John 11: 1-45 On Trust and Love Susan J. Barnes
April 2, 2017 St. John’s, Minneapolis
The long stories we’ve been reading this Lent are unique to the gospel of John. Three feature Jesus’ intense theological conversation with one other person. In each successive conversation, the gospeller has Jesus reveal more about his identity as the Messiah, and what that means to the seeker before him. Implicitly, the gospel invites us to place ourselves in the conversation and to grow in our own faith in Jesus.
The first two conversations are with strangers. Nicodemus the Pharisee utterly failed to understand Jesus when they first met. But the Samaritan woman at the well got it: she became a convert and the first evangelist—proclaiming the good news to her community.
The situation in the third conversation, which we just heard, is different. Jesus is speaking with a dear friend, Martha of Bethany. And she is in the midst of a life crisis: the death of her brother.
The story, placed at the very center of the gospel, concludes with the Raising of Lazarus; it’s the last of seven miracles or “signs” that represent Jesus public ministry in the gospel of John.
Although Lazarus’ return from the dead foreshadows Jesus’ resurrection, it’s not the same. Jesus brought Lazarus back to life, later to die again like any human being. It’s a spectacular event, intensely dramatic, and an irresistible subject for gospel illustrators—iconographers, painters or film-makers. But the heart and the revelation of the story lies in a few words in the conversation.
Jesus said to [Martha], “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah,[g] the Son of God, the one coming into the world.
“I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” As commentator Osvaldo Vena noted, the whole purpose of the gospel is contained in that sentence. The author, who says so—repeating it in verse 20: 31–gives the honor of announcing it to a woman.
The key word in this passage, and in this entire gospel, is translated “believe”. But the original Greek verb, pisteuo, implies much more than cognitive assent. As Carl Jung wrote, it means “to trust, to rely on, to feel confident about something…[these are] states of mind based on one’s personal experience”.
Trust lies in the heart and soul, in the experience of relationship. Trust precedes cognition. The smallest infant trusts in the parent to feed and care for it.
Trust is the foundation of love.
One of the excuses I used during my 25-year absence from church was that I couldn’t say the Nicene Creed. I couldn’t say that I believed in the Virgin birth (among other things). That refusal was part of my defense against the personal experience of God. Once I opened myself to faith, I knew that the mystery of God is far too great to be expressed in words or ever to be grasped by mortals. To paraphrase another quote made by Jung: I didn’t have to believe because I knew. I began to trust in the knowing.
Returning to the gospel, how does this translation feel?
Jesus said to [Martha], “Those who trust in me, even though they die, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and trusts in me will never die. Do you trust this?”
27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I trust that you are the Messiah,[g] the Son of God, the one coming into the world.
Martha trusted; she knew Jesus in the flesh. But how on earth can we grow in a trusting relationship with the unseen, the unknown, the infinite, the unfathomable creator of the universe, whom the Hubble telescope shows is birthing worlds beyond worlds while we sit here in our pews?
Some of us are blessed just to KNOW God or Jesus or the Spirit from birth; to sense a relationship in daily life or a presence nature without letting “reason” drive that experience out. Others have it harder–like me. I believed I was autonomous, in charge of my own life, until a crisis shattered that illusion and God’s love washed through me.
A life crisis can strengthen our faith or shake it. That also happened to me, a few months after my mother died. I don’t know what triggered it. I was suddenly completely overwhelmed with doubt. I literally sobbed as I called my dear friend Cynthia Clawson and cried from my depths, “I can’t trust God with my mother’s soul!’ Cynthia listened patiently as I voiced that primal fear–along with my confusion: I was a seminary-trained priest, ordained for five years, for goodness sake! Yet I was utterly helpless as I repeated “I can’t trust God with my mother’s soul!” Finally, “softly and tenderly,” Cynthia asked, “Can you let me do that for you?” “Yes,” I said. “Yes. I can trust you with that.”
Relationship, trust and love are the keys to this gospel story, and–I think–to the miracle itself.
Jesus’ relationship with Martha and Mary is uniquely intimate. In my imagination, their house on the outskirts of Jerusalem has become a haven for Jesus. He’s a Galilean, an outsider, in Judea. In addition, because his authority and teachings are a threat to the Temple establishment, Jesus is the target of suspicion, fear and deadly conspiracy. With Martha, Mary and Lazarus in Bethany, he is at home.
In this place of safety and trust, Jesus is his most human. He is free to be a person, a friend. He is vulnerable. Openly, Jesus expresses his love for Martha, Mary, and Lazarus.
Here, at the same time, Jesus is at the summit of his divine power: he brings a dead man back to life! It’s no accident, I think, that in that miracle, Jesus’ greatest humanity, his deepest personal love, coincide with his greatest divinity.
As Omid Safi wrote in an On Being blog: “love is not merely an emotion, but the very unleashing of God onto this world. We’ve got to love each other.”
“Love is…the very unleashing of God onto this world.”
Trust is the foundation of love. Trust is built over time as we add one meal, one cup of coffee, one shared workday or adventure, one heartfelt conversation, to another.
The United States of America is in a perilous crisis of trust. The solution lies in the time-consuming, vulnerable, life-enhancing work of building trust in loving personal relationships that transcend every kind of difference. As Krista Tippett suggested when she was here, healthy communities of faith like ours are the place–the fertile soil—in which that essential element of human society can flourish.
St. John’s has a particular charism: the spiritual gift of hospitality that fosters trust and loving relationship. It is rare. It is precious.
Let us never take it for granted. On the contrary, let us nurture it. Let us celebrate it. Let us reach out and welcome others in to share it.
Let us build trust and love to do our part in the “unleashing of God onto this world”.