Lectionary Commentaries for August 13, 2017
Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 14:22-33

Mitzi J. Smith

It is among the masses in Galilee that Jesus commences his healing and teaching ministry.

Jesus’ popularity as a man who can heal whatever ails a person spreads beyond the Galilean borders. Jesus’ newly acquired celebrity attracted enormous crowds; the crowds consisted of the infirm and their caregivers and friends, as well as curious, fascinated, and antagonistic fans and tag-alongs (Matthew 4:23-25; 8:1-4, 19-22; 9:14). Jesus will develop ambivalence toward the constant press of crowds, oscillating between engaged compassion and crowd-fatigue. Most healer-teacher-preachers are energized and encouraged when the crowds show up to receive the gifts of their vocation, but all humans have limits and need boundaries, space, and time for self-care apart from the crowds and from their inner circle of confidants. Jesus was craving this kind of reprieve immediately before his disciples are haunted by him walking on the stormy sea (Matthew 14:13, 22).

The story of Jesus walking on the Sea of Galilee is preceded by the narrative of the feeding the 5,000-plus (Matthew 14:13-21); a healing summary follows it (14:34-36). In all three narratives the crowds play a significant role. In the preceding narrative, Jesus tries to retreat into an isolated place, perhaps needing space to grieve the murder of John the Baptist; however, he is drawn back into the crowd and their needs (14:13-21). Jesus momentarily sacrifices self-care to attend to the crowds. The disciples urge Jesus to dismiss the crowds, presuming that the entire crowd has the means and ability to trek into the city to buy food. This won’t be the first time the disciples urge Jesus to send folks packing (15:23). But perhaps, in this case, Jesus’ inner circle sensed that Jesus needed some self-care — time to be alone and relax.

We all variously allow our callings to blind us to our limitations and the long term effects of neglecting self-care. But more importantly, we can forget that we are not God! And when we leave the earth, others will or will not carry on; over that we have no control. When I left home to attend college to prepare for my vocation, it was difficult and painful leaving my mother’s side. She was an invalid and I was the only child still home to assist her and look out for her. I cried myself to sleep nights in my dorm room; I felt I should be doing something more to help my mother (even though I was able to obtain work the second day in my new city to send money home). My mother said she just wanted me to be happy. But it was God, I like to believe, who reminded me one night, through my tears, that God can do what I cannot do, in my presence and in my absence.

Jesus, like many people called into ministry, had a passion for the people and sometimes passion and enthusiasm pushes self-care to the curb. A fully embodied ministry is one characterized by self-care. Self-care is a divine gift. Jesus was human like us and could convince himself that there is only one person and one way to fulfill the significant and daunting needs of the masses. Interestingly, our story is followed by a summary of the many crowds that pursued Jesus on the other side of lake. So great is the need and so massive the crowd, that the people themselves imagine a way that this one human being could meet as many of their needs as possible — by touching the fringe of his cloak. What happens when the fringes wear out?

Unable to escape the crowds, Jesus is so starving for self-care that he sends his disciples away in a boat, alone cross the lake before nightfall. Jesus risks being stranded without a boat. The narrator states that in the evening the boat carrying the disciples was battered by the waves and far from the shore (Matthew 14:23). Jesus had no boat. And Jesus stayed put. He did not panic; he chose to be fully present in his space and time alone (monos). We can’t jump for every storm and embody self-care too! Perhaps, God has another plan and another woman or man or a way out of no way! Jesus dismissed the crowds and sought a solitary place up in the mountain where he talked to God and rested. After Jesus’ spirit, mind, and body were rejuvenated, Jesus arose early in the morning — refreshed and looking good, I imagine — and walked on the sea toward his disciples. But the disciples think that Jesus is a ghost. Terrified, they scream. “Instantly, Jesus said to them, ‘Stay calm, it is I; don’t be afraid.’ Peter responds, ‘Master, if it is really you, command me to join you on the water.’ Jesus responded, ‘Come! [if you insist]’” (Matthew 14:27-28, my translation). Peter disembarks onto the water and walks around a bit and heads toward Jesus. Let’s be real. Feeding a mass of people with a few loaves of bread and fish is not the same as walking on water!

