"BELIEVE" - John 14:1-14

As we continue this “Word of the Week” series, one of you suggested to Kathryn and me that we preach a sermon, not on one word, but on the many small words in our language, for example – the prepositions. As we think about words and language, it is not just the words that matter, but how the words connect to other words. Critical prepositions often frame the meaning of words. In fact, the one who suggested this knows, not just about language, but about translations, even Bible translations. The critical issue in translating the Bible is so often how the little words, the connecting words, the prepositions get translated. Those little words determine much about the larger words.

              Our word today – BELIEVE – is almost always determined and significantly affected by the prepositions used with our word. Listen to what writer and preacher, Frederick Buechner, says. “Prepositions can be very eloquent.” A man is IN architecture, or a woman is IN teaching. (A man is IN nursing; a woman is IN law.)  When we use the word, IN, like that, it tends to mean these people make their living that way – so they can do something else the rest of the time.

              “But if we say they are INTO these things, that is another story. INTO means something more like total immersion. They live and breathe what they do. They take it home with them. They can’t get enough of it. To be INTO books means that just the sight of a signed edition of Alice in Wonderland sets your heart pounding. To be IN books might mean you work at (Barnes and Noble).”

              Beuchner then talks about the complex word, which is our word for the day – BELIEVE.  The New Testament Greek speaks of BELIEVING INTO rather than believing IN. Believing in God is often how it gets translated, but that implies more of an intellectual position. Believing IN God may not really affect your life. And that is where the problem comes. We believe IN lots of things that have very little effect on our lives. We believe in gravity, in the earth rotating around the sun. We believe in our financial advisor, or in the airline pilot who can land the plane safely. In this sense, to believe in means mostly to accept something as true, to feel sure of it.

              But when it comes to BELIEVE and GOD – INTO is way better than IN; to BELIEVE INTO GOD or to BELIEVE GOD (with no preposition), there is the sense that our life is greatly affected, our journey is altered, our priorities get re-arranged, our hope gets re-oriented.

              Do you believe that your house is on fire? Well, that will change every aspect of your life for that moment. Do you believe that someone really loves you, will always love you? Well, that gives you a different orientation about everything.

              That is how BELIEVE intends to be understood in the Bible and with Jesus. It is less a position – I believe in God - than a journey – I BELIEVE INTO GOD or I BELIEVE GOD is real, God is present, and God is working on me and the world. It is not just a fact, but a fantastic truth that changes everything. It is less a realization than a relationship. You cannot BELIEVE God, BELIEVE INTO GOD, and be unchanged. If that is the case, it is something beside what Jesus intends for us. To BELIEVE INTO GOD, to BELIEVE God, well, that “stirs your blood . . . .” It affects who you are and what you do with your life. . . . “Eternal life is NOT the result of believing IN God. Eternal life is the experience of BELIEVING.” (See F. Beuchner, Whistling in the Dark, p. 21) Do you follow here?

              Our second lesson repeats this word – BELIEVE – many times.

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?3And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. 4And you know the way to the place where I am going.” 5Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” 6Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”8Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.”9Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works.11Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.

12Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. 13I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it. 

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

As you can see, the word – BELIEVE – runs all through this passage. Theologian and scholar, Marcus Borg, suggests that the best way to understand this word, even this passage, is to go back to the ancient understanding of the word. It is NOT about what you know or what you think to be true. To believe in God is NOT about intellectual assent or reaching some knowledge. Rather, to believe IN God, to believe INTO God - according to the original understanding of this verb – is to HOLD GOD DEAR, to love and trust that person – God – so much that your life is altered in deep and significant ways. “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” Open your heart to God such that God holds you. To believe in God does not mean to believe that some statements about God are true. It means to allow your whole life to be held by God. To believe in Jesus does not mean that you think Jesus walks on water, or turns water to wine – which is quite cool. To believe in Jesus is to hold him so dear, that you know you do not go it alone, but that Jesus holds you all through life, and death. The relationship stirs your heart, changes your life.

This is what Jesus is all about in the gospel of John. He is with us – the Word made flesh. He is related to us. For God so loved the world, . . . that whosoever believes – who holds him dear, who opens heart and life to him, gives heart to him (there’s another critical preposition) – finds life, and life eternal. In every encounter that people have of Jesus in this gospel, their lives are changed. It is NOT knowing things about him, but engaging WITH him. It is not a realization, but a relationship!

