Those who believe in me…

If one is fortunate in life, at least once or twice he’ll encounter someone whose vision, passion, dedication, and charisma capture his imagination and his heart.  He will find himself setting aside, or at least suspending for a time, his own goals and intentions and putting himself in service to that figure who has inspired him.  Importantly, such a following is not slavish and unquestioning.  A truly inspiring leader does not attempt to squelch questions or critique.  But even so, inspiring leaders exude an infectious desire to do right and do well, to further some virtuous goal with verve and passion.  If you’ve ever encountered such a person—if you’ve ever followed such a person—you know what I’m talking about.  And if you haven’t, you’ll know it when it happens.

I have encountered such a person.  And some of you will know the person I’m talking about.  It is Ellis Arnold, the current president of my alma mater, Hendrix College, who will retire from that role in just a few months.  In his long and illustrious career of leadership, Ellis has served as president of three institutions, and his achievements unquestionably now mark him as an elder statesman of education (though, in truth, he’s not that old).  But I first came to know Ellis when I was a twenty-one-year-old Hendrix student, and he was a thirty-six-years-young Hendrix vice-president already evidencing the talent that would lead to his rise.  A few years later, when I was twenty-five and Ellis was forty-one, Ellis served as president of a university in Tennessee, and he hired me to be his director of admissions.  We worked closely side-by-side for two years before I left to go to seminary, and I’ve never had an experience like it, before or since. 

Ellis Arnold as President of Lambuth University, c. 1998

Ellis articulated a vision for the university that was hopeful and necessary.  When he spoke about it, Ellis lit up, even at times when he was otherwise weary.  Ellis labored for the college harder than anyone else around him, and his dedication made those around him want to work harder and more faithfully, too.  In those years, Ellis was not flawless.  He would occasionally second-guess, or misstep, or move too quickly for others.  But his humanity simply made us want to follow with greater dedication, not less.  Though it seems strange to say so, Ellis was the embodiment of the vision and the hope he pursued—he lived and breathed it—and that is what inspired the rest of us.  That is what inspired me.  At the end of the day, the best and perhaps only way to say it is that I believed in Ellis Arnold, and I followed where he led.  

Today’s reading is the story of the death of the only individual in John’s Gospel who is referred to as Jesus’ friend.[i]  There is so much in this story to plumb.  But today I want to focus on Jesus’ statement right in the middle of the reading—the statement that may have perked your ears and reclaimed your attention—because it is at the same time one of the most cherished and the most divisive statements in the Gospels.  Here it is: “Jesus said, ‘I am the resurrection and the life.  Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.’”

We read these words at the beginning of every Episcopal funeral service.  In that setting, they are words of profound comfort, with the promise that life has not ended, but changed.  Thank God for them.  But in other settings, marked less by grief than argument, these same words become lines in the sand, dividers, even litmus tests.  “Whoever believes in me will never die,” Jesus declares, and then asks, “Do you believe this?”  And that presents the rub.  What does it mean to believe in Jesus?

Jesus raising Lazarus

For the past couple of centuries, especially in American Christianity, the answer has leaned toward “beliefs,” with an “s” on the end.  And by beliefs we mean propositions about Jesus that are claimed to be factually true.  A good example is the literal virgin birth, but there are plenty of others.  “Believing in Jesus” is generally taken to mean that you assent to the laundry list of propositions.  You affirm them, whatever they are, as literal fact, and if you can check all of the boxes, then you believe in Jesus.  And thank God that you do, since checking those boxes is what is required to inherit eternal life.  By the same token, beware if you can’t in good conscience check all the boxes, because eternal life depends on it.

Is that depiction of belief in Jesus familiar to you?  For those who grew up in more evangelical churches, it almost certainly is.  And such a primary understanding of belief can create intense anxiety, guilt, and despair of salvation if, internally and deep down, we harbor doubts and aren’t so confident of our intellectual assent.

An example: During my seminary summer of hospital chaplaincy, I had a patient who’d had a stroke and was suffering from aphasia.  He was unable to understand or form complete, coherent sentences.  His wife was desperately afraid of his damnation because he’d never declared propositional belief in Jesus, so she wanted me, as chaplain, to go to his room and encourage him to speak after me, word for word, “I believe in Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior.”  As if assenting to that formula aloud was some sort of magical incantation that made all the difference; as if that’s what belief in Jesus means.

