Wednesday, May 29, 2013

How do we believe in Jesus?

In the gospel of John, chapter 7, the issue of belief in Jesus appears three times. The first is in reference to Jesus’ brothers, who think he needs to do some serious self-promotion:

So his brothers said to him, “Leave here and go to Judea so that your disciples also may see the works you are doing; for no one who wants to be widely known acts in secret. If you do these things, show yourself to the world.” (For not even his brothers believed in him.) (7:3-5)

The second refers to the crowds who concluded that Jesus must be the Messiah, regardless of the religious leaders’ antagonism toward him:

Yet many in the crowd believed in him and were saying, “When the Messiah comes, will he do more signs than this man has done?” (7:31)

The last comment about belief comes directly from Jesus, who stands up and makes an impassioned plea to the crowds on the final day of the festival:

“Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink.” (7:37b-38)

When we speak of belief in Jesus today, we are usually talking about belief in the historicity of Jesus, his virgin birth, the atonement, the resurrection, and so on. We can wrap our beliefs in various creeds and theologies, and pledge allegiance to them and say that we are Christians.

But what was it that the people in John 7 were expected to believe in? It doesn’t appear that the virgin birth was a point of discussion, and there was not yet a death, resurrection, or ascension to believe in. There were no New Testament texts of Scripture to claim as authoritative and the creeds were yet to be written. They weren’t asked to believe in Jesus as though he was Casper the Friendly Ghost, because he was right there in the flesh. So, what did belief look like for those people?

Somewhere in his writings I seem to remember N. T. Wright talking about what it might have meant in the first century CE to believe in someone. He cites a document written by Josephus who asks that people believe in him—that is, to believe that what he was saying was true and must be heeded.

That makes sense for the people of John 7, since Jesus was standing right there among them, speaking and acting. But I wonder if his call for people to believe in him goes even a bit further than just embracing the veracity of his words.

In the New Testament, the Greek word that is typically translated as belief is pistis, a word that is a sort of noun-verb mixture and able to convey a whole assortment of ideas, including faith, loyalty, fidelity, and—very importantly, I think—trust. With our western brains we seem to be most comfortable with the translation belief because we like to keep ideas and concepts confined to our brains where they belong. But those early witnesses to Jesus would not suffer such limitations. For them to believe in Jesus was not to have a grasp of an orthodox Christian belief system. It was to trust in a real person, to trust that his words were true, that his miraculous works came from the hand of God and were signs of God’s kingdom that was on its way.

This is, I think, an important distinction. Belief has the ability to remain abstract and propositional. Trust, however, is relational. Trust comes from a shared experience of reliability and faithfulness. For those ancient people to believe in Jesus was to trust in him as a person, someone real they could touch and experience just as real people do. They would have to trust in him before there would be the benefit (or, in some cases, the distraction) of theological interpretation and creedal affirmations.

There are some folks wandering around who still think that believing in Jesus is to trust him as one who is still present and at work in the world. Sure, we get fuzzy at times about how in the world this whole idea of the Trinity works out—whether it is the Father, the Spirit, or the Son at work—but these people care less about that kind of theological clarity and more about the real presence of the real Jesus.

I think we all have something to learn from those folks. I’ve been with people who will fight to the death over a point of theology, and even break relationship over such disagreements (it’s a core Protestant value, it seems. Luther and Zwingli parted company over the nature of the Eucharist even though they agreed on most everything else). But what would we do if we were standing near Jesus when he healed the sick, or raised the dead, or cast out a mob of demons? If he then turned to us and claimed that the kingdom of God was at hand, would we trust that he was being truthful with us?

Would we trust him?

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