When belief is complicated, but love is not
Updated: May 7
As part of a seminary education to become a priest, we all were required to take a preaching class (and thank God for it!). And in the preaching class I took, we were taught how to read scriptural texts, how to exegete them, how to draw meaning and understanding out of them, and we were taught how to write sermons. And to simplify our learning, our preaching professor picked a single passage of scripture that we would all preach on all semester, each three times. And that one passage of scripture was this morning's Gospel reading.
That preaching class that I took was in the spring of 2020, the start of the pandemic, the sudden closure of our dorms, the move to online only classes, the blunt force of the shift that happened in our lives for a whole year and then for a long while after. When I pulled up the readings for today I saw that this was the reading and I knew I spent a whole semester studying it and preaching it and hearing it preached, and it was like that part of my brain was just gone. I cannot remember a single thing I read or heard or said or wrote or thought about this passage from John. Talk about learning loss, huh.
So looking at this passage this week felt like looking at it with new eyes. And with my new eyes, I found myself to be yet again confused with what John is saying here. I feel like there are people who love John and people who don't know what to do with him, and admittedly I find myself in the second camp, not because I don't love poetry, but it because it feels like he's talking in circles.
"You believe in God; believe also in me.
If you really know me, you will know my Father as well.
Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.
Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me?"
He's giving us these complex Christological statements about how the relationship between Jesus who is God, and also the Father who is also God, and at the core of it is this question--this challenge--to the apostles: do you believe that Jesus and God are both different and the same, can you believe the work of Jesus and God are the same, and that the way to the one is through the other? The challenge at the core of this passage is one of belief -- can you believe these things?
It feels a little too obvious to say but Christianity makes belief out to be a very, very big deal, and yet there can be so little talk about what it means to believe, how you come into belief, and what to do when belief gets hard, or has always been hard. Some of this stuff we believe here is hard to believe simply by its own merit: virgin birth, miraculous healing, water into wine, an omnipotent eternal being who is somehow three persons but also one but then also became a human and then went back to not being a human. We put a lot of stock in belief, and not always a lot of instruction in how to get there.
Well let me wonder aloud then -- how did you come to believe in this stuff? Is it something you grew up believing and have just always believed? Did you fall away in your adolescence or young adulthood and find your way back into a different sort of more mature -- and perhaps more complicated -- belief years later? Did you find your way here from a different tradition and have to relearn almost from scratch what it means to believe in this way rather than in that way? Is your belief characterized by an undercurrent of doubt, skepticism, and questions? Are you not sure what you believe, but feel like this is a safe place to figure it out, or are you not sure what you believe theologically, but feel like this is a church or a place or a people worth believing in? I'm sure that if you sat with every single person in this congregation, they would have a different story to tell you about the belief they've brought here, that they've found here, or that they are looking for here. And though we might be tempted to privilege one type of belief over another, or one story of belief over another, or perhaps to feel like everybody else is believing better than us, and I simply want to offer that in the 21st century, in this year 2023, there is no right or wrong avenue into belief, there is no better or worse framework for believing. There is just the diversity of our stories of belief and our stories of doubt.
For as circular as this passage from John seems at face value -- and I feel like I had to solve it like a Sudoku puzzle -- I think it gives us one possible point of entry into this thing of Belief. Jesus is drawing this helpful equivalency -- if you believe in God, then you can believe in me. If you know me, then you know my Father. He's saying that either believing in God the Father or God the Son, both of those are viable starting places, and I would extend that to believing in God the Holy Spirit. Any of those starting places can lead you to the others. But Jesus goes even further and says, listen if you believe in me then you will do my works, too. If you love me, then you will do my commands. Jesus makes this interesting connection between our beliefs and our actions -- if you believe, then you will act accordingly because of that belief. But he doesn't quite state plainly still where that belief comes from. For the apostles, who he is addressing, it is still a tall order -- they've seen him turn water into wine, they've seen him multiple food to feed thousands, they've seen him heal injury and raise people from the dead, and still Thomas doubts and Peter denies and Philip questions. How tall an order to believe even for these apostles.
But I find myself comforted both that the apostles themselves struggled, and that Jesus lifts up this connection between belief and action. When belief is framed as this abstract and cognitive assent to ideas that feel quite distant from our lived experiences, it can feel hard to believe, or to conjure belief out of thin air. I think when belief is framed as the eagerness and willingness to do the things that Jesus commands us to do -- when belief is framed up as something that we do with our arms and legs and hearts, and not with our pre-frontal cortices -- we find ourselves able to lead others to the starting line. Jesus says "whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing" and I wonder what it would feel like to flip that statement around and say
"whoever does the works I have been doing will believe in me"
"whoever does the works I have been doing will find it easier to believe in me"
"whoever does the work of loving their neighbor as themselves will find it easier to believe what I am asking them to believe"
"whoever does the hard, hard work of reconciling their conflicts with their neighbor, of feeding the hungry and the poor, whoever gives their care and their love and their support away freely, whoever goes to bat for the marginalized and the oppressed, whoever welcomes people into this community and gives them a place to call home,, whoever does these things will perhaps find the matter of belief a little less complicated and a little less esoteric and a little more doable"
The work of the Church as I see it today is not just to figure out how to welcome new members into our midst, but to make space for people for whom the work of belief is complicated or elusive or just plain hard. I think about queer people who have been rejected or scorned by their past church communities and who come to a place like this learning how to believe and how to trust again. I think about people who've come to us from different traditions who were told that their leaving that tradition and coming to this one was just a failure of belief, or a failure of faith, or a failure of discipline or of nerve. I think about all the people who never grew up in a church at all for whom the idea of belief or faith at all is foreign, and yet they still want to make a home here. I think the work of the Church as I see it today is to be prepared to gladly and gratefully receive people for whom belief is complicated into our midst, and to give them a clear and simple path into this thing called Christianity. Perhaps... that path it might be as straightforward as:
Step 1) come here and be loved by us, be cared for by us
Step 2) maybe, when you're ready, pay some of that love and care forward to your fellow members
Step 3) help us to give that love and that care away freely and bravely to everyone whom this church is blessed to encounter
that from within that community of love and of mutual care,
from within that community of reconciliation, of encouragement, of patience,
that a belief in the one
who called us to build our community that way
might just not feel so wild after all.