what is beyond our comprehension. Beyond our comprehension but the word ‘mystery’ does not imply a ghostly otherness but a rejoicing in the glory of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus who died for the salvation of us all. As McIntosh writes: ‘God speaks the Word into our time and space as the historical human being Jesus’. It is not a ghost story but a conversation given in the Gospels that is earthed but with a heavenly meaning.
Jesus is no longer physically present with us but the conversation continues in our worship today. It continues because we have faith in the love of God as our Creator and Redeemer. It is an eternal love which, if we contemplate and pray at the deepest level then we can, as McIntosh writes: ‘sense the gracious drawing of our whole being into the divine heart’.