The Gospel according to St. John is a sequence of conversion stories.
These Gospel tales include the instantaneous and vigorous act of faith on the part