In fact, this is how we get the Latin word – credo – which gives us the word “creed.” Credo in Latin, we usually translate as “I believe.” But it more truly means “I give my heart to.” Isn’t that great! And HEART does not refer simply to feelings, to emotions, though those are involved. HEART is a metaphor for the SELF at the deepest level – a level of the self beneath and way beyond our thinking, our willing, our feeling. To whom do you give your heart, your self? To whom do you commit yourself? Jesus says, “believe in God, believe also in me.” What he wants is our hearts related to his heart. What he wants is a relationship, a connection that changes our life and charges us with vitality and hope, and moves us in a new direction – a direction of loving and serving God in the world alongside Jesus. (see M Borg, Speaking Christian, p. 119)

This is why he says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” You want to find life? Well, “follow me,” says Jesus. It is not about some knowledge or just thinking something is true; it is about a deep, heart-felt connection that transforms everything about us. Christianity is not merely a religion – something to believe IN. It is a WAY of life. It is a manner of going, day in and day out, where our hearts are stirred by Jesus and our focus is all the things that Jesus cares most about.

And we know what Jesus cares about – a life of compassion.

The word for “compassion” in both Hebrew and Aramaic is related to the word, “womb.” Thus, to be compassionate is to be womblike – isn’t that a good word on this Mother’s Day? God is compassionate – we are called to be compassionate. God is womblike – we are therefore called to be womblike.

What does that look like? Well, it means to be life-giving, nourishing. It means to feel what a mother feels for the children in her womb – tenderness, total care for their wellbeing, finding her children precious and beautiful. It can also mean a fierceness, for a mother can be fierce when threats come to he children. Compassion is not just a soft and cozy virtue. It can have a passion and a fierceness (see M. Borg, Days of Awe and Wonder, p. 135f.).

So we keep working on this. When life gets complicated and we are not sure where we are or what to do, we keep working on this. When the world seems crazy and we roll our eyes, not sure we can interpret all that is happening in our nation and world, we keep working on this. We are called to BELIEVE INTO JESUS – give our hearts to, and allow our lives to held by, Jesus. BELIEVE INTO Jesus and seek always to frame our lives with compassion, a desire to be life-giving, nourishing, womblike - for God’s purposes in the world. That is the Way. Believe INTO Jesus – lean more and more into the ways of Jesus – loving and serving in the world. “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me – (or BELIEVES INTO me) – will also do the works that I do, and in fact, will do greater works than these,  . . .” (John 14:12).

I began this sermon speaking about prepositions. I will end this sermon in the same way - with some more thoughts about prepositions. Julian of Norwich, the fourteenth century Christian mystic, said most simply but also most radically, that we are not just made BY God, we are made OF God. Do you see how important prepositions can be? We are NOT just fashioned from afar by a distant Creator, who shapes us and launches us for living in the world. We are born from the very womb of the Divine. Julian sees us coming forth from the essence of the One who is the Source of all things. This relates to the idea that we – all human beings – carry the IMAGE OF GOD, the essence of God. It means, though we flounder and fail, the wisdom of God is part of us. Though we feel dry and discouraged at times, the creativity of God is part of us too. Though we struggle sometimes to love, and especially forgive, God’s love and forgiveness are part of our essence. (See J.P.Newell, The Rebirthing of God, p. x)

So think about Jesus’ words in that context – “do not let your hearts be troubled,” your heart is related to God’s heart – BELIEVE – which means give your heart to God’s heart, and strive to be about God’s ways in the world – womblike – compassion and care, spreading God’s light in every way you can. BELIEVE INTO God – find a way that aligns with God’s way – then we find life.

Maybe you have heard about the Native American tribal leader describing his inner struggle. He said, “there are two dogs inside of me. One of the dogs is mean, full of evil, often getting into danger, and making a mess of things. The other dog is good, spreads help and love, usually gets things right. The mean dog and the good dog fight each other inside me all the time. “  Someone asked him which dog usually wins. After a moment’s reflection, he answered, “the one I feed the most.” (H. Kushner, Living a Life that Matters, p. 58)

Jesus says, BELIEVE – we keep working on this - an invitation to hold dear the One who holds us - and to give our lives; be OF God in how we love and serve in the world. May God’s Spirit so transform us to BELIEVE INTO and be about the compassionate work of God – today, tomorrow, forever. May it be so. Amen.

Prayer of Commitment: Move in our midst, O God. We believe; help our unbelief. We seek to go the way of Jesus in faith, love, and service. AMEN

Alex Evans, Pastor, Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA preached this sermon during Sunday morning worship on May 14, 2017. This is a rough manuscript.         

Alex EvansAlex Evans