Believing again. Believing for the very first time.
The Fifth Sunday of Easter
… I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do…
You’ve seen the bumper sticker: “The Bible says it, I believe it and that settles it”.
There are no fewer than 98 instances of the verb “to believe” in John’s Gospel. There are invitations, as in this Sunday’s Gospel, for men and women to begin to believe again or to believe something for the very first time. There are also descriptions of individuals and crowds who had come to believe over the course of the Gospel. Fast change or slow change - but change nonetheless. When you see belief, you expect to see change.
The bumper sticker describes somebody who is the way he is and will remain so forever: An oak tree planted in tough clay. Belief in the New Testament describes a process which is much more dynamic. People are forever changed because of something Jesus has said or done. Something (faith) wells up within them in response and they are no longer who they used to be. They’ve been pulled up by the roots.
It’s a word we use in common language in several ways: We “believe that” something is the case: up is up and down is down. It’s a very different thing than “believing about” or “believing in”.
We’re rather promiscuous even about the things we “believe in” - ideas mostly, which we inherited or which we have adopted as a way of making sense of the world and identifying ourselves within it and finding our place. We proudly and self-consciously nail ourselves down to a way of thinking and believe that we’ve done well.
Free Enterprise or Universal Health Care or the Brotherhood of Man under the Fatherhood of God - things that are “believed in” tend to sprout capital letters with time. And, so, it is perhaps natural that belief in God or belief in Jesus might be things we file in the same envelope. Are these not beliefs which define our families or perhaps, even, our national communities? We try our damnedest be consistent in our beliefs. If one of our elected officials changes his or her mind about Proposition 10 then we accuse them of flip flopping. We’re not curious enough about why they came around to a new position.
And that’s why we stick bumper stickers on our cars - just in case something new and attractive comes into the room and we forget and change our minds.
But here’s the rub: “Believing” in the Gospel leads to departures and changes - not the endless reinforcement of slogans and adages and childhood beliefs we learned at our grandparents’ knees. Old time religion was a problem for Jesus. Old time religion killed and imprisoned most of the saints across the centuries. Old time religion often gets in the way of grace, truth and beauty in our own day.
Are we open enough to really believe? Or are our roots getting in the way of our growth?