Hear me say: It isn’t.  Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection are surely wondrous.  In Jesus, God did something cosmic and unique.  But our assent to any particular dogmatic articulation of how to understand God’s action in Jesus is not what John—or Jesus—means by belief.

The first thing we need to notice, in this and all of the great “I am” statements in John, is that Jesus is not even referring to himself in the first part of the statement.  Remember, “I Am” is the first and proper name that God gives to Godself way back in Exodus.  At the burning bush, Moses asks God who God is, and God says, “I Am.”[ii]  So, when Jesus says, “I Am the resurrection and the life” he’s not saying “I, Jesus, am the resurrection and the life.”  Jesus is actually saying, “God, the ‘I Am,’ is the resurrection and the life.”  If we misunderstand that, we misunderstand the rest.  That is Jesus’ vision.  That is the Way, the Gospel he wants us to understand: that God is resurrection; God is life.

To believe in Jesus is not to say or affirm all the right things about Jesus.  Remember how I described a young Ellis Arnold at the outset.  Believing in Ellis didn’t mention that I affirmed facts about Ellis, that he grew up in Little Rock, has a law degree, or likes to bird hunt.  When I said I believed in Ellis, I meant that Ellis inspired me.  I caught his vision, trusted it, gave myself over to it, and followed him towards it.

Amplify that cosmically, and we come to understand what it means to believe in Jesus.  It means we give ourselves over in trust—heart, mind, body, and soul—to the vision of God that Jesus embodies in his words, his life, his death, and his ultimate resurrection.  That’s what it means to believe! 

When you go home, take your leaflet insert and read this passage again.  A story like the raising of Lazarus, in which Jesus doubts himself not once, but twice, in which Jesus expresses deep grief and sorrow, and in which Jesus channels the profound power of God, inspires like nothing else.  The passage ends by saying that those who walked with Jesus and experienced all of this believed in him.  Not things about him.  Not propositions.  Jesus spoke and lived the vision that God—the great I Am—is resurrection and life, and Jesus’ own fulsome trust in that vision inspired others to trust and follow.  It was contagious.         

It still is.  Next week we will be invited to give ourselves over to that vision completely, as we march into Jerusalem with Jesus and walk with him through the week of the Passion.  Will he inspire us?  Will we trust him?  Will we believe in Jesus enough to follow him and live into his vision of God?  If we can, then on Easter Day we will experience resurrection and life.


[ii] Exodus 3:14

Life Flashing Before Our Eyes

One of the most familiar tropes in film and fiction is when a character in distress or at the point of death sees his entire life flash before his eyes.  Events from birth to the present moment cascade rapidly through consciousness, as the protagonist looks on in wonder at his life’s review.  This happens in Bruce Willis’ Armageddon, Tom Cruise’s Vanilla Sky, even in the Shrek spin-off cartoon Puss in Boots, though in that instance Puss in Boots sees all nine of his kitty cat lives replayed in front of him.  Most recently we saw this in the hit Netflix series Stranger Things, when Max is near death and sees the events of the previous seasons flash before her eyes.

In most of these examples, the rapid life review is reminiscent, poignant, or even a comfort to the protagonist.  It is a means by which he can culminate his life before letting go.  But let’s pause and ask: Is that what it would feel like for us to have our lives flash before our eyes?  To have everything from our lives flash before our eyes? 

In addition to the things we do or leave undone, human beings spend much of our lives creating powerful psychological defenses, and we use these to suppress some painful or shameful memories and revise others.  We magnify our victories and minimize our failings.  In short, we tend to recast ourselves as the heroes of the story of our lives.  But here’s the thing about the breakneck life review that flashes before us at life’s end: It doesn’t care a whit for our psychological defenses.  The life reel that we will see (if indeed that’s how it works) will be not be varnished by our recasting.  It will show us the blunt truth of who we’ve been in each and every moment.  It will show us our joys but also those times when we faltered by mistake and when we willingly did harm.  We want the movie reel to be a superhero movie or a romantic comedy, but for some of us it might be closer to a horror film.

The reality is that the movie reel of our life already exists in its stark and unembellished form.  We know this, and we acknowledge it at the beginning of our worship each Sunday.  We’ve already done so today.  Immediately following the procession, the Celebrant prayed, “Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid…”  We might even add a tagline from the prophet Jeremiah: “I am watching, says the Lord.”[i]

The revision of our life stories may deceive us, but it does not deceive God.  God knows who we are.  God knows who we are.  And if that doesn’t make you the least bit nervous, you’re a much better person than I am.

