Word in Language (20): Believe

I have always been confused whether we are supposed to receive a sign and then believe, or to believe and then receive a sign as a result of our belief, a confirmation, as it were. That is, does God open the doors of our senses to the other world, we perceive the other world and therefore believe, or does he open the doors of our senses as a result of our belief? Is it possible to believe something (or someone) you have never seen?

What set me on the journey of faith was an experience I had in 2001 on the island of Procida in the Bay of Naples, Italy. I asked for a sign and I got one. So in a way my belief was a result of the sign I received. But that sign came about because I asked for it, so I was predisposed, I had realized the limitations of my self, my need for the other, I had pulled down the walls of my self-sufficiency, thrown open the gates, invited God in. Is this, therefore, the procession of faith: an understanding of our own limitations leads to a call to God, which leads to a response on his part, which leads to faith on ours?

BELIEVE itself is a very interesting word. It spells VEILED in reverse (remember the physical pair, pair of letters that look alike, b-d, one of which is a mirror image of the other). Well, the mysteries are veiled, aren’t they? We don’t see them at once, but they reveal themselves to us gradually, in response to the level of our faith and repentance.

But BELIEVE contains another word: if we take a step in the alphabet (b-c) and apply the phonetic pair l-r, we get RECEIVE. Christ said to his disciples, ‘Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age – houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions – and in the age to come eternal life’ (Mk 10:29-30). So when we believe, when we follow Christ, we are to receive a hundredfold – the blessings of the spiritual life – with persecution – the world no longer recognizes us as one of its own because we have switched allegiance – and the ultimate goal is eternal life.

John the Evangelist has a lot to say about belief and eternal life in his Gospel. It is clear that the precondition for eternal life is that we believe. In fact, belief is the work of God – not to build mansions, not to perform impossible feats, not to exert ourselves strenuously, but simply to believe! The crowd has witnessed the feeding of the five thousand on the other side of the Sea of Galilee. Christ’s disciples have returned to Capernaum in the only boat available. Christ did not leave with them, and yet when they wake up, they see that he is not there. They take some boats that have come from Tiberias and travel to the other side, only to find that Christ is already there, having walked on the water. How has he got there? Christ says they have come looking for him because they had their fill of loaves the previous day and it is this that motivates them. He endeavours to redirect their aspirations and when they ask, ‘What must we do to perform the works of God?’, he comes out with a strikingly simple statement: ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent’ (Jn 6:29) – that is, that you believe in me. Well, that’s not much to do, is it?

But the crowd immediately asks for a sign: ‘What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you?’ There we go again, the need for a sign to trigger our belief.

The first chapters of John’s Gospel are full of people like us looking for signs. In chapter 1, Nathanael believes because Christ saw him under the fig tree. In chapter 2, in Jerusalem, ‘many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing’ (Jn 2:23). In chapter 4, Jesus says to the royal official whose son lay ill in Capernaum and to those with him, ‘Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe’ (Jn 4:48), though to his credit the royal official believes before he has actually witnessed the miracle. When Christ says, ‘Go; your son will live’, crucially he believes the word that Christ has spoken, even though he has yet to receive confirmation of the healing. The Church Fathers are always telling us when we ask for something – from God or the saints – we must ask with faith in our hearts, in the belief that what we ask for, if it is for our salvation, will come to pass. It’s no use asking half-heartedly. Extreme circumstances call for extreme measures, and for the royal official whose son lay ill in Capernaum, this was an extreme situation. So he believed. With all his heart. This is all Christ asks of us. As a result of the healing (a sign or wonder), it then says that the royal official ‘himself believed, along with his whole household’ (Jn 4:53). Belief leads to healing, which in turn leads to more generalized belief.

In chapter 6, ‘a large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick’ (Jn 6:2). Again, a sign triggers belief. After the feeding of the five thousand, ‘when the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world”’ (Jn 6:14). A sign leads to belief. Even Christ’s disciples, after the miracle of the transformation of water into wine at the wedding in Cana, then believed: ‘Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him’ (Jn 2:11).

So it seems that we are only persuaded as a result of signs, an accusation Christ was often levelling at the Pharisees. But what does he say we are to do? I think he understands our weakness and accepts that we need to see a sign in order to believe. But, when it comes down to it, what we are to do is to believe his testimony. He does not testify on his own behalf – this point is reiterated several times in the first chapters of John’s Gospel – but rather he testifies to his Father, and it is his Father – together with John the Baptist in chapter 1, the Samaritan woman in chapter 4 and the scriptures in chapter 5 – who testify to him. There is a wonderful altruism here. We are to believe him because he does not testify to himself, but to the other, and this we can take as a confirmation of what he is saying.

The point is heavily emphasised. Just perform a search of the words ‘testify’ and ‘testimony’ in the early chapters of John’s Gospel. You might also perform a search of the word ‘believe’. These are probably the most important words, together with ‘water’, ‘bread’ and ‘eternal life’.

