Fifth Sunday in Lent
Rev. Ryan Slifka
Most of you know this already, but I wasn’t raised in the church. I grew up in a more or less secular household. I only came to faith in my early twenties. Meaning it was just over a decade ago (and yet, somehow y’all still let me drive the bus).
But my journey to faith was a gradual one, even after coming to church. I felt like perhaps there was something like a God. But I was suspicious of many, if not most of the other things associated with Christianity.
But from the beginning, one of my biggest struggles was with this idea of belief. Christianity has always centered on belief. We say a creed every Sunday, and key to each creed is the phrase I (or we) believe. “In God the Father almighty,” or “in God who has created… and is creating.”
For me, this was always a struggle. First, because Christian beliefs didn’t seem to square with the world as I understood it—a solely material world with little room for the supernatural or miraculous. But the second thing was more significant. I could look around my life and see plenty of people who were not Christian. Plenty of people who didn’t go to church. And they were out doing good in the world. In contrast, there were also Christians who believed things very deeply that seemed to be unkind, uncharitable, or even outright hostile to others who didn’t share their beliefs. It seemed unfair to me that non-believers who had lived lives of deep goodness would end up burning in hell for eternity, while believers who were jerks (or worse) somehow got in to heaven because they held all the right ideas.
I had trouble with faith because beliefs seemed to me to be exclusionary, divisive. And they seemed to get in the way of doing actual good in the world, because everyone was focused on getting your ideas right. That ideas about God seemed to matter more than how people acted in the world. This didn’t seem right.
Gradually, though, I’ve come to realize that the problem with faith wasn’t belief itself. But it what belief itself means, and where it leads us. Belief was presented to me as intellectually affirming a list of ideas. A yes or no questionnaire about God, Jesus, the or the inerrancy of the Bible. And if I believed in those particular ideas, then I would be guaranteed a place in the afterlife. But it never really grabbed me. It never really spoke to me in terms of my own life or the needs of the world.
But now, I’ve actually come to realize that the reason why it didn’t grab me is because Now, don’t get me wrong, I think particular beliefs are important. And if you ask me to recite the Apostle’s Creed, I won’t be crossing my fingers. But over time, I’ve discovered that to believe is much more than this. And it’s better than this, too.
This morning’s reading from the good news according to John is a prime example of how we’re to properly understand belief.
The story is more or less simple. A man named Lazarus is sick. His sisters, Mary and Martha (who we met a few weeks ago) send for Jesus. Hoping there’s something he can do.
Jesus takes his time. It takes him two days to get moving. And when he finally gets there his disciples in tow, Lazarus has been dead four days in the tomb. Mary and Martha are weeping, angry at Jesus. And each of them in turn essentially says that he could have done something if he was there. Which is probably true, considering Jesus has turned water in to wine, turned a few loaves into bread for five thousand. And cured a man born blind. He could have done something. But instead, Jesus took his time. And in the meantime, Lazarus died.
It looks like Jesus purposely dropped the ball here. He could have done something. But he didn’t. So their grief, confusion, and even anger are completely understandable. It’s all understandable, according to John, but it misses the point. In John, Jesus isn’t there just to feed, heal or cure. His mission is even bigger than that. These things are “signs.” Like signs, they point towards something else. They point to God. And God’s power for life.
“Your brother will rise again,” says Jesus to Martha. “I know that,” she says. “I know he’ll rise in the resurrection on the last day.” She thinks that Jesus is trying to console her with the promise of a future resurrection, life after death. Which, speaking as a pastor, I know rarely actually takes away the sting of sorrow. But Jesus is doing no such thing. “I AM the resurrection and the life,” he says. “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live. And everyone who lives and believe in me will never die.”
What Jesus says seems to just add to the confusion. But if you flip to chapter 20, verses 30 and 31, you’ll find a clue to what it all means. "Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples” it says. “He did many other signs which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” Everything that Jesus does in John, every feeding, every healing, every act of power Jesus does isn’t just to demonstrate that miracles are possible. But he does so to draw others into belief. This act of power by Jesus is done for the sake of inspiring belief.
Now, notice what Jesus says. First about belief. “Those who believe in me,” he says. Jesus doesn’t say, “If you can sign a list of beliefs about me, you’ll receive eternal life.” “Those who believe in me.” I’m reminded of a biblical scholar who once was asked if he believes in Jesus, and he replied, “absolutely.” But then he clarified. But to say “I believe in someone” doesn’t mean I just believe in ideas about them. When I say ‘I believe in Barack Obama,’ for example, it doesn’t mean I just believe in facts about him Whether he exists. Or that he was born in Hawaii. But I’m throwing my lot in with him because I trust him with our future.”[i]
Now, regardless of what we think about Barack Obama, it’s an important distinction. When Jesus says “believe in me.” I doesn’t just mean facts about him. It means believing in Jesus himself. Throwing our lot in with him, trusting him with our future. Going where he leads.
Second, notice what Jesus says about resurrection, new life. “I am the resurrection and the life.” He doesn’t discount life after death, that part’s a given. But he also doesn’t say “I will be the resurrection and the life… one day.” Instead, he says “I AM the resurrection and the life.” And to show it, he calls Lazarus out of his tomb. “Come out!” he shouts. And Lazarus, covered in bandages hops forward, emerging from the tomb raised from death. “Unbind him,” Jesus says, “and let him go.” Jesus raises Lazarus, not as proof of life after death, but as a sign, a symbol of the life that is available to all who believe in him. And as a result, it says, many who were gathered saw what Jesus did “and believed in him.”
In the end, Jesus raises Lazarus to kindle trust, belief in himself. And going where Jesus goes leads to life. And he kindles belief so he can bestow life, life eternal, life abundant to those who believe in him.
The raising of Lazarus is, in the end, a demonstration, a test firing, of the life that is available to them all, and to us all. That in believing in Jesus, trusting him, throwing our lot in with him, we’re given access, able experience eternal life, abundant life, life in communion with God through the Spirit here and now. Belief isn’t a list of facts. It isn’t just to prepare for eternity. Not just life after death. But it an invitation to a transformative relationship. One where we can experience life before death. Here and now.
I’m reminded of the great American naturalist Henry David Thoreau, who once said that he wished to learn now everything that life has to teach, “and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
And that’s made all the difference for me. At least when it comes to belief. That Christianity isn’t first about believing in an idea. It’s about believing in, trusting in, a person. A person who will lead us to transformation, resurrection, newness of life. It’s about throwing our lives in, betting our lives on Jesus, and going where he leads, and discovering fullness, abundance of life.
[i] I heard John Dominic Crossan say something like this about a decade ago.