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 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?
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