This past Sunday we rehearsed the fourth of John’s seven signs. In the story of the multiplied bread in the wilderness (John 6), we are given a moment and a teaching which brings us to the heart of the mystery of Jesus. It is here that Jesus refers to himself as the bread of life; it is here that Jesus scandalizes his audience by telling them he would give his body for the life of the world. And it is here that many of his hearers turned away from him. What he offered seemed too strange. But Peter answered for everyone who would truly follow: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68, TNIV)
In the communion meal, we rehearse the center of our faith, the mystery of Jesus’ self-offering on the cross. In the communion meal we are reminded of the strangeness of the Christian way, a strangeness that confronts our minds and emotions. This point is crucial (an interesting word, related to the word cross, signifying something important or essential; that which resolves a crisis; something decisive). In and through the cross of Jesus, through his self-offering for the world, our deepest and most important crisis is resolved. The miracle of the multiplied bread in the wilderness, and the teaching which followed, is an invitation to see and embrace this.
I have long been fascinated by the contrasting visions of the two great Russian novelists, Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky. For Tolstoy, Christianity was a vision of simple morality, what he imagined to be the noble values of the Russian peasantry. Tolstoy romanticized the faith into something we could call moral idealism. But there was no rest in it, no peace, no point of resolution. Ultimately, there was no power to succeed. One of his biographers, A.N. Wilson, speaking of Tolstoy’s troubled life, said that Tolstoy never recorded any spiritual encounter with Jesus, nor did he ever admit to praying to Jesus. He just arbitrarily decided to live a kind of hybridized sermon-on-the-mount ethic. It sounds good in a way, but the lessons of Tolstoy’s life show how disastrously disappointing the results could be. His conflicted soul, his failures and slip-ups, his legendary battles with his wife are truly something to behold. Wilson sums up Tolstoy’s brand of Christianity with this telling statement: “Tolstoy’s religion is ultimately the most searching criticism of Christianity which there is. He shows that it does not work.” (A.N. Wilson, Tolstoy: A Biography. p. 301). Wilson points out that Tolstoy’s brand of moral achievement, of proud and self-centered “do-good-ism”, is ultimately an impossible life to build. And that is especially so without the life of Christ deeply held within us.
There is something deeper that we need. And this is where Tolstoy’s Russian compatriot and contemporary Fyodor Dostoevsky can help. He carried an entirely different view of Christian faith, perhaps because he came to Christian faith by an entirely different route. In 1849 Dostoevsky was arrested for his part in an anarchist group set on overthrowing the Czar. He was sentenced to death before a firing squad, except it proved to be a mock execution. The Czar intended to teach the young radicals a lesson. At the moment of the execution, just before the rifles were to be fired, the death sentences of the young radicals were commuted to four years of hard labor. It was then, in Siberian exile, that a woman handed Dostoevsky a New Testament. He began to read the Christian story through the eyes of someone who had felt the edge of death. He knew what it meant to truly be “born again”.
Dostoevsky did struggle in his life. In contrast to Tolstoy’s vision of ideal perfection, Dostoevsky seemed to be a long way off, more the prodigal than the older brother. But at the center of his life and writing was a vision of saving grace, a vision which started at the point of personal human brokenness. He spoke about the moment in the Siberian prison camp when his faith was realized in the eucharist:
“… we took communion. When the priest, wafer in hand, spoke the words, “Receive me Lord, even as a thief”, nearly everyone kneeled immediately and the chains clanked, for each man understood the words to be directed specifically at him.” [cited in Geir Kjetsaa, Fyodor Dostoyevsky: A Writer’s Life. p. 106-7]
In the miracle of the multiplied bread, and in the teaching of Jesus which follows in John 6, we are brought into the heart of who Jesus is, the reason he came. The sign has to be carefully understood. He is not bread for our pre-conceived plans of human success, whatever that might entail. He is the Savior of the broken and repentant, those who know they need help of the deepest kind.
Be careful how you see the sign.