Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” (John 6)
Out of 100 senators, and 435 representatives, Barbara Lee of Oakland, California was the only member of congress to vote against the 2001 resolution authorizing the war in Afghanistan. In explaining her vote, she cited what she had heard preached in church: that in moments of high emotion, we must nevertheless have the wisdom to exercise restraint, “lest we become part of the evil that we deplore.” Now in retrospect, both her words and her vote seem quite prophetic.
Yet for her vote, Congresswoman Lee received volumes of hate mail, and even multiple death threats—so many that she had to be given police protection.
Her words were echoed a few months later in a little book called Writing in the Dust, in which then Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams (who had been among those running for their lives in lower Manhattan on September 11), also made the case for restraint in the face of evil. “It requires courage and imagination,” he wrote. “It is essentially the decision not simply to reproduce what’s already been done to you as if it is the only available response.”
Yet the drumbeat for war drowned out these more sober voices, so into battle we went, and now 20 years, $2 trillion, and tens of thousands of lives later, the promises of freedom and democracy on which the case for war were made lie in tatters.
The thing is, the misrepresentation of fact and broken promises that were at the center of this war are not isolated events. They are part of what we perceive nowadays to be a crisis of trust—a sense that neither institutions, nor even fellow citizens, can be trusted to live up to their obligations and responsibilities. In another of his books, Tokens of Trust, Williams describes this situation as one in which we are profoundly unhappy and mistrustful—we live with a debilitating suspicion of one another so that to trust itself “feels like risk and folly.”
When you think about it, the idea of “trust” is rather complex by its very nature. The word has many layers of meaning, from simply having confidence in someone or something, to placing one’s resources into their care, to being entirely reliant or dependent upon someone else. Ironically, though trust is an interior feeling, it is not something we can manufacture for ourselves. It has to be built up from the exterior, where one’s experience over time create a settled confidence that I can rely on something outside of myself.
That exteriority also means that although trust is something we feel in the present moment, it is actually more properly understood as an orientation toward the future, and though our trust may recognize that the path toward some future good will be difficult, it nevertheless regards it as possible. Trust is, therefore, very closely related to hope. (Or as the Epistle to the Hebrews puts it, “Trust is the substance of things hoped for” [Heb. 11:1]).
In today’s gospel, we find that many of Jesus’ followers are losing faith, or trust, in him. They have been following him, expecting to receive some material benefit, but he has resisted that expectation over and over again, saying that what he has to offer is of the spirit and not the flesh. And so, their belief, or trust in him, begins to fade. (And by the way, the Greek word for “believe” here is pisteo, which doesn’t mean to believe in the sense of thinking something to be true, but in the sense of putting one’s trust in it). In any case, the weakening trust of Jesus’ followers is so apparent, that Jesus even feels the need to ask the twelve—his closest companions—whether they too want to leave him.
It is Peter (of course) who answers for them: Where else can they go? Jesus is offering them “words of eternal life,” and although they don’t yet know quite what that means, the one thing that is clear to them is that the want to put there trust in him.
You see operating here that experience of externality—something coming from the outside—that is the origin of trust. It is what Jesus has to offer that evokes the disciples’ trust, even if it is only partially grasped. And so there is something more going on here as well: the life that Jesus is offering them, they experience as gift, as something that is being given to them, not just encountered by happenstance.
And that, I think, really gets us to the heart of what it might mean to say that we too “trust” in Jesus (as we say we do in baptism, where as part of the Baptismal Covenant we affirm that we “put our whole trust in his grace and love”). Jesus comes to us as gift, with a strange truth and generosity and beauty that impinges upon us as a reality outside of ourselves, which although it eludes me, nevertheless compels me—what Williams calls “a place where I can settle, a place where I can stand.”*
If we were to read on a bit further in John’s gospel from where we stopped today, we would come to Chapter 7, which never shows up in the Sunday lectionary. That’s no wonder, because it’s a rather strange passage which relates a kind of family feud Jesus has with his own brothers, who even themselves do not believe in him. It gives Jesus the opportunity to make clear that he understands himself to be trustworthy not based on his own merits (which is what his brothers seem to be looking for), but because he is speaking the truth of God.
And the implication of this truth is that the gift which he offers is not just something one receives, but also something into which one must grow. Trust can be premised upon a fixed idea of stability and predictability (think of the corporate name of our bank, “New Mexico Bank and Trust”). But trust in God is anything but static, because as the creator of all things, God is constantly making all things new. Trust becomes dynamic and progressive rather than fixed and conventional.
Which takes us back to the crisis of trust with which we began. A Christian church is at its core a community of trust. It is a place where we learn to recognize and receive the gift of trust in God that is offered to us in Jesus. That is to say, a church community is by its very nature a place of growth and change. It is, therefore, as we have observed about so many other aspects of the Christian way of life over the last several years, profoundly counter-cultural—and especially so in these times of rigid division and mistrust. Think of what St. Francis taught us to pray, when he said, “Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is discord, peace; where there is despair, hope; [and, we might add] where there is suspicion, let us sow trust.” Amen.
* See Rowan Williams, “In What Do We Trust? Trusting in Faith,” part of a 2020 online lecture series at St. Martin in the Fields, London, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DflEpuRnoNI