The Ignorance of Knowledge, The Wisdom of Faith

The text of the sermon, based on John 6.35, 41-51, preached with the people of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Spartanburg, SC, on the 11th Sunday after Pentecost, August 8, 2021.

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Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never hunger. Whoever believes in me will never thirst.”

My mother, Clara Lolita Roberts Abernathy, loved to bake. Especially bread. And I loved that she loved to bake. Especially bread. The house would fill with an aroma that I associated (and associate still!) with the amazing grace and warmth of her love and her life.

Bread. A timeless universal substance and sign, corporeal and spiritual, of elemental nourishment that satisfies bodily need, thus, sustains life.

The Israelites, on their strenuous wilderness journey from Egyptian captivity to the Promised Land, hungered, despairing for their lives. The Lord, who, in love, liberated them, said to Moses, “I will rain bread from heaven and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day.”[1]

So, we, seeking nourishment, pray to our Father in heaven, who is love, “Give us this day our daily bread.”

So, Jesus, God’s love incarnate, identifies himself as the giver of bread. And, not only that, as God’s Life incarnate, he is bread. Jesus both gives and is eternal life. And that by faith in him, eternal life is ours.

This sounds (or, as bread, smells!) like good news. This is good news!

But where and how are we, really, “when,” as the hymn sings, “the woes of life o’ertake (us), hopes deceive and fears annoy”?[2] When our lives and the lives of those we love are assaulted by illness or injustice, natural calamity or human iniquity? When our hunger for relief is not satisfied, our thirst for release is not quenched? When Jesus appears more absent than present? When what we observe about our lives in this world contradicts our faith-experience? When moments of spiritual crisis challenge our belief in faith?

This is the dilemma at the heart of the encounter between Jesus and the crowd. They knew or thought they knew so much, too much about the way things are. Who Jesus is. His parentage. His place of birth. Who God is, who fed their ancestors manna in the wilderness. Therefore, Jesus can’t be the giver of bread! Jesus can’t be bread from heaven or from anywhere else!

Funny thing, not humorous, but ironic, about knowledge; that compendium of time-tested-and-trusted-truths wrought from the application of our reason to our experience. Knowledge can blind us, leaving us unable to see and recognize this ultimate truth, which, intuitively, yes, we know: There always is more to know. And, as the olden adage has it, the more we know, the more we know we don’t know. And if…as this is true about the natural world, it is more true, most true about that inscrutable mystery who is God.

The English poet and satirist Alexander Pope declared: “A little learning is a dangerous thing.”[3] Indeed! A little learning can lead us to think that we know more than we do or can know. And a little learning, in spiritual matters, can limit our awareness and assurance of when, where, how God speaks, Jesus appears, and the Holy Spirit moves in the circumstances of the world around us and in our lives.

Now, we are not called to reject knowledge, renounce reason, repudiate history and experience. No! These are useful, essential in charting the course of our lives. Yet none can provide absolute answers for the conundrums we encounter in this world. None can offer the perfect plan to guide our life’s ship safely across the deepest oceans or to navigate carefully to avoid crashing into the rockiest shoals of this existence.

For if anything is universally true about this life, no one is free from suffering. “The woes of life” o’ertake all of us. “Hopes deceive and fears annoy” all of us. Illness and injustice, natural calamity and human iniquity affect all of us. And as Jesus bore the cross of his crucifixion, we know that he does not spare us from suffering.

Nevertheless, or perhaps because of all of this, the good news is that Jesus always stands with us, even at times when he appears distant or absent, saying, “I am the bread of life.” Therefore, by faith, we know that we have eternal life now! Therefore, nothing, not illness or injustice, natural calamity or human iniquity, even physical death can separate us from the love and life of God who is Christ Jesus.[4]

© 2021 PRA

#thelimitationsofknowledge #theboundlessnessoffaith


[1] Exodus 16.4

[2] From the hymn, In the cross of Christ I glory; words by John Bowring (1792-1872)

[3] Alexander Pope (1688-1744) in his “An Essay on Criticism” (1709): “A little learning is a dang’rous thing; drink deep or taste not the Pierian spring: there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain and drinking largely sobers us again.”

[4] Here, I purposefully echo the counsel of the Apostle Paul in Romans 8.31-39.

2 thoughts on “The Ignorance of Knowledge, The Wisdom of Faith

  1. Thank you Paul!! I needed this sermon! And more than that, I love someone who needs this sermon… I printed it out for her and am heading to spend the day with her which is her birthday! Not sure how much joy we will have today as there is a looming family diagnosis we are waiting to receive but I hope this sermon helps her. I know it helped me! My faith is strong a d I’m thankful for the love and life of God and for eternal life Now!! Amen!

    Like

    1. And you, my dearest sister, in sharing your faith with your friend, are a witness to God’s power of life eternal working in and through us, come what may, come whenever and however.

      Bless you. Carry on!

      Love

      Like

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