Peter soon discovers that it is one thing to be battered by strong winds while in the same boat with others . It is a whole other matter to be on the water surrounded by strong winds and all by yourself, without others who share in the same vulnerability. Jesus and Peter were not “in the same boat”; Jesus had evidently walked on the choppy sea of distress for some distance, from shore to boat in the fierce winds. Peter had not. Yes, Jesus chastised Peter when he notices the winds and begins to sink; Jesus accuses him of doubting and having little faith. Sometimes faith is seeing the boat for what it is — a shared experience and the opportunity to lean on one another, to encourage each other in the storm while waiting on God. Peter was eager to leave his shipmates and to join Jesus, rather than to wait for Jesus to join them in the boat. Sometimes we want our own miracle at the expense of others who are in the same boat as us. Jesus reached out his hand and caught Peter, and they both got into the boat with the other disciples. It is when they are all in the boat together with Jesus that the winds calm down.

Few readers focus on the miracle of Jesus walking on the water. The spotlight is usually placed on Peter’s momentary walk on the water and his failure to maintain that walk because of his shifted focus from Jesus to the winds. Perhaps it is as significant that Jesus is able to walk on the water so as to reengage in his ministry after some much needed self-care. Perhaps, Jesus looks like a ghost because the Jesus that the disciples left on the other side of the sea looked overworked, fatigued, drab, and unsteady. Perhaps they were not accustomed to seeing Jesus look so rested, in control, and peaceful; thus, they think he is a ghost. Sometimes we are haunted by visions of our better selves. Our better selves are such an improbability for us that to see it, to envision it and what it may take to achieve our better selves is a haunting. We are haunted by better days that seem to escape us. Sometimes we get ourselves in such a rut of not taking care of ourselves, of not exercising, of not sleeping well or barely sleeping, of not eating properly, that to live otherwise haunts us. Bell hooks in her book Sisters of the Yam states that self-care is a political act of resistance for black women. Self-care may be a political act of resistance for anyone overwhelmed by challenges caused by the superman or superwoman syndrome and/or by the perennial onslaught of sexism, racism, classism, heterosexism, disability, or other forms of oppression (and being the oppressor is destructive as well).

After his time of self-care, Jesus is empowered from his head to the sole of his water-walking feet and at the fringe of his garment (14:34-36). When Jesus reaches land he doesn’t have to do all the heavy lifting; the people empower themselves and are healed by merely touching the hem of his cloak, something that hadn’t happened since the early part of his ministry (Matthew 9:20-21).

First Reading

Commentary on 1 Kings 19:9-18

Michael L. Ruffin

This text may pose the same problem for you that it poses for me.

If we decide to preach it, we’ll need to deal with the problem in our heads and hearts before we let anything come out of our mouths. So let’s think about the problem — the proverbial elephant (and the donkey) in the room — before we do anything else.

Toward the end of the passage, God tells Elijah to anoint new kings of Syria and Israel. In other words, the Lord tells Elijah to get involved in politics. I happen to be writing these words on the day (May 4, 2017) that these two things happened in Washington, D.C.: (1) the House of Representatives passed a bill (the American Health Care Act) the purpose of which is to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act, and (2) the President signed an Executive Order on “Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty.”

I don’t bring these actions up to discuss their merits (or lack thereof) but to point out a few things. First, politics is an important part of our life in the world. The actions of politicians have real implications for real people, and since we care about people, we care about such implications.

Second, it’s difficult (and sometimes wrong) not to sometimes sound “political” in our sermons. Moral and ethical issues are political issues too. Third, ninth-century BCE Israel was not a post-Enlightenment constitutional republic. Our circumstances and systems are different. Still, the fact that we don’t live in a theocracy doesn’t mean that God doesn’t care what happens here and that we shouldn’t be involved.

I’m not trying to tell you what to think about all of this. I am suggesting that we beware preaching this text in a way that says, “God told Elijah to go get involved in power politics, so we should too.” But I’m also suggesting that we can’t just say, “That was then, then is now, and so we just have to stay out.” The art — not to mention the grace and love — is in how we do what we do and in how we lead members of our congregations to do what they do.

