4/15/12, Do You Believe?

Acts 4:32-35, 1 John 5:1-7, John 20:19-31


If you were listening carefully to all three of our lectionary readings today, perhaps you noticed that all three of them contained a specific word or a form of the word.  What was that word?

BELIEVE.  All the believers were in one place… everyone who believes that Jesus is… Blessed are they who have not seen and yet have believed…

Are you a believer, a doubter or both?  Earlier this week I came across an interesting reflection on this passage.  Brian Coyne, an Australian scientist/theologian, says this:

I suspect one of the first independent or adult faith decisions any of us cradle Catholics might make in life is the choosing of a Confirmation name. At least that was the case in my situation. I must have been 11 or 12 years old at the time, away at a Jesuit Boarding School at the time of my Confirmation and so largely away from the influence of my parents. I can still remember the occasion as vividly as though it were yesterday. I think I must have been pretty precocious, or a smart ass, as a child because even then I deliberately chose Thomas as my Confirmation name. And it was specifically because I was attracted even back then to the story of St Thomas the Doubter — the one who wanted it "proved" that Jesus had come back from the dead by wanting to touch the wounds of his crucifixion.

 

 

As a more mature adult today I find myself still "looking for the evidence". I'm still very much "the doubter". The thing I find curious is that despite the best efforts of all the atheists, agnostics and secularists in the world — not to mention the hierarchs who make it increasingly difficult to take the Catholic Church seriously as an institution concerned with the pursuit of ultimate truth rather than bolstering its own claims to influence in temporal affairs— I find I am still a believer more than a doubter.

Coyne goes on to say that as a Catholic, he finds himself not taking literally some of the words and expressions used our Creeds and baptismal affirmations.   Yet, he knows he DOES believe in a Creator because of the awesome harmony and beauty observed in creation and all life.  And so he carries within himself a deep sense of wanting simply to say “thank you.”

Coyne also says, “Recently I have found myself moving away from the prime focus on God as something "back there", as someone "found" principally in Ancient Scriptures such as The Bible. My more recent focus has been in a concept of something, or someone, who is forever “ahead of.”  God is future tense, not past tense. God is something we aspire to be.   This something, or someone, is our Omega Point, not so much our Alpha Reference point. This something, or someone, this Mystery, is our longed-for destination point, some manifestation of what we each aspire to be in terms of wisdom, intelligence, compassion, mercy, justice, as a lover, in the capacity to be loved, in our capacity to be "at peace" or "in equilibrium" with our neighbours, our environment and our own selves.”

I suspect that there are a number among us here today, including myself, who resonate deeply with Dr. Coyne’s thoughts.  What does that word BELIEVE, so obviously present in today’s readings, mean to us today? When Jesus approached his disciples in that upper room, his first words to them were “Peace be with you.”  How can we find peace in the face of our struggles with belief? 

Let’s look more closely at that word.  Perhaps if we can get a deeper understanding of what it really means, we will be able to find peace in our continuing journey towards God. Marcus Borg, in his book “Speaking Christian,” is very helpful in this search for renewed meaning.

In today’s 21st century context, the word believe indicates that one accepts THAT a statement or statements is factually true.   In a religious context, belief is connected with having faith.

 

 

This modern way of understanding belief is very different from its meanings to early Christianity. In the English language, prior to 1600, the verb believe always had a person as its direct object, not a statement.  “I believe in YOU”… not “I believe THAT…”  Belief connoted a sense of confidence or trust in a person, not a proposed idea. Believe comes from the Old English word beloef, which means “to hold dear.”  It is similar to our modern word “belove.”  To believe meant not only confidence and trust in a person but also to hold that person dear. 

So, up until the 1600’s to believe in Jesus and God meant to belove God and Jesus.  What a difference this makes!  To believe in God does not mean accepting that a set of statements about God is true.  It means to belove… to have confidence and trust and to hold God dear.

Ancient Christianity also adopted this meaning in its use of the Latin word “credo”.  Credo means “I give my heart to.”  Heart here is a metaphor of the self at its deepest level- beneath thinking, willing and feeling.  It is a commitment of entirety. 

When Jesus spoke about the greatest commandment, he did not say “You shall believe that these statements about God are true.”  He said “You shall LOVE God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.”  That text goes directly back to the Old Testament.  So for both Jewish and Christian roots, believing is beloving God. 

For many Christians in our modern times, believing THAT a set of statements about God, Jesus and the Bible are true is the test of orthodoxy.  But does this kind of belief TRANSFORM us or does it simply tie us up in intellectual knots?  Today I suggest that we consider it is rather by beloving God as known in Jesus that we are transformed towards that Omega point that Brian Coyne mentions. 

This is a lot to absorb in one brief homily.  I apologize!  But I want to lay this out for you at the beginning of this Easter Season because I think that we as a community are being challenged to live resurrection into our way of being church in the world.  The Christ Spirit lives in each of us.  Christ challenged the old religious ways of being with God.  He emphasized the need to live peace and justice into broken systems. So the Spirit calls us today to examine our old understandings of religious life.  When we see that the accretions of tradition and intellectualism have become burdens that hold us back from being the simple love and compassion that Jesus demonstrated, we must find new ways to talk about and DO faith. 

Today, I am setting before you this one crucial word: BELIEVE.  What does it mean to believe? Do you believe?   As weeks go by, we will unpack more of the words that we use in our rituals and creeds.  You will also notice that some of the patterns of prayers and words that you may have taken for granted in our liturgies are undergoing transformation.  There are a few such changes in the liturgy guide we are using for this season of Easter, so pay attention.

You may find this disturbing.  This disturbance is meant to promote questioning and discussion amongst us, which is exactly what Jesus did.  Please feel free to come and seek clarification from me, or to challenge it.  We together are the priesthood of believers, the Body of Christ, and together we will discover what it means to live resurrection life in the 21st century.  May the Spirit, breathed out on those 12 disciples in that Upper Room, breath her new life into this Lumen Christi fellowship. 


By Sandi DeMaster