This is the circumstance of the Samaritan woman at the well in John’s Gospel today.  This is a long passage, filled with theological heft and nuance, but among its most striking aspects is the few lines of dialogue between the woman and Jesus sandwiched in the middle.  After Jesus has told the woman all about the water of life (and more about that momentarily), Jesus instructs the woman to go and fetch her husband.  Attempting to shroud the truth of her life and its circumstances, the woman offers sheepishly and obliquely, “I have no husband,” upon which Jesus says, “It is true that you have no husband,” and then, as Frederick Dale Bruner puts it, Jesus “pierces her life at center.”[ii]  Jesus proceeds to run the movie reel and flash the woman’s life before her eyes, describing her unorthodox repetitive marriages and revealing that she is now living with someone to whom she isn’t married.  We don’t know the nitty gritty details beyond that, but it is clear that Jesus does, just as it is clear that the woman’s lifestyle sets her, fairly or unfairly, outside the bounds the morality of her day and time.

Just as we would be, the Samaritan woman is taken aback by Jesus’ prescience.  That much we would expect.  What we would not expect is what the woman tells all her neighbors when she goes back to town.  She says to one and all, “Come and see the man who told me everything I have ever done!”  Having spent so much effort—as we all do—building her psychological walls of defense, having obfuscated to herself and others (including Jesus) in order to preserve her sense of self as a good person, now the Samaritan woman rejoices that Jesus has seen her entirely and held that true mirror up to her.  And beyond that, her reaction is contagious.  Inexplicably, John tells us, “Many Samaritans from that city believed in Jesus because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me everything I have ever done.’”  All of a sudden, they want to see the true reel of their lives, too.  They want to face themselves square-on and without varnish.  Somehow, Jesus has turned the horror movie into a miracle story.

How is that so?  How is it Jesus can draw us to the very thing we’ve so diligently and assiduously avoided all our lives: The vision of our truest selves, light and shadow both?

It is because of the way today’s passage both begins and ends.  Before Jesus has held up the mirror of the Samaritan woman’s life, before the good, bad, and ugly have flashed before her eyes, Jesus shares with her the Good News of living water.  He does so already knowing everything about her.  To Jesus, already, the woman’s heart is open, her desires known.  From him no secret is hid.  And yet, even before he reveals all of this to her, Jesus offers her the water of life.

And what about after he told her everything about her?  Was the prior Good News just a ruse then to pull the rug out from under her?  Did Jesus intend, like some Puritan preacher of old, simply to begin with the Gospel in order to show us how depraved and fallen—how beyond grace—the Samaritan woman was?  No.  After the woman is faced with the stark reality of herself, Jesus continues to sit, and teach, and offer that grace fully and freely.  He stays with her, ignoring even his incredulous disciples, until she (not he) is ready to move.

The second half of the Collect for Purity we say at the outset of the Holy Eucharist—the prayer that reminds us God is the one “from whom no secrets are hid,”—says, “Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name.”  The answer to that prayer is what we see happen in the Samaritan woman.  She can endure, and even welcome, seeing her life flash before her eyes, because Jesus is with her before and after the viewing. Jesus is the one who shows her her true self, but he does so already having extended grace.  In the metaphoric language of the passage, he provides her with the food and drink she needs in order to face who she has been.  In a phrase, Jesus loves her first, and through his love she can bear to see her life truly, allow it to be washed clean by the living water of Christ, and begin to love more perfectly in return.

Part of who we have been is glorious, to be sure.  As I preached two weeks ago at the beginning of Lent, God says that we are good.[iii]  But there are also those parts of us and things we have done that we prefer to keep hidden in the shadows, that we don’t want to admit to ourselves, much less the world around us.  Do we trust Jesus enough to let him show us everything we have ever done?  Are we thirsty for the living water that will strengthen us for the viewing?  Redemption begins with only and exactly this trust.  Only in it and with it can we be honest about who we have been and who we are.  Jesus reveals us to ourselves not to condemn or shame or abandon.  Jesus rehearses our lives so that we, too, can love more purely and live in the light.  Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!  Are you ready for your life to flash before your eyes? 

[i] Jeremiah 7:11

[ii] See Bruner’s The Gospel of John: A Commentary, pp. 259-260.

[iii] Thompson, Barkley.  “Why Lent?”