A couple of weeks ago I spent some time on a Silent Retreat in North Wales. Over many years I`ve become quite familiar with the place I was staying and its daily routines- and in particular with one of the things which happens every evening at about 7.45pm. For half an hour people will gather in the chapel. Nothing is said and everyone simply sits in silence. And the focus of our attention is there on the Altar; it`s is a piece of bread Or should I say, a wafer, which has been kept since a Holy Communion Service and it`s brought out from the aumbry- (like a little wall safe) behind the Communion table- and as I say is placed before us as an invitation to reflect on the presence of Jesus… to BE in his presence.
This practice which is especially familiar to Roman Catholics has really grown on me over the years. Roman Catholics will have their own way of describing what they believe this to be about but I`d like you just for a moment to enter into this very powerful image…. That in the silence you might find yourself sat or kneeling in the presence of Jesus.
It can be, I suspect very easy to say, as one does at every Holy Communion “The Lord is here” and we all respond “His Spirit is with us”. It`s one thing to say that… it`s quite another to let that reality as it were, sink in. For me, that`s part of what that silent half an hour is really all about. The key to it all, however, is the `silence`.
Many of us, I know find the prospect of keeping silence quite worrying for a range of reasons but we really have to persevere with this. Because I want to suggest that one of the signs of an authentic encounter with the Lord is being brought to a place of silence.
This is what we see happening, for instance in St. Luke`s account of what we call the Transfiguration. There Jesus and three of his disciples on the mountain and they are given a glimpse of who Jesus really is… and in the excitement of it all Peter starts gibbering away. How very like him we can be!
But then we`re told…. “From the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’ When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen”. (Luke 9.35-36) In other words there is something about the presence of Jesus which I think rightly reduces us to silence. And in a sense, before the living God what else could there be but a place of waiting and of knowing that as St. Paul tells us that we are known… and understood?
But perhaps this is why we resist the silence so much; the noise is a way of covering over an awareness of the truth about ourselves…. our mix of motives and illusions; particularly the illusion of our self-sufficiency and control. It`s rarely quoted but the Scriptures tell us that it is “a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10.31) And we`re told this morning… “Moses hid his face for he was afraid to look at God” (Exodus 3.6) Somehow we instinctively know this to be true. But this isn`t to say that somehow God will or wishes to crush us in some way; it means that to encounter him is to be given a glimpse of our truth. “Depart from me for I am a sinful man” (Luke 5.8) said Peter on meeting Jesus for the first time. And this was not because Jesus harangued him but because as a fisherman he had received the catch of his life… in other words he was overwhelmed by grace.
I think our Roman Catholic friends –employing a tradition which we have allowed to slip- have a hold on something important in this practice of sitting before Jesus, made present in the bread. It`s all about what we used to call `the Vision of God`. It schools us in reverence before him. The focus they give us, as I say is a piece of bread, a wafer consecrated at the Eucharist and this is where our Gospel Reading leads us this morning (John 6. 24-35). Or should I say this is where Jesus wishes to lead us… to himself. He calls himself the bread of life but what I`d like us to notice is the way (just like we might run away from silence) the people he met tried to evade his invitation. Let me explain.
The passage begins with Jesus offering some pretty searing criticism of the crowd that followed him. “You`ve only come after me because I gave you a good meal- and now you want some more!” he tells them. In other words they`re not interested in him but in what he can do for them: “Don`t work for the food that perishes” he says… “for the things that will pass away” or rather “don`t try to enrol me in the service of your agenda”. They seem to take the criticism but then they duck and weave a little more. “What must we do to perform the works of God?” they ask. So now they are turning faith into a matter of morality; the security of being seen to `do the right thing`. But Jesus again calls them back to himself; effectively saying, “Look, it`s not about what you do but about throwing your lot in with me”. At this point they become even more obtuse and they turn it into a matter of leadership: “If we`re going to throw our lot in with you are you as good as Moses then?” To which Jesus says it wasn`t Moses who fed and sustained you but God working through him!”
“Oh” they said, “then let`s have some of that bread. Let`s have some of that religion that helps me get through the day”. At which point they again evade coming to Jesus by settling for some vague `spirituality`. The kind of thing that`s been peddled in the self-help books and by charlatans since the world began. At which point Jesus (still managing to keep his cool) says, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will ever be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6.35). In other words, in the end as he keeps on saying…. it`s all about him.
What I`m saying is that the Gospel this morning gives us a fascinating list of ways in which people were evading really coming to him.
What these evasions have in common of course, is that they`re all about ME. They are attempts to somehow stay in the driving seat of life and faith. We do it by treating Jesus as someone there to meet our needs or by turning faith into a matter of morality; by the latest charismatic leader or indulging in a sort of vague `spirituality`. But as I say these are all evasions of faith; excuses; short-cuts; ersatz religion. That`s all our faith will amount to as long as we resist simply resting in the presence and under the gaze of Christ.
And if you wat another example, this was the game that Moses tried to play. His vision in the wilderness which we also heard this morning is about God putting him back on track after all his evasions. You see Moses was tending a flock of sheep in Midian because he had run away. Back in Egypt he thought he do God`s work for him. He murdered an Egyptian thinking he was standing up for the rights of the Hebrew slaves but it all went wrong. What we see in the passage we heard this morning is that his ministry only began when out there in the wilderness he found himself addressed…. and ever so slightly vulnerable.
He stands aside from what he`s doing. The vision of God draws him and helps him see who`s really in the driving seat. And you hear him coughing and spluttering throughout that meeting with the Holy God…”But what if?” and “Whatever shall I say?” But Moses has to learn that he is not in control. He is a vessel and the same is true of us. It`s only as we come to cultivate silence that this becomes clearer. It`s only as we cultivate silence that we can shed some of the facsimiles of faith and get down to real thing…. which as it were `happens` to us as when like Moses we turn aside to gaze on him…. the bread of life. Perhaps we might reflect more deeply on what the writer of the Psalms means when he says, “I have set the Lord always before me”. (Psalm 16.8)