I and Thou

Ahab was a ninth-century king of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. He married a Phoenician princess named Jezebel and joined her in worshiping Baal. Elijah appeared as the champion of the Lord (YHWH), announcing a drought. Following the contest between YHWH and Baal at Mt. Carmel, which the Lord won, Elijah orchestrated the slaughter of the prophets of Baal. Jezebel was displeased and sent word to Elijah that she was going to have him killed. He fled for his life, going into Judah, and so hopefully beyond Ahab and Jezebel’s reach. He travels forty days and nights through the wilderness until he reaches Mt. Horeb. There, Elijah has an encounter with God.

God asks Elijah what he is doing. As our text opens, Elijah is in a cave on Mt. Horeb. The “word of the Lord” (1 Kings 19:9b) comes to him. The Lord poses a question: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” The short answer would be, “Running away from Jezebel,” but that’s not what the prophet says. His answer has three parts (19:10):

  • “I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts.” He vouches for himself to God. He has been seriously and actively committed to the Lord’s cause.
  • “For the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword.” This is an accurate description of how bad things are.
  • I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” We’ll come back to that one.

God tells Elijah what to do. God responds to Elijah’s answer by telling him, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by” (1 Kings 19:11a). Elijah’s forty-day journey to Mt. Horeb should have already put us in mind of the Moses story. The verses following 19:11 further develop that parallel (see Exodus 33:17-23).1 Moses had already done much in service to God before the Lord passes by him, and so has Elijah. But also like Moses, God prepares Elijah for additional service. A violent wind, an earthquake, and a fire strike the mountain, but the Lord isn’t in any of them. Instead, the Lord is in “a sound of sheer silence” (verse 12b: “a still small voice” is the well-known King James Version rendering). The impression is of an awesome stillness.

The voice of the Lord addresses Elijah from the stillness, asking the same question it had posed earlier: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (verse 13). And Elijah gives the same answer three-part answer he previously offered (verse 14). Before, God told him to wait for the Lord to pass by. And the Lord in fact came.

This time, though, God tells the prophet to get going. There is important work to be done, and Elijah must do it.

… and We

You’ll recall that part three of Elijah’s three-part answer to God’s twice-stated question was, “I alone am left, and they are seeking my life to take it away.” God now responds, “I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him” (verse 18). Elijah is not all alone. He has a faithful community of which he is a part and alongside which he can serve.

There are some interesting possible connections between this text and the Gospel reading for this week. Matthew 14:22-33 tells the story of Jesus walking on the water to the disciples. Peter asks to walk on the water to Jesus, and Jesus gives him permission. When he notices the wind, Peter begins to sink, and Jesus has to rescue him. When they reach the boat and the wind ceases, the disciples acknowledge Jesus as the Son of God. As in our text, the stillness provides an opportunity to know that God is present.

But here’s a question to ponder: did Peter need to leave the boat and try to walk to Jesus? Jesus was coming to the disciples. What (if anything) was Peter trying to prove? Might he have wanted to demonstrate that his faith was superior? Might he have been better off staying in the boat with the rest of the disciples?

Elijah was not alone; he was part of a community. Peter didn’t need to step out alone; he was part of a community. We thank God for the I-Thou relationship. Let’s also thank God that we are part of an I-Thou-We community.



1 Walter Brueggemann, 1 & 2 Kings, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon, Ga.: Smyth & Helwys, 2000) 235.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28

Beth L. Tanner

This reading could be titled “The Pinnacle of Sibling Rivalry.”

Of course, this is not how the story is usually told. In the previous chapter, an old rivalry is put to rest: “And Isaac breathed his last; and he died and was gathered to his people, old and full of days; and his sons Esau and Jacob buried him” (Genesis 36:29). This act is sandwiched between the list of Jacob’s sons (35:22b-26) and of Esau’s (36:9-13). The family that was fractured by the treachery of Rebecca and Jacob was reconciled. Our hope is that children will learn from our mistakes and our fear is that they will repeat them. This is a story of the latter.

Genesis 37 begins with hope, “This is the story of the family of Jacob” (37:2a). But that optimism does not last. One of the first things we learn is Joseph was a bit of a tattle-tale (37:2b). There is nothing here to indicate what Joseph said, or whether it was correct. The Hebrew construct can mean “lies” (Hebrew: evil whispering). The next verse may explain why Joseph’s behavior. It is a painful verse to read, “Israel loved Joseph more than his other sons.” It appears there is discord in Jacob’s house. The same tension seen in Jacob’s preference for Rachel is being lived out in the next generation. He favored Joseph and gave him a gift of a garment. The coat or tunic has a history of its own. The Hebrew wording of “a tunic of the sole of the foot/palm of the hand,” is problematic. The Septaugint (LXX) uses the words, “a tunic of diversity/various elements,” that developed into the understanding of the famous coat of many colors. The point here is not the coat or how it was made, but that this gift was given to one of his 13 children. It is typical sibling behavior to think a parent likes one child better than another, but Jacob proves his preference with a gift. Joseph was set against his brothers by their father.

