“These are written so that you may come to believe/continue to believe…” What does your translation say? And which translation would you choose?
It’s a little scary to consider that a sermon could hang on a textual variant. But here we are, with a rather important one. As many of you know, there is equal external manuscript evidence to propose that either “come to believe” or “continue to believe” is possible. Is it aorist subjunctive, “come to believe,” meaning that John intended some sort of conversion to faith? Or, is it a present subjunctive, that John composed his story so that believers would be encouraged in faith? When the external evidence ends up a tie, you turn to internal evidence, which makes things a little more complicated. And a careful reading of the Fourth Gospel intimates that John hopes for both.
But here’s what I’d like to suggest — on the Sunday after Easter, we need both; that the deliberation about this textual variant is actually descriptive of our life of faith. “Come to believe” is confirmation of your call, your apostolicity, if you will, as one sent out into the world because of God’s love for the world. This Gospel is meant to bring others into the fold (John 10:16) so that all might have life and have it abundantly. At the same time, “continue to believe” is assurance that you will be sustained in your belief. Nurtured. Heartened. These words are written so that you might keep on believing because the resurrection is not a guarantee that believing gets any easier.
What might be a response to the resurrection? Are you emboldened to say to others, “My Lord and my God” with the hope that your witness will be the “come and see” someone needs to hear? Or, are you grateful for the promise that your faith will never be alone? And, are you relieved that it could very well be both?
“Come to believe/continue to believe” is at the heart of resurrection faith and at the heart of Easter preaching. Perhaps it’s even at the heart of the Thomas story, of our story: a simultaneous wondering what we are doing here and a desperate need to be told we belong here. A realization of the uncertainty of our call at the same time we recognize that we have been called. A recognition that Jesus leads you out of the fold into the world but with the trust in our security and safety as one of Jesus’ own.
“Come to believe/continue to believe” gives us permission to acknowledge that our call to ministry seems to exist in that in-between space, lingering somewhere between the determination to invite others into a relationship with Jesus, and a desperate need to be encouraged in our own relationship with God. In between spaces are not always comfortable spaces. In fact, our tendency is to resolve the tension, and sometimes prematurely. Depending on the day and the situations of our lives, we will lean toward one side or the other, and that’s okay, too.
The people to whom you are preaching also need to know that this is okay. They need to know that being in-between is just fine as well. Who knows who’s out there? Believers needing to be affirmed, uplifted? The Christmas and Easter folk who decided to give your church one more try? What they might want to hear, what they might need to hear, is that to exist in the “come to believe/continue to believe” place of faith is an acceptable place to be. And, if we are honest, with a kind of resurrection honesty, it is the place where many of us exist most of the time.
It’s the Sunday after Easter, Dear Working Preachers. Give yourself a break. By that, I don’t mean a banal claim to take a few days off because you deserve it — although that would likely be a very good idea! What I mean is that it’s perfectly acceptable to live in and preach from the “come to believe/continue to believe” place that is the daily truth of faith.
Just because we are on this side of the resurrection does not demand a displaced dismissal of doubt. We don’t do anybody any favors by preaching a resolute response to the resurrection or that Thomas’s confession cancels out his previous question, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” (14:5). We don’t do ourselves any favors either by trying to convince ourselves of the same.
Maybe this is the place we have to be this close to the resurrection — the “come to believe/continue to believe” place that puts us simultaneously in the position of newfound faith and of needing to be fortified in faith. On the Sunday after Easter, lest we too quickly and too eagerly let go of the forty days it took to get here, a state of betweenness seems just right.