More than just belief (part 2)

El Greco (16th C.)

In the previous post, we looked at how the Jewish leaders responded to Jesus’ act of cleansing the Jerusalem temple. They demanded a messianic sign to prove his right to be so bold, and Jesus obliged — but only by making a cryptic reference to his coming death and resurrection. They scoffed at his response: Yeah, right. Work on the temple has been going on for decades, and you’d rebuild the whole thing from scratch in three days? Get a grip, carpenter boy.

Jesus could have tried again: “No, no, no. It’s just a metaphor. When I say, ‘temple,’ what I mean is my body. If you kill me, I’ll come back from the dead within three days. See?” But he didn’t. He knew the problem went deeper than a lack of understanding. It was a lack of belief.

Did the disciples do better?

Sort of.

When the disciples saw Jesus drive out the sellers and money-changers, a verse of Scripture popped into their minds: “Zeal for your house will consume me” (Ps 69:9). They listened as the Jewish leaders asked for a sign and heard Jesus’ response: Destroy this temple, and I’ll raise it up again in three days. Then John gives us this editorial comment: “After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken” (John 2:22, NRSV).

Translation: they didn’t get it either. Not until after Easter.

“I believe in order to understand,” said St. Augustine. But if belief is the necessary condition of understanding, it’s not always a sufficient one. The disciples believed in Jesus. They entrusted themselves to him. But they didn’t understand what he meant. They still needed to walk through life with him, with their eyes and ears open, to see what God would do.

John ends on a sobering note. Jesus did miraculous signs during the Passover, and many people believed. “But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone” (2:24-25).

The disciples believed. But one later betrayed Jesus to his death, and the others abandoned him in his hour of greatest need. All of that had to happen before they understood. Belief is not enough. The apostle James, in fact, says that demons believe (Jas 2:19), though they derive no comfort from that fact.

The Christian life begins with belief, but is so much more.

There is a stereotype of anti-intellectual Christians who shun careful thought, who clamp their eyes shut, and mumble, “I believe, I believe, I believe” as if it were a magical incantation against life’s troubles.

That’s not faith.

Faith seeks understanding — even when we know some things are beyond our understanding. But it’s not mere intellectual enlightenment we seek. It’s not knowledge for its own sake. It’s the kind of understanding that leads to a transformation of imagination, the better to notice where God is leading and to follow.

Believe — passionately, and with conviction, but also with humble hearts and open minds. There’s so much more we have to learn.

One thought on “More than just belief (part 2)

  1. Cameron,
    Great message. Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ. We need to keep our nose in the word and keep hearing and hearing and hearing. And we need to not just hear anything, but the word of Christ. The One who is full of grace and truth.

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