In the section omitted from this week’s texts, Joseph tells his brothers of two dreams where others bow down to him. The brothers interpret Joseph’s dreams as further evidence of his youthful arrogance (Genesis 37:5-8), and after the second dream, even Jacob also rebukes his son (37:10). So Joseph is not innocent when it comes to his relationship with his brothers. He appears to be taking full advantage of his favored status. My grandmother would have declared that Joseph was acting “too big for his britches.” He is not only the favorite, but he rubs it in the faces of his brothers.

Eventually, this leads to the text for today. Jacob’s sons were tending the herds. Jacob sent Joseph to check on them, and this should be read in light what happened the last time he checked on his brothers. When they saw Joseph coming toward them, they said: “Let’s kill him, throw him into a pit, and tell Dad he was killed by a wild animal.” Is this meant as a serious death threat or hyperbole? I have had teenagers in my house, and it was not uncommon for one to swear out an oath of murder on the other. Do not misunderstand; I am not justifying what they did, only the way we hear it. Until the brothers act on their anger, they are acting just like brothers do. Reuben, the oldest, steps up to appease the anger of the siblings. He suggests throwing him into a pit. Verse 22 states Reuben did this because he intended to come back to the pit and rescue his baby brother. The brothers would get their revenge and Joseph would hopefully learn something and rejoin the family. Reuben is acting like the oldest brother and the go’al for Joseph. The whole thing goes sideways because the brothers sell Joseph to the Ishmaelites instead. Reuben went back to save Joseph and was grief-stricken over his brothers’ rash act (37:29). There is no response from the other nine brothers other than to cover their crime. They never express remorse.

What is a preacher to do with this text? We could skip ahead and make this a story of predestination using Joseph’s words to his brothers in 50:20, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.” But that is using this text as a backdrop for another message (next week’s actually). We are left by this text here with no resolution between the nine brothers, Joseph, and Reuben.

Families are difficult. It is the rare family where there is not an estrangement of some kind. Physical or emotional harm also happens more often than we like to acknowledge. Two weeks ago the reading was difficult, and Gospel was hard to find; this week is more of the same. Even Reuben, who did his best to act correctly, was thwarted. How often have we tried to fix a situation and it gets us nowhere? Jacob’s family story offers an opportunity to speak of estrangement and the consequences of rash acts. The story lets us see all the characters and their involvement in this drama.

Estrangement is rarely one-sided. All of the brothers look at each other through the eyes of hurt and anger. Joseph may not see his actions as one of the reasons for his brothers’ contempt. The brothers see only their father’s favoritism and their young brother’s youthful boasting. Joseph thinks of himself as better than his elders.

From our bird’s eye perspective, we can see the conflicts causing the problems. This week’s reading is a lesson in the name “Israel”; in order to survive this story, one must hang on and fight for the presence of God within the tension and harm done within this family of promise. It is not pretty, but it is very real.


Commentary on Psalm 85:8-13

Charles L. Aaron, Jr.

Sometimes we just want to grab the hatchet out of the Lectionary Committee’s hands!

In some cases they have to chop away. No one could preach from the whole of John 6 and do it justice. For this Sunday, they have done a disservice with their sharp blade. They have given us half a psalm. They have given us beauty, creativity, and wondrous expression of divine love. They have left off the complex, interesting, and honest wrestling with God’s mystery. They have given us a triumphant oracle of salvation, but deleted the part of the psalm that explores why we need salvation.

