Belief and Belonging

It’s a late December day in Jerusalem. Jesus is walking in the Temple area, and as usual, he’s drawing a crowd during the Feast of the Dedication (better known to us as Hanukkah). The people have come with a question. Perhaps they’ve heard one of Jesus’s enigmatic parables, or witnessed one of his miracles.  Or maybe they just want to trap him into saying something they consider blasphemous.  Whatever the motive, they ask: “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.”

Seems as an odd choice for a gospel so soon after Easter. How could we be “in suspense” after the Resurrection? But then again, maybe it tells us the truth about how faith works.

Most of the time, faith isn’t a clean ascent from confusion to clarity, doubt to trust.  It’s a perpetual turning.  A circle we trace from knowing to unknowing, from unbelief to belief.  From “He is Risen, alleluia, alleluia,” to “If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.”  Is it a weakness in our faith? No, it’s just what we human beings do. Sometime our prayer starts, “if you really are…” good, caring, loving…. there at all… show up, speak plainly, act decisively.

But Jesus answers, “I told you and you do not believe…But you do not believe, because you are not among my sheep.” The easiest response is that the verse doesn’t apply to me.  After all, I’m a cradle Catholic.  I am priest.  I know my Bible.  I love the Mass and I am faithful in my prayers.  Surely I both believe and belong…. I do all this things…except when I don’t.

At first glance, Jesus’s reply might appear to suggest that belonging to him depends on believing in him.  But in fact, what Jesus says is exactly the opposite: we struggle to believe because we don’t consent to belong.  In other words, belief doesn’t come first. Belonging does. And therein lies our hope and our consolation.

Maybe, by refusing to “speak plainly,” Jesus was honoring human life for the incredibly complicated thing it is.  After all, one doesn’t “speak plainly” about the greatest mysteries of the universe.  Jesus came to teach us about truth, about love, and about eternal life.  One doesn’t simply profess belief in such mysterious things— one lives into them, questions into them, believes into them, grows into them.  One wrestles — and in the wrestling, belongs

And in the belonging is the proof. It is there in the smelly sheep pen next to the sheep, learning what happens within and among the flock. There is no believing on the “outside.” To “believe” in the Gospel sense means to trust, to lean, to depend, to throw my lot in with.  It’s an orientation of the heart and the gut.  A willingness to stake everything I’ve got on the person, the character, the life, the death, and the resurrection of God’s Son. It’s learned through relationship, through belonging.

There is no belonging from the outside; Christianity is not a spectator sport.  Belong, Jesus says. Belief will follow.

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