The author C.S. Lewis wrote somewhere about faith, that he believed that New York City existed, in spite of never having seen it. He believed it because its existence was well attested by others who had been there, and who were able to offer credible evidence about it. Lewis’s point was a global one: that more of human life is based on the reception of others’ testimony than we like to think. He took the existence of New York on the basis of faith, rather than on his own experience or the evidence of his eyes.
For my part, I’ve lived in Manhattan and married a New Yorker, so I know it’s there (at least, the last time I checked); but in the same way as Lewis, I take a lot of other things on the basis of faith. I don’t really know how my computer works, but it apparently does; I believe that Mongolia exists in spite of never having been there or met anyone who could tell me about it. Faith, in other words, is more commonplace to human life than sceptics might be willing to admit. Mongolia and micro-processors may be beyond most of us, yet we still put our faith in them.
Lewis was also trying to say something about faith in the Christian sense: faith as belief in God. Faith takes us beyond what we can see or understand, but it is reasonable, in the sense that it involves real things, real truths, that are rooted in reality. The leap of faith is exactly that, but it’s not a headlong dive into the abyss. Faith is intelligible, because we can talk about it and invite people into it.
Faith, of course, is essential to the Christian life. There’s a reason we call it “the Christian faith.” Without faith, we wouldn’t really know God or be in relationship with God. St. Paul contrasts faith and sight when he says in Second Corinthians, “We walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7). Faith is how we walk with God; how we begin the journey that ends with God, who cannot be seen by human eye, or comprehended by the human mind.
Comprehended: in the sense that our minds cannot encompass God, contain God, or reduce God simply to our own categories. We need faith to understand. It’s our “operating system” in the church. As we say at communion as we approach the altar and the eucharistic gifts, “Take them in remembrance that Christ died for you, and feed on him in your hearts by faith, with thanksgiving.” We receive by faith, because faith is the only way we can enter into relationship with God.
In our Gospel today, we come to the end of an extensive, multi-week meditation on the bread of life, that began with Jesus feeding the five thousand, and then inviting his disciples to put their faith in him. Jesus tells them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent” (Jo. 6:29). Then again, “Who ever comes to me will never be hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty” (Jo. 6:35). Finally, he tells the disciples, “Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life” (Jo. 6:47). The miracle is all about the invitation to faith. At each point of the dialogue, Jesus is inviting them to believe in him, to trust in him, to put their faith in him.
In this dialogue about faith, the unseen reality takes tangible and visible form in the person of Jesus himself, who continues to give himself to his followers in the Eucharist. Jesus is truly human; he has become flesh and blood; now he gives himself to us in the eucharistic gifts. “My flesh is true food, and blood is true drink” (Jo. 6:55), as Jesus also says in this sixth chapter of John. Here, at this Eucharist, through faith, we receive Christ’s body and blood, are nourished by his life, and deepen our relationship with him.
Our Gospel today hints at this process of deepening relationship, when we hear St. Peter say to Jesus, “We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God” (Jo. 6:69). The two words, “believe” and “know” represent (in part) an intensification by repetition; words doubled up and matched together in order to emphasize the point: the necessity of faith.
But there’s also something else going on. In John’s Gospel, Jesus never says that he himself has faith in God, that he believes in God, but only that he “knows” the Father, and that the Father “knows” him (Jo. 10:15). Faith isn’t his mode of access. In other words, Jesus has more intimate knowledge, a different “operating system.”
We human beings, however, never leave faith behind. But St. Peter’s words remind us that, for Jesus’ disciples, faith deepens into knowledge. Jesus says as much in his final prayer to the Father, “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (Jo. 17:3). At this crucial juncture, in our Gospel today, some turn away from faith, but others go deeper. The words of Jesus’ prayer means that Jesus’ own way of “knowing” the Father is also open to us, through faith that goes deeper and becomes broader.
As we come forward to receive the gifts of God today, may they become the means by which we enter more deeply into relationship with God in Christ. We cannot see God or comprehend God, but we put our faith in him. We deepen our relationship with Jesus through sharing his life through the sacrament of his body and blood. We come to believe and know that he is the Holy One of God.