In the Gospel reading on May 6, people ask Jesus: “What can we do to accomplish the works of God?” He answers: “This is the work of God, that you believe in the One He sent.”
In every Gospel passage this week we hear some form of this exhortation to believe.
But what does Jesus mean by belief? The modern sense of the word means, simply, to hold something to be true. But this notion of belief produces all kinds of trouble. It forces us to read St. Paul against St. James (“You are saved by faith alone” vs. “I will show you my faith by my works”). It has divided Lutherans and Catholics since 1520. It has produced a growing number of people who are “spiritual but not religious.”
These are simply bad fruits from a bad tree. “Holding something to be true” is not the biblical sense of what it means to believe. Fortunately, the rest of the readings for the week help us to understand what it does mean.
For example, on Wednesday Jesus says: “Everyone who believes in the Son has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day.” Then, on Friday, he says: “Whoever eats My Flesh and drinks My Blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day.” In other words, when Jesus exhorts us to believe in Him, sacramental practice is part of what He means (in this case, receiving the Eucharist). To the extent that we don’t engage in sacramental practice, we lack belief in the biblical sense.
Another element of belief is given to us on Monday and Tuesday by Stephen, on Wednesday and Thursday by Philip, and on Friday and Saturday by Ananias, Paul and Peter. Each day we’re told that they proclaimed Christ to others. They didn’t just hold it as true that Jesus was risen and keep it to themselves. To believe, for them, meant to proclaim. To the extent that we don’t engage in proclamation, we lack belief in the biblical sense.
At the end of the week, we hear of the many acts of service that Tabitha did for the community where she lived. These acts of service, too, are an element of belief. To the extent that we don’t engage in service to others, we lack belief in the biblical sense.
If you think about it, we also learn this pattern from Jesus’ life. His trust in the Father wasn’t just something He held in His heart. It led Him to a life of regular prayer, obedience in His own actions, proclamation to others and a life of service. He confirms, by His example, what He tells us with His words.
Yes, belief starts with holding something to be true. But it doesn’t end there. Unless it stretches out to encompass sacramental practice, and proclamation and service, it never becomes “belief” in the biblical sense.
That provides a good examination of conscience: In what ways might we need to strengthen our belief in Jesus? Ask for that grace and work on it because, as Jesus tells us, if we don’t believe, then we won’t have eternal life.