A wise preacher will make some use of the poignant verses that come before the assigned reading. The first part of the poem contains both confession and lamentation. Although some scholars disagree about which experience — guilt or grief — dominates the mood of the first part of the psalm, the movement of the feeling seems straightforward. The psalmist acknowledges the sin and guilt of the people, but pleads that God already has forgiven them. They had felt estranged from God, but had later felt forgiven and restored (verse 3). Now, the people feel as though they have crashed right back into the situation of estrangement and guilt. The psalmist seems to say to God, “Yes, you were justifiably angry at us, then you forgave us and we thought all was well, but now you obviously feel angry again. Can’t we get back to where we were in the middle, between your first anger and this current anger?” That represents the reading of the NRSV. Hebrew verb tenses are imprecise enough that one can read the psalm as simply arising from an initial feeling of guilt and estrangement, but affirming that God will act in grace, love and forgiveness. The movement suggested by the NRSV indicates an experience of having felt estranged, then restored, and now estranged again.

The open-ended nature of the first part of the psalm gives the preacher some freedom to use the text for a number of experiences. If the preacher wants to explore how guilt alienates us from God, the text gives ample material for that use of the poem (see verse 2). The psalm might help especially in situations where the preacher perceives in a congregation some residual pain from a childhood marked by excessive religious guilt. For those who grew up either in a household, or a congregation, that bludgeoned a vulnerable soul with guilt, this psalm speaks to the experience of having to overcome the impression of a wrathful God more than once in a lifetime. So, a person who grows up with an image of God as wrathful comes to a better understanding of a loving God as an adult, but then eventually finds that the old childhood guilt trips have not completely evaporated.

The poem gives the preacher material for exploring the sense of estrangement from God arising from trouble, grief, and hardship as well. Part of that experience often involves the cry, “What does God have against me?” The psalmist does not say why the people feel as though God has once again displayed wrath toward the people. Scholars disagree about the setting of the psalm. Does the psalmist express the frustration of the people when trouble has appeared? Once again, this uncertainty opens for the preacher opportunities to explore different experiences of hardship that cause estrangement from God, and awakens feelings of guilt.

The lectionary committee does give us the most imaginative part of the psalm. Although scholars disagree about the exact translation and implication of some of the terms and verb tenses in this second half, the NRSV captures well the playful images of the poet.

The psalmist takes abstract concepts, fundamental affirmations about God’s nature and personifies them, creating dynamic, evocative and even romantic scenes. Verse 8 invites the reader to perk up ears to listen for God’s tender words. God will speak peace, a sense of completeness and rightness. Something has gone wrong between God and the people. God’s peace will restore things to what they should be. God’s salvation — rescue, deliverance — is at hand, close by. God’s glory — gravitas, majesty — will dwell in the land, reminding the people of God’s presence with them. Steadfast love — freely offered grace and dependable kindness — will “meet” with faithfulness, reliability, trustworthiness. As do most poets, the psalmist speaks not with precision, but with imagination. Kindness and trustworthiness will meet, come together, and perhaps even form a relationship, so that the people can count on God’s love. In a remarkable word picture, righteousness — what is right and just — will kiss peace, wholeness and soundness. Although this part of verse 10 has generated some controversy about translation, the image fits so well with the rest of the poem that one can believe the psalmist expected a romantic embrace between these two abstractions.

Verse 11 creates an image of the people “caught in the middle,” in a good way. Up above them they can find righteousness, with the same implications as verse 10. Now, instead of romance, the image becomes protection, as righteousness watches over the people. Faithfulness grows like grass under their feet. The people will experience prosperity (verse 12), as a sign of God’s favor. Righteousness will lead the way as God comes back to them. Although the verse presents translation difficulties, the image of righteousness preceding God on the way back stands clearly enough. The NRSV suggests that righteousness will clear God’s path. The image might imply that righteousness will guide God’s steps.

All in all, the second half of the poem gives the preacher much to use to fill a verbal canvas with images that reach beyond the intellect to stir hearts to expect the return of God’s love, restoration, favor, forgiveness and salvation.

Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 10:5-15

Frank L. Crouch

This passage appears in the middle of Romans 9-11.

Those chapters stand as a discrete subsection of the whole letter, in which Paul describes how everyone — Jew and Gentile alike — can know the key to walking without stumbling in relationship with the God “from [whom], through [whom], and to [whom] are all things” (11:36). Paul tries several different metaphors or contrasts to point his hearers toward the right path to life before God and neighbor. In this case he contrasts “righteousness/justice that comes from the Law and righteousness/justice that comes from faith” (10:5-6, see also, 4:13-25).

