As today’s passage begins, Jesus seems irritated. The crowd asks Jesus when he arrived. It is a dumb question, and Jesus doesn’t answer it. Instead he fusses at them for seeking more free food.
That may be unfair, although I hesitate to say that about Jesus! Certainly the crowd’s next question is a good one: “what must we do to perform the works of God?” What would God have us do?
Jesus’ answer is surprisingly simple and the most striking line of this entire passage. Jesus says, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom God has sent.”
The work of God, the primary thing God demands of us, is simply to believe in Jesus Christ, the one sent by God. This is what the Apostle Paul means when he says we are justified by faith.
But we need to say a little more about what that means, what it means to believe in Jesus Christ and, for that matter, to believe in God.
We can start with the basics and work our way up.
To believe in Jesus Christ means, first, just believing that Jesus existed.
But that doesn’t get us very far. It didn’t get the crowd in our passage anywhere at all. Jesus was standing right in front of them—there was no question if he existed! To believe that Jesus existed is true enough, but pretty trivial. Jesus must have meant more than that.
So, they had to believe not only that Jesus existed, but also that he was sent by God. Two thousand years later, with the inherited wisdom of our tradition, we can elaborate on that. Jesus was not only sent by God. Jesus was himself God, God from God, light from light, true God from true God.
Now, that is true, and that is definitely important. But I think Jesus meant more than that, too.
We should believe true things about Jesus. But that is head knowledge. Jesus is asking for more. Belief in Jesus is not just head knowledge. It is also heart knowledge.
We know this. When we say we believe something, we normally mean that we think it is true. But if we say we believe someone, we mean more. We mean that we think the person is trustworthy. We mean we can count on them when times get tough.
In this last week, two things brought that sense of belief to my mind: a wedding and a funeral.
The wedding was my own. On Wednesday, Carrie and I celebrated our twenty-sixth wedding anniversary. As we do most years, we looked at our wedding photos. And, even more than last year, we were shocked at how young we were when we got married.
Twenty-six years ago, when we were young and very foolish, Carrie and I promised to stick together, through thick and thin, through good times and bad. And, of course, we had no idea what we were getting into. That promise was a leap of totally blind faith into a vast, unknown future.
We loved each other, of course. Otherwise we would not have gotten married. But what we were really saying in our wedding vows was that we believed in each other. We believed in each other enough that we were prepared to commit sight unseen, no matter what, to stick it out even when the warm fuzzy feelings lost their warm fuzziness.
I was saying that I believed Carrie would be there for me when I really needed her, no matter how she felt in that moment. And I was promising to do the same for her. I believed in her. I was asking her to believe in me. Twenty-six years later, we are still working at it!
Weddings are one of the few times that we state our belief in another person so publicly and formally. But that kind of belief in another person is the basis for any enduring and intimate relationship.
The same is even more true in our relationship with God, with the important addition that God is truly, totally, fully trustworthy in a way we can never be. God’s promises are fully reliable in a way ours never are.
That brings me to the funeral. Last Wednesday, coincidentally on my anniversary, we celebrated the life of Ed Toon and said goodbye to him as a Church family.
Ed’s service was a beautiful statement of our belief in the one sent to us by God.
The very first line of the service repeated Christ’s promise to us. “I am Resurrection and I am Life, says the Lord. Whoever has faith in me shall have life, even though he die.” That is the promise of God that we are invited to believe.
But belief can be hard, particularly when we are grieving. So we prayed. We prayed for faith. We asked God to “give us faith to see in death the gate of eternal life.” We prayed, and we sang, and we heard passages from Scripture, and we celebrated Eucharist. Our worship helped us to hold on to our trust in God’s promises at a time when we needed them. The service reinforced our belief in God and the one God sends to us.
After the service we moved to the Veteran’s Cemetery for the committal, where we made a beautiful statement of our renewed faith. “In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to Almighty God our brother Ed.”
The entire service moved from the promises of God, through our need for God’s help to believe, to the point where we could say, once again, we believe in God and in the one God sends to us.
We need that kind of reinforcement of our belief in Christ all the time, but especially when times are hard. In moments of grief, we need to say again that we really do believe in Jesus Christ, that we really do trust Christ’s promises.
We rely on God’s promises when we say goodbye to the people we love. We rely on that sure and certain hope of the resurrection through the grace of God that we know in Jesus Christ.
That is the belief Jesus was talking about when he said that the work of God was to believe in the one God sent. Jesus was inviting those people—and us, too—to believe in him, to trust that he would be there for us always, to rely on his enduring love and commitment, even in the face of our struggles and of death itself.
And out of that belief comes one of the great gifts of faith: it helps us to carry on when we could not otherwise do so. Our world can be terribly hard. The forces of evil can seem terribly strong. We might be tempted to give up in despair.
But Christ is with us, and Christ is trustworthy. We can believe in Christ. And in the power of that belief, with the grace of the Holy Spirit, we can live as God’s beloved children, filled with faith and hope and love and joy.
And so I give thanks to God for the gift of faith, for the bread of life, for the one who comes to meet us where we are, Jesus Christ our Lord. In his name. Amen.