Jesus answered them and said, Truly, truly, I say unto you, You seek me, not because you saw the miracles, but because you ate of the loaves, and were filled. This is the work of God, to believe on him whom God has sent. John 6:26
Why do we come to Church? There are undoubtedly a wide variety of reasons. Indeed, within our own lifetimes we may well find that we have had different attitudes towards membership of this Church, or any Church as we grow older and hopefully more spiritually mature.
Some people attend Church, but never really participate in the Christian life. Often this is because they have only a cultural attachment to the forms and rites of the Christian religion. Such people can be found in all cultures where there is a state or national religion. In England the vast majority of people used to call themselves Church of England when pushed to describe their religion, but many would only attend Church services for baptisms, weddings and funerals. This is the same in many other countries. There are Orthodox countries which are described as having a large number of adherents, but these Churches are usually well aware that only a minority of the people actually attend Church, certainly with any regularity. For many of these people the Church fulfils a residual and cultural need to belong somewhere.
Others may attend Church because they find genuine friendships and support, especially if they are themselves in a period of personal crisis. Churches have always sought to provide a place of hospitality and welcome to those around, and it is no bad thing at all that people without very much faith should find themselves comfortable among kind and generous Christians. But for many people this is as far as their connection with Church goes. They have friendships with people who do have faith, and they enjoy participating in various social activities. This is all good and is not to be criticised. We find ourselves in a world where people are more and more in need of genuine and open-hearted friendships. But if this is all that a person experiences and expects of the Christian faith then they too are missing out, and have not found the faith which the welcoming Church is living out.
Yet others are fully engaged in Church life, but are still without that spark of divine life catching fire in their hearts. Those of us who know a little of the biography of John Wesley will remember that he recounted in his diary how as a schoolboy and university graduate he maintained a certain outward form of religion, he said his prayers and read the Bible, but had no inward sense of spiritual life.
When he was twenty-two his father encouraged him to prepare for holy orders and in some sense his life changed. He became more concerned about living a holy life, prayed more seriously and received communion each week instead of three times a year. He read works by serious Protestant writers and to the best of his own powers he determined to keep the Law of God, and by doing so he believed he was in a state of salvation. He even began to keep the fasts on Wednesday and Friday, as our own Orthodox Church has always done. Yet he himself says that on one occasion when he was near to death at this time he had no assurance at all that he was right with God. I will not describe all of John Wesley’s experiences. His own journal is well worth reading. It is enough to say that he spent many years of his life in the service of the Anglican Church yet he came to understand that he did not truly know Christ, the Head of the Church. In the end he had to absolutely renounce all dependence on his own works and actions, as if they could save him, and prayed earnestly that he might receive faith in Christ as his own Christ, his only justification, sanctification and redemption.
Why have I described all of this? It is because it seems to me appropriate that we consider the words of Christ which we have heard in the Gospel.
Jesus answered them and said, Truly, truly, I say unto you, You seek me, not because you saw the miracles, but because you ate of the loaves, and were filled. This is the work of God, to believe on him whom God has sent.
The people had seen the miracle, but their hearts were filled with other concerns and they did not see the sign, they just remembered their full stomachs. Our Lord warns them that there is nothing lasting in being concerned simply with the things of this life. We eat a meal, and a little later we are hungry again, even if the meal has been miraculously provided. So it is with many who have associated themselves with the Church in various ways, and even been very active in responsible ministries. If we are only seeking earthly and temporary benefits, then these will pass away and we will be left with nothing.
It is good that a large number of people in England are vaguely friendly towards the Church, and even attend from time to time, with fond memories of Sunday School in years past perhaps. But such a nostalgic attachment will not help them or support them when troubles come, nor when this life is passed and they must stand before the ‘dread judgement seat of Christ’.
Neither will the person who enthusiastically joins in various social activities organised by the Church find that this is faith enough when they are unable to attend through sickness or other difficulties. When it grows dark, and lonely, what is left for such a person to help them through the night?
Even throwing ourselves into activities and ministries is no substitute for faith. If the great activities of John Wesley left him empty and with a sense of hopelessness, then we must also consider our own spirituality. Is it also a matter of outward forms rather than an inner reality? That is perhaps less of a danger here among our humble circumstances. But it is possible to be a bishop, a priest, a busy and important layman, and yet to be doing things by the book rather than in the Spirit. John Wesley reached a point where he had to abandon all trust in his own resources and activities, and our own Orthodox Fathers teach us that we must do the same.
Indeed, Christ himself in this passage teaches us. The work of God is not found in attending services, or being always found at social events. It is not even found in great busyness of life, nor even in commitment to fasting and prayer. The work of God is to believe in Christ. Not to believe in things about Christ, but to trust in the divine Person of the Word of God incarnate. This is the beginning and the heart of the Christian life. We may be a great sinner, we may be lax in our spiritual lives, or easily overwhelmed by social trivia, but if we trust this Person, if he is someone we know and who knows us, then we have begun a new life with him and in him and all manner of spiritual growth and fruit becomes possible.
Let me urge you all, as the season of Lent approaches, to cast away all reliance on the forms of our Christian faith, useful and necessary they are, as if we could earn our salvation. Let us rather embrace Christ, desire to know Christ, seek earnestly to trust him more and more completely in every situation and circumstance, and having such trust, having such faith in him, let us then engage in the season of fasting with the spiritual tools we are given by the Church. With faith we will be able to take up the spiritual weapons of fasting and prayer and use them to his glory and for our salvation.
If we do not act in faith, then we will be like those followers of Christ who ate the food he gave but wandered away when the going got tough. If we have faith, if we have trust in Christ as our Lord and Saviour and friend, then we will have the confidence and courage to persevere and will find this Lent a season of blessing.
May it be so for all of us. May we find life in Christ, looking always to him, rather than to the things he gives, and not allowing the structures and forms of our Christian life to become substitutes for a lasting faith in Him.
To the Glory of God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.