Theology for the Pandemic
Reading the news has become a torturous practice. I ride the fire tornado of the struggling economy and the presidential race, get swept into the hurricane of COVID numbers, and dragged through protests and police brutality all in a few flicks of a finger. These are anxious times. But undergirding the troubling events of this year is the challenge of questioning what I know and what I believe.
We find ourselves in an era of fake news and alternative facts. Each day brings new knowledge, understanding, and questions. But how are we supposed to sift and sort through the competing truths? Who am I supposed to believe? And what do I really know?
In Jesus’ day, people wrestled with the same questions of knowledge and belief. But the controversy was not over protests or the environment, it was over the identity and teaching of this man from Galilee, Jesus, the son of Joseph. One day he is a carpenter, the next he is performing miracles and claiming God as his Father. Who is he? And should I believe him?
Centuries later the question is still alive in the hearts and minds of Christians and non-Christians alike, but knowing facts about Jesus does not mean we believe. In a cosmic Venn diagram, Christians must find themselves in the overlapping edge of knowing and believing in Jesus. You may have heard about Jesus, but do you believe him? The answer to this question is the most important thing about us.
And on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they told him, John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.” And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.” -Mark 8:27-29
Who do you say that I am? Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ requires knowledge. Though knowledge and belief will always be connected– one rarely says they know something without putting some trust in that knowledge–Peter’s knowledge of Jesus’ identity is based on what he has seen. The disciples have seen Jesus casting out demons, opening the eyes of the blind and the ears of the deaf– all actions that hearken back to the promised and prophesied Messiah (Isaiah 35:5, 42:7). Peter and the disciples knew these prophecies, held tightly to them with expectation, and now before their very eyes, they watch Jesus fulfilling them. Though opinions are tossed around, Peter knew something; he knew that Jesus was the Christ.
But knowledge and belief form a complicated relationship. I might say I know that God loves me, but do I believe it? For most Christians, there is a gap between what we know and what we believe. This distance between knowing and believing is the distance between abundant life in Christ and faithlessness. We are, after all, believers. So what are we if we claim to know Jesus but do not believe the things he says?
To know in Greek (ginōskō) means to gain knowledge of or to become acquainted with. To believe in Greek (pisteuō) means to think to be true, to be persuaded of, or to place confidence in. I may be acquainted with the person of Jesus, familiar with some of his sayings and the miracles he performed. But knowing the facts about him does not mean that I am persuaded that what he says is true. I often find myself living in ways that reveal my belief to be less than full confidence and trust. I know in my head the teachings of scripture– my sins are forgiven, I am reconciled to God, I am loved, and yet my heart fails to believe and internalize them. This is the place of discipleship. This is the place that God wants to work in my (and your) life to bring the truths I know about God into alignment with the truths I believe.
After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. So Jesus said to the twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” – John 6:66-69
Knowing and believing. We have believed and have come to know. When Jesus starts saying some weird things about being the bread of life and that people will need to feast on his body and drink his blood, he starts to lose some of his followers. But Peter demonstrates his belief through his words (you are the Holy One of Israel- a proclamation that Jesus is the Messiah), but also through his actions: he stays. He keeps following Jesus. He continues to walk by his side because he knows the character of Jesus and he believes that only Jesus can bring them into eternal life and true fellowship with God. When we believe Jesus is who he says he is, we start acting like it. James says that faith without works (action) is dead (Jas 2:17)–it is no faith at all. So if our faith does not lead us into actions that reflect what we believe, we need to ask ourselves why.
Closing the gap. What is it you need to know and believe about Jesus today? Peter’s life is a rollercoaster of knowing and confusion, doubt and belief, and this ought to encourage us. Life is not a linear line of continuous growth, but a rolling path with unexpected valleys and turns. But as we walk with Jesus, we accumulate experience with God and his promises. The longer we walk with him, the more experience and trust we build. This trust shapes what we expect from him in the future, and it is this faith that we must put into action.
Today, what is it you need to know and believe about Jesus? Where are you not believing in the work of Christ or the promised and ongoing work of his Spirit? Has your hope faded? Have your prayers stopped? Today, ask yourself how and why are you living like you don’t believe. Ask the Lord to “strengthen you with the power of his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your heart through faith– that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” – Ephesians 3:16-19