It is belief that leads to eternal life:

And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. (Jn 3:14)

Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life. (Jn 3:36)

Anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. (Jn 5:24)

Those who hear will live. (Jn 5:25)

This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life. (Jn 6:40)

Whoever believes has eternal life. (Jn 6:47)

It would be difficult to make the point more emphatically. But there are two other things that will lead us in the direction of eternal life: WATER and BREAD. These two words are, of course, connected if we apply the phonetic pairs d-t and b-v-w. BREAD is one of three words that refer to nourishment, all beginning with the same letters: BREAD, BREAST and BREATH. They are all connected by the phonetic pair d-t, addition of s or h. And WATER is a short step from WORD (phonetic pair d-t, change of vowels, all of which are open).

We come across the first in the wonderful story of the Samaritan woman at the well. This woman is very striking. She has had five husbands for a start. She also has a pithy way about her, asking Christ (the Creator of the universe!) how he thinks he is going to manage to pull up some water from the well where they meet near the city of Sychar if he doesn’t have a bucket! This is the man who created the universe, through whom the world was brought into being, and all she can do is affirm that he doesn’t have a bucket and he must think he is clever or something if he thinks he’ll get some water out of the hole without one.

Christ observes (as always), enjoys the humour (as always) and then comes straight to the point: ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life’ (Jn 4:13-4). He refers to this as ‘living water’ (Jn 4:10).

The ‘living bread’ comes in chapter 6. Remember that rousing hymn ‘Guide Me, O Thou Great Redeemer’, in which the words ‘bread of heaven’ are repeated? The crowd who witnessed the feeding of the five thousand and followed Jesus across the lake have made reference to the manna their ancestors ate in the wilderness. Now that was a pretty impressive sign, wasn’t it? How about something similar? They want a corresponding sign without realizing (like Pilate when he asked Christ, ‘What is truth?’) that the sign (truth) is standing in front of them. To which Christ replies, ‘I am the bread of life.’ That bread is his flesh, the sign is himself, the body of Christ that we receive in communion. He doesn’t magic manna out of thin air. No, this is different. We partake of his body and by ingesting his body, which thus becomes part of us, we become part of his body. He goes on, ‘I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever’ (Jn 6:51). There we have it once more – eternal life.

So eternal life is to believe in Christ. But it seems that not even his brothers believed in him, as John reports at the beginning of chapter 7. The time for the Festival of the Booths in Jerusalem is approaching, and they think he should make himself known. Jesus says his time has not yet come, but after they have gone to the festival, he goes anyway, in secret. He testifies to his Father. He performs signs. The chief priests and the Pharisees send the temple police to arrest him! The crowd is divided (as always). When he says he won’t be with them for much longer, they wonder if he is planning to travel among the Greeks – to go on an excursion! It gets to the last day of the festival, and by now (after seven chapters of signs and testimony), Christ is becoming weary.

And he does something uncharacteristic. He cries out. He shouts. He is at the end of his tether. He desperately wants them to get the point, to stop squabbling, to stop trying to kill or arrest him. And he cries out some of the most remarkable verses in the whole of the New Testament:

Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’ (Jn 7:37-8)

The actual word in Greek for ‘heart’ is ‘belly’ (κοιλίας). And I wonder if the mention of ‘living’ reminds you of the creation story? After the Fall, what did Adam, the one who had been given the task of naming the creatures (that is, of translating), decide to call his wife? ‘Eve, because she was the mother of all who live’ (Gen 3:20). A footnote in the NRSV version of the Bible informs us that in Hebrew Eve resembles the word for living (Ḥawwāh/ḥāyâ).

And what do we get if we put ‘belly’ (translated as ‘heart’) and ‘Eve’ (which resembles the word for living) together? BELIEVE. The word BELIEVE confirms the truth of what Christ is saying.

I have already explained that, for me, the Fall happened so that we could have children, so that we could participate in the act of creation, and in this way form the body of the Church. I think God wanted us to participate in this action, even though he knew that sexual maturity would lead to our physical death, a barrier we must cross in order to enter eternal life (did I just see ENTER in ETERNAL?). This is where we are now, in the spiritual womb of the world, out of which the collective body of the Church is being born, in the same way as the body of an individual is born out of their mother’s womb. We are to be born twice, and this is the point we are missing. We are not there yet. We have been born physically (out of our mothers’ wombs), but now we must be born spiritually. That is the point of all the suffering, confusion, mistakes, misunderstandings – we are pointing in the wrong direction until we point towards Christ. There the needle will stop turning and become fixed.

BELIEVE contains other words: for example, I, BE and LIVE. It is also extremely close to BIBLE.

The message is there. All that we need to know is in the Bible, where Christ testifies to his Father.

And because he testifies to another – his Father – though he could equally testify to himself (Jn 8:14), we can accept that what he is saying is true. All we have to do is believe him.

Jonathan Dunne, http://www.stonesofithaca.com

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