Like the rest of this subsection, 10:9-13 particularly points toward three truths:

  • because of God’s mercy and grace, God offers us life,
  • Christ revealed that because of that grace all who believe/trust in their heart enter into that life (are saved), and
  • there are people — Jew and Gentile alike — who through grace are saved.

That third truth is more explicit in chapter 11, but it’s important in this passage, too.

Interpretations of this passage often become a theological argument about faith versus works or approach it as answering the question of what the Jewish people got wrong and Christians got right. This commentary sees the point differently and approaches it as answering a different question: What does the passage say about God’s willingness to answer when anyone — any lost and undone human being — calls out for God with all their heart?

ALL who call on the name of the Lord shall be saved

Paul’s arguments are shaped by his first century context, where most Christians had grown up Jewish, and they divided humanity into two groups: “Jew” and “Gentile.” Things were rapidly changing, however, so Paul reflects on three groups:

  • Jewish people who follow the Law and not Jesus Christ
  • Jewish people who follow Law and Jesus Christ (such as Paul himself) and
  • Gentiles who don’t know the Law and follow Jesus Christ.

Paul argues here and again in chapter 11 that anyone in any of those three groups who calls upon the Lord will be saved. Paul’s point (new in his time) is that Christ made it possible for the rest of the world — Gentiles, as well as Jewish people — to be saved:

  • “The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him.  For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” (Rom 10:11–13)
  • “I ask, then, has God rejected [God’s] people? By no means! … as regards election they are beloved, for the sake of their ancestors; for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.” (Rom 11:1, 28–29)

Most readers of this commentary, I assume, are by definition and according to scripture “Gentiles.” Two thousand years of history have obscured for us Gentiles that when the Christian church began, almost all its members got along fine without us and argued on the basis of scripture that God did not accept us into the community of faith. (Acts and Romans lay out that story most explicitly in the New Testament.)

When Paul says, “there is no distinction between Jew and Greek,” for many Christians of his time those would have been fighting words. It was not simple for the majority to shift away from the idea that “Gentiles are inherently unrighteous, sinful, and excluded from God’s people” to the realization that “God doesn’t necessarily divide the world along the same lines we do. We’ve been misreading scripture for centuries.”

That point appears in today’s passage as part of an overarching controversy that permeates Romans. Paul, “Apostle to the Gentiles” (11:13, Gal 1:15-16, Acts 22:21, etc.), continually asserts their (our) inclusion among the people of God:

  • in his opening greeting — mentioning “the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles” (1:5)
  • in his benediction — mentioning “the revelation … made known to all the Gentiles, (16:25-6)
  • with 29 other appearances of “Gentile” and its synonym, “Greek,” in between

Questions we face today have faced Christians for millennia, regarding Gentiles, slaves, African Americans, Native Americans, women, immigrants, the LGBTQ community, and on and on. We’re always asking, “Who’s in and who’s out?” And we best serve God and our neighbors by also asking, “Is God calling us to a new understanding of how to answer that question?” In this case, Paul led the charge toward inclusion.

Confessing with our lips and believing in our heart

A different, important aspect of this passage centers on how one understands what it means to confess with your lips and believe in your heart (10:9–10). This can be understood in a “cheap grace” way, as if, like Harry Potter, saying certain magic words will save us, if we say them the right way with the proper understanding. This approach mistakenly equates believing that God raised Jesus from the dead with, say, believing in the existence of the planet Neptune — something we’ve never seen but accept as true and that has little if any impact on how we actually live.

However, other parts of scripture, like Isaiah 29:13 and most of the prophetic and gospel traditions, counter such a view: “these people draw near with their mouths and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me.” Believing in one’s heart is not the same as simply thinking something is true. As the philosopher Charles Peirce said, a belief is something on which we are willing to act. If we believe in our heart that Jesus was raised from the dead, we act as if death does not have the last say on life, as if God is a God of life, as if no matter how rough the road God will hear when we cry out.

Belief in our hearts does not make us people who say the right words. It makes us people like Abraham and Sarah (Romans 4:13-25), who hope against hope and do not weaken or waver in the face of life’s greatest challenges. It makes us people who believe and trust God in the core of our being. And when God hears our cries and reaches out to us, we seek to embody that trust in the choices we make every day.