‘…he saw and he believed. Until this moment they had failed to understand the teaching of scripture, that he must rise from the dead.’ John 20:8-9
Our gospel reading this morning is marked by frantic search for some tangible explanation for the disappearance of Jesus’ body; there are rumours of something having happened at the tomb overnight, perhaps fears that the resting place of Jesus has been vandalised, that the body has been stolen… There are witness statements to be confirmed, and a certain degree of shock to be overcome. But among all the uncertainties we encounter an example of faith which should help us in our own faith journey. This example is given to us by the Apostle John, spoken of in the gospel as the disciple whom Jesus loved, who, as we read, running faster than Peter, is able to get to the tomb first. In verses 8 and 9 we are told a peculiar phrase that has puzzled Christian writers ever since, we are told that John ‘saw and he believed; Until this moment [Peter and himself] had failed to understand the teaching of scripture, that [Jesus] must rise from the dead.’ It seems like an awkward statement. John believed without understanding the Scriptures? Then what did John believe in? Can there be faith without full understanding what the Scriptures say?
A few theologians, including St Augustine, would affirm that the words ‘saw and he believed’ mean that John finally believed in what Mary had reported at the beginning of our gospel passage – that the body had been taken from the tomb (Cf. John 20:2). In a world where female witness counted next to nothing, John and Peter run to the tomb to corroborate Mary’s story; thus when John’s sees that the woman was right, he eventually believes in her statement – Jesus’ body is truly gone. Yet, our reading suggests that when John saw and believed his was actual faith in the resurrection as a mystery; faith in the inexplicable victory of Christ over death; a kind of belief that is able to transcend the witness of the Scriptures. John sees the grave clothes left neatly behind, he recalls the words of Mary, and something clicks in him – this cannot have been the work of very tidy grave robbers. John believes. He may not be able to articulate his faith very well at this stage, but the seed of faith is already there; a faith which will later grow and be confirmed in his sighting of Jesus. Later on in the gospel John is the first one to recognise Jesus from a distance and to shout with joy, ‘It is the Lord!’ (John 21:7). John believes in the very mystery of what happened; he may not be able to explain his faith using Scriptural references; yet, he believes.
I believe John’s experience may be quite common among Christians. Oftentimes, people think that, as believers, we have everything figured out; that we have the answer to whatever theological question and extreme moral dilemma we may be confronted by. But the truth is that we don’t; we are works in progress, even with regards to faith itself. As our Easter gospel shows us, having faith is not so much a matter of how much we know or even less about how much we are moved by passing feelings; rather it primarily means putting our trust into the very mystery of Jesus Christ – something and someone who transcends our imagination, our best hopes, and our desire. In this sense, for many Christians having faith in a constant prayer saying to God, ‘Lord I believe, help my unbelief’ (Mark 9:24), and this is a good place to start. God accepts this emerging faith, a complete trust and rejoicing in the very mystery of his love for us in Jesus. All we must do is strive to grow in that faith as much as we are capable of through grace, study, and prayer.
So for example, in a few moments I will ask you to affirm the faith of the Church using the words of the Creed. As we do this we will not need to have a doctorate in theology to explain in detail all that we say. Instead, what we need is the willingness to grow in the faith we proclaim with our lips, so that one day, we may reach maturity in it. Like John, we will have occasions for our faith to be deepened, strengthened, and confirmed; but in the meantime, we just need an open heart to believing and constant practice in rehearsing the faith we affirm.
May the Lord Jesus, our risen God, fill us with all joy in believing, so that we may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.