John 20: 19-31
Something mysterious happens to us when we find something to believe in. We discover that some task, some project, some idea has so captured our imaginations that we want to give ourselves wholeheartedly to it. We become dedicated to its fulfillment. Perhaps it leads us to support a cause or join a campaign, perhaps to take up a new role or responsibility, perhaps to make a commitment of time, energy or financial resources.
Whatever it is, this new cause captures our attention and awakens our passion. We believe in what we are doing, and we commit ourselves to it with our whole being. We continue to push forward even when obstacles arise or doors close. Because we believe in our dream, we persevere. We give ourselves wholeheartedly to it, because at some deep level – beyond the level of common sense or logic – we know that it is the right thing for us to do. We believe in this.
This is what faith is about.
Faith is at the center of Christian life. We profess that we have been saved by faith, and that we now live by faith. But what does it really mean to have faith? What does it really mean to believe?
This is an important question, especially in our day, because for a great many people, faith has first and foremost to do with assent. For them, to have faith means to give our mental assent to a proposition, to believe that a claim or statement is true. There are a great many Christians who understand their faith in this way. They have given intellectual assent to certain claims or statements about God, about Jesus, about the Bible, and about the human condition. But when faith is understood primarily in this way, it becomes a matter of the head rather than of the heart. When Christian faith is seen as assent, the emphasis shifts to holding the correct views, believing the right things to be true.
It is important to recognize how this notion of faith – faith as giving mental assent to a proposition, or believing that a claim or statement is true – limits and distorts our understanding and practice of Christian faith. What we believe to be true – about God, about Jesus, about the scriptures – then defines us and sets us apart from those who do not see things as we see them. Groups form and split. Some are considered “in” while others are “out,” depending on their “beliefs.”
The opposite of this kind of belief is doubt or disbelief. When we suspect that some claim or statement might not be true, or might have to be understood differently than we understood it in the past, we enter this gray area of doubt. If we imagine that belief is what God wants of us, the doubt or disbelief become sinful.
Knowing what we believe and being able to articulate it is important, but if this is all our faith is about, we have not gone deep enough. Authentic faith has more to do with the heart than with the head. Genuine faith involves trust. Christian faith, Christian belief, has to do with a radical trust in God. It does not mean trusting in the truth of a set of statements about God; it means trusting in God.
Who is this God in whom we trust?
In the course of our worship we regularly profess our faith in God using the words of ancient creeds of the Church. We profess that the God in whom we trust is the God who was revealed to us as the Creator, the God who was made known to us in Jesus of Nazareth whom we call Christ, the God who has stirred us up by the Spirit and united us together as the church, the Body of Christ. When we profess this faith, we are not merely giving assent to a series of propositions about God, we are declaring our faith in God. We are saying that we believe in this God, that we have put our trust in this God, that we have given ourselves wholeheartedly to the service and worship of this God. We are saying that we have willingly staked our lives and our future on God.
What does it mean to have faith, to believe and trust in God?
Marcus Borg cites a metaphor used by Soren Kierkegaard, a great philosopher and radical Christian of the 19th century, who claimed that faith was like floating in a deep ocean.1 If we panic and struggle, Borg says, if we tense up and thrash about, we will eventually sink. But if we relax and trust, we will float, no matter how deep the water.
This is the challenge, isn’t it? Learning to relax in the water, to trust its buoyancy, to let go of our fear – all these are key to staying afloat in deep waters. In the same way, we could say that to have faith is to trust in God, to believe in God’s ability to sustain us, to hold us up, even in difficult circumstances. Faith helps us to relax and let go, to rest and find peace.
When faith is understood as trust rather than as assent, its opposite is not doubt or disbelief, but lack of trust. When we do not trust, we become anxious and fearful. To have faith means to let go of anxiety and fear, and to give ourselves over to God, trusting God’s love and care for us. “Do not worry about your life,” Jesus tells us, “what you will eat or what you will drink… Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” (Matthew 6:25, 26)
Observe the disciples in today’s gospel reading. They are gathered in a closed room, behind locked doors, filled with anxiety and trembling with fear. They have lost sight of the purpose for which God called them, the task which Jesus had given them, to be signs of God’s love in the world and proclaimers of God’s good news. They feel abandoned, alone and overwhelmed.
Jesus comes to them with a greeting of peace. He breathes on them the Holy Spirit. He restores their vision, their hope, their faith. They believe once more. Their fear is gone, and these trembling disciples are transformed into courageous witnesses, who testify to the resurrection of Jesus with incredible boldness, even in the face of opposition and death. They do not fear the power of men, but instead trust in the power of God. They are not deterred by hardship or persecution, by beatings or imprisonment. Their eyes are fixed on God. They move forward in faith, despite the obstacles.
There is much fear in the world today. We fear our enemies and those who intend us harm. We fear those who possess weapons of mass destruction; we fear nuclear proliferation; we fear guns and violence in our streets. We fear the warming of the earth and the consequences it will bring. We fear hatred and crime, poverty and oppression, chaos and suffering. Some of us are afraid that we might lose what we have, or that it might be taken away from us by others. We fear for our future and the future of our children.
But “perfect love casts out fear,” the author of First John tells us, and “God is love.” God’s perfect love overcomes fear and casts it out. Love holds us and sustains us, regardless of what may come our way. “Do not be anxious, you of little faith,” says Jesus. Trust in God. Entrust your lives and all your concerns to God.
Certainly, we must work against the forces of violence and war, we must respond to the threat of global warming, we must counter hatred and violence – these are all part of our call as Christians in the world. But we need not be bound by anxiety or paralyzed by fear. God is in our present, and will be in our future, just as God has been in our past. There is no power in the world that can overcome God’s power – even death itself has been defeated. Nothing, says Paul, can separate us from the love of God.
“Do not fear,” says God in the words of the prophet Isaiah, “for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame will not consume you… Do not fear, for I am with you” (Isaiah 43:1-5)
Are you anxious and afraid? What is it that worries or concerns you? Have faith in God. Trust God with your life and with your future. Let go of fear. God is faithful and will in all things sustain and keep you. Do not be afraid. Only believe.
1 Borg, Marcus J.; The Heart of Christianity; chapter two
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