At the end of his Gospel, St. John tells us of his purpose in writing the Gospel. “These (things) are written that you may [come to] believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through this belief you may have life in his name. No fewer than forty-three times in the twenty-one chapters of this Gospel are we told that we are to place our faith in Jesus. In chapter six of his Gospel, which is our focus for five successive Sundays, Jesus says: “This is the work of God: that you believe in the one he sent.” What exactly does believing in Jesus mean?
For people of the Western world, belief or faith in something or someone is a mental activity. We place our faith in something or someone based upon the authority that backs them up. When we see someone in a gray coat with a stethoscope around his or her neck, we believe that he or she has the authority to tell us about our health. When we see a man or a woman dressed in blue wearing a badge with a pistol at his or her waist, we believe that he or she has the authority to enforce the law. Our faith in them is based upon our mental recognition of who or what they are.
In the Middle Eastern world, the world of Jesus, the words “faith;” “belief;” “fidelity;” and “faithfulness” describe the social glue that binds one person to another person. These are not acts of the mind so much as sentiments that spring from the heart. Believing in Jesus demands a physical rather than mental activity. Jesus is asking his disciples to be loyal to him, to commit themselves to his agenda, to remain in solidarity with him. This is the context in which Jesus proclaims that he is the Bread of Life.
In the Western world, we will debate endlessly about how unleavened bread and grape wine are the real presence of Jesus. We try to wrap our minds around the notion that when I or any priest says “This is my Body,” the wafer that I am holding in my hands and those that are sitting on the altar are somehow changed ontologically into something else. Western believers try to “understand.” Philosophers and theologians have developed a vocabulary to describe what happens at our altars. However, this is not really what Jesus is asking of us. Jesus is asking us to express our faith by our actions. Jesus gives us his body for food and his blood for drink. Then he says “Do this in memory of me.” He did not say “Understand this in memory of me.”
St. Paul tells us what we need to do in his Letter to the Ephesians. He tells us to put away our former way of life and to put on a new way of life. He tells us not to live in the futility of our minds. He recognizes that if our faith is simply a mental activity, we are simply condemning ourselves to a never-ending debate about how to understand things that are by definition a mystery that cannot be understood by our limited intellects. Faith is expressed by action, not by thought. Being a person of faith means putting on Christ by living out righteous and holy lives. Stop debating about what it means to be a believer. Simply start acting like a believer.
Of course, it is far easier to believe mentally than to believe physically. It is easier to think than it is to act. The Western world is in a constant state of debate. Rather than feed the hungry, rather than provide homes for the refugee, rather than assist the poor, we engage in debates about whether these people deserve our mercy and compassion. Rather than sharing our abundance, we constantly argue about whether people are “legal” immigrants. Rather than demonstrating our love for all, we look for reasons to exclude and differentiate. The debate drones on and on and on.
The Eucharist is a reminder that Jesus gave his life for us so that we can look forward to eternal life. He gave us the Eucharist as a constant reminder of his sacrifice. Each time we celebrate the Eucharist, Jesus tells us to “do” this in memory of his death and resurrection. Faith in Jesus, believing in Jesus, means being loyal to his memory by acting as he acted and doing as he did.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M.