In the Temple, the Jews (as John calls them) come up to Jesus, as they do from time to time, with a question, more of a request really, they say:
“How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”
There is group of people, a category, maybe, of people, which we could call “the might-believe”; Those people who don’t believe but would like to; Those who think they may believe, but aren’t sure about; Those who can’t believe but wish they could. John Wesley had a sermon called “the Almost Christian.” These are the people who at least think that believing, being a Christian, being part of the people of faith the family of the church, people who think that that is at least a possibility. And for those people there are circumstances, situations, where the possibility of believing becomes a stronger, more likely, more real possibility. There are occasions when faith seems just more realistic. The Feast of Dedication, that’s the feast Jewish people celebrate around Christmas time, called Hannukkah, the Feast of Dedication at the temple in Jerusalem is exactly such an occasion, precisely the sort of situation that might make believing in Jesus seem more plausible. It was quite possibly the occasion that prompted the Jews question to Jesus. The Feast of Dedication provoked their starting to think about whether or not Jesus may indeed be the Messiah. After all this feast was the one which celebrated the last time that it looked like the Messiah might have come. It recalls the time when, almost 200 years earlier the Macabee brothers, who had become so outraged by the mistreatment and oppression of their people, and at the desecration of the temple by pagans, that they had rebelled, risen up against their Greek rulers. And what is more they had succeeded, for a while. Their people were set free. The temple was cleansed and restored. Messianic hopes at that time seemed realistic. But now all that was just history. And to the Jews it seemed they were back where they had started from, with pagans, this time the Romans, oppressing their people and defiling their temple. But Jesus! Jesus offered a glimmer of hope. There was just a suggestion that he could satisfy their longing. That he might just turn out to be the Messiah they could believe in.
I wonder what proportion of people around us might believe. That given the right circumstances, would be prompted to ask the question of Jesus: “Are you the one we are longing for?” What proportion of people have that nagging suspicion, that for all the things that might make them think otherwise, they still suspect that there might be something in what Christians are about. It might turn out to be all true after all. Part of me wants to think that “the might-believe” are actually nearly everyone. That nearly everybody is still open to the possibility of faith. That almost no one is convinced that what we do here is chasing after fairy tales and that Christians are deluded, following an illusion. It seems to me that even those who are most vocally opposed to religion still often seem to have a wistful longing that it all might be true. That their rage in part is their disappointment that they can’t find a way to believe.
I wonder also, I wonder about what circumstances might prompt the sort of question which the Jews came to Jesus with: “Come on, tell us plainly, what’s it all about? Stop beating about the bush, give it to us straight. So that we can stop doubting and believe.” The American theologian Stanley Hauerwas says it’s something of an occupational hazard from a professor of religion on a university campus. He often gets students, usually not the ones studying in his department, who ask him to explain Christianity. After all, he says, he has a doctorate in theology and all, surely he must know something about the subject. I guess ministers have the same sort of occupational hazard. After all I’m a kind of an official, professional Christian. A little while ago I was at the wedding reception of a couple I had just married, when a young woman engaged me in a conversation about religion. She knew who I was because she had seen me stand at the front and do religion in the form of the wedding. Her views, and her questions were quite typical. She wished she believed, but somehow just couldn’t find it in her to believe. She wanted something that would help her past that apparent block. Actually her story was unusually dramatic. What she was particularly concerned about was having to forgive the man who had stabbed her father to death!
For me it’s obviously not the Feast of the Dedication that brings this sort of thing up. It’s usually following occasions like baptisms, wedding funerals that this sort of questioning arises. It’s moments of life’s transitions that seem most likely to prompt the question of believing. That might be just because those are the occasions when “the might-believe” encounter the institutional activity of Christianity. Times when they are confronted with the possibility that there really might be something in what we’re about. Of course, for me, it might also be that those occasions are some of the only times that I encounter people who are not already part of the church, committed to faith. They are the only occasions when I am with “ the might-believes” rather than “the already believes.” Perhaps for the rest of us, for the ordinary, as it were “amateur” Christians, those who aren’t professionally and officially identified with the activity of the church, for ordinary Christians such encounters when they do arise are likely to seem just random. I do recall, before I was a professional Christian, before even (so I thought) I was even noticeably a believer, when I was in the sixth form in school,
one of the other boy in my year, not a friend, not even one of the boys who I thought knew me at all, quizzed me about belief. To this day I have no idea what prompted his questions. Or how it was that he thought I might have the answers. And I am not at all sure I was able to give him much of an answer.
