What We Were Told

Cave Painting of Lions - Chauvet

Seventh Sunday of Easter | John 17:20-26

What We Were Told

It sounds like a fairy tale, if you listen to it as though for the first time. A hero comes along, we are told, born like anyone else, but we hear that he is sent by God. More, we hear that he is himself God. It is a classic second birth story, like the duckling becoming a swan, or a girl becoming a princess, or a boy learning that he is a wizard. Then, just as our man becomes the hero we know him to be, he is killed by evil rulers, but as in any good fairy tale, he comes back to life—another second birth narrative.

So why should anyone believe that this particular fairy tale is true? Should we believe Jesus was God incarnate because people told us so?

A fair number of people do believe the gospel story simply because they were told to believe it. From the time they were children, their parents or family or friends told them it was true, and so they came to believe the gospel stories the same way they might have embraced Hindu gods or Muslim teachings had they been born into a different family or culture.

The Marriage at Cana by Gerard David
Marriage at Cana by Gerard David

Many people do not accept any religious ideas. Some of them grew up being told a religion was true, but they deconstructed their belief system as they grew older and cast it aside, disillusioned either with crude theology or with the hypocrisy of older so-called believers. Some of them were never taught any religion at all, or were taught that it is all just hocus pocus.

To put it another way, if we only believe in God because someone told us we should, is that faith? Does faith require something more than accepting what we’ve been told as though it is, well, gospel?

Of course, there is the opposite problem, recorded by the apostle Paul: “And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard?” (Romans 10:14) The entire history of religions is one of passing knowledge, thoughts, understanding from one person and one generation to another. “For I handed on to you…what I in turn had received….” (1 Cor 15:3)

If no one tells us the story, how can we believe it? And yet, just because someone tells us a story, is that any reason to believe it?

And what does it mean if we say we believe this gospel tale? Does it mean we insist on every detail? Do we argue over how to make the story John tells match up with the different one Mark gives us? Where is the truth in knowing what Jesus did, and where, and when?

Or is the truth that sets men free something different than a factual biography of Jesus? There are plenty of things in a gospel—narratives, quotations, prayers—but the gospels are not biographies any more than Genesis is a science text.

Hands Painted on Cave Wall, Argentina
Cave of the Hands, Argentina

The first miracle Jesus performs in John’s Gospel, the sign that marks the beginning of our hero’s quest, is turning water into wine. (This is not part of the other gospels. Mark and the other two synoptic gospels have different truths to tell.) In the story as told in John, the miracle is a simple thing, an act of grace performed at his mother’s request at the wedding of friends of the family. In John’s symbology, the wine that was water is huge, a theological symbol flowing throughout the Gospel.

Changing belief into faith is like changing water into wine. We start with a story as simple and clear as water, but when we take it in, the story changes. Any great story changes those who hear it, and when they pass it on, something of everyone who has heard it and retold it is passed along as well.

We hear about cave people living thousands of years ago, their animal skin clothing and stone tools, and it is an interesting story. Stand in one of their caves, look at the beautiful simplicity of the art they have left behind, and suddenly the story changes. Hearing about it, we believe the truth of what the archaeologists and anthropologists tell us. Standing in a cave, seeing a painted antelope or human handprint made with colorful clay on the cave wall, our belief changes to something like faith in humanity reaching back through the centuries.

We may believe that lions exist, but it took faith to create paintings like the ones on the walls of Chauvet Cave. Whoever left those images for us, we know with certainty that their lives were changed by the lions they encountered. We may believe that God exists, but we begin to have faith when our lives are changed by our encounters, even if all we see of God is like firelight on the walls of a cave.

Cave Painting of Lions - Chauvet
Painting of Lions, Chauvet Cave, France