“The might-believe” are out there, and they do sometimes come to us with their question: “Tell us plainly, is Jesus the one we should believe in? And how can we have faith in him?” The temptation when such occasions arise, the temptation is to be quite assertive. Assuming we can get over the surprise of being asked at all, and can get over our tongue-tied reticence when it comes to talking about religion, the temptation is to try and explain. To try and relieve the suspense of those who might-believe, and make belief as plain and simple as we can possibly manage. And when our first attempt hasn’t succeeded to have another go. And this time to try harder,
to be more assertive, more plain in our explanation. Indeed there is a whole branch of theology dedicated to this kind of thing. It’s called “apologetics.” The name is a bit misleading, since the very last thing that apologetics ever is, is apologetic in the ordinary sense, it tends not to be at all meek. We, and by that I mean the Church the whole collective institution, organisation, movement that makes up Christianity, we seem to think that if we work at it hard enough , if we explain clearly enough, if we adapt how we speak to the cultural, social, intellectual background of our listeners carefully enough, it might actually be possible to persuade anybody. To convince everybody to believe. We seem to think it must be possible to make the truth of the Gospel so self-evident that you would have to be insane, deliberately obtuse or wilfully wicked to reject it. We have come up with, over the years, no end of clever schemes, ingenious ways of packaging our message, that look as though they’ll work. Except of course we know that their success has always been at best modest. We know this because most of our churches are still more or less empty.
Except, this is the one thing Jesus himself never does! Jesus never attempts to persuade anyone. He doesn’t chase after anyone who has turned away from him, saying “Hold on a minute! Maybe you have misunderstood. Let me explain it to you again. This time more clearly.” Jesus never does this! Even when the “Jews” – or is it “Judeans” (the word is actually the same) Even when the “Jews” come up to ask him:
“If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”
He doesn’t give them much of an answer:
“I have told you already and you do not believe.”
He simply points to himself. On another occasion the followers of John the Baptist came to him with much the same question:
“Are you the one, or should we wait for another?”
On that occasion told them to look at what was happening around him. The sick were healed, the deaf heard, the lame walked, the blind could see, the oppressed were released and the poor had good news brought to them. He tells them to look at what happened around him and decide for themselves. He says, “If what I have already said,
and if what you have already seen me do is not enough, then nothing more that I could do or say will ever be sufficient to convince you.” Jesus doesn’t try to persuade, or convince anyone. He doesn’t even explain.
Again and again, I find myself in the situation, in the pulpit and elsewhere, where I am talking to those who might-believe. And I always find myself with the same thought running through my head: “I stand here before you naked. There is nothing in my hands that I can offer you. All I’ve got is Jesus, his life, his words, his deeds, his death and resurrection, his promise to come back for us. Thin as that might seem, I have nothing more. There really is nothing else. If what I’m saying is not enough, then I’m afraid there is nothing more convincing that I can offer you.” The truth is belief, faith, religion, religious commitment if you like, the truth is belief in Jesus can only emerge where the opposite remains a real possibility. Believing can only exist where not believing is still a plausible option. More than than that would take our humanity away. If we had no choice we would not be human. Which is the tragedy of believing and of the struggles of those who might-believe. We have to make what the Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, called the leap of faith,
place our trust in Jesus. His answer to that question is really a challenge. “Can you put your trust in me or not?” The same answer he gives to everyone who might believe, “Do you trust me? Can you follow me where I’ll lead? Will you let me care for you like a shepherd would care for his sheep?”
But where does this all leave us. Stanley Hauerwas, the theologian I mentioned before, says he has stopped trying to explain Christianity to those earnest might believe questioners. He says that instead he tries to show them. He says, “let’s sit down and pray the Lord’s Prayer together.” Because in the end, he observes, if you want an explanation of Christianity you are only going to find it from the inside. And the church is the place where you try to learn to say that prayer with complete sincerity. Which is as much explanation as you’ll ever need. The answer Jesus gives is to point to himself. The only answer perhaps we can give is to point to the difference putting our trust him makes to our lives. So not to be assertive, not to cajole or to badger, not to try to persuade, nor even try to explain, Just say: Here is where I find following Jesus to be trustworthy and true. Amen.
Faith and the “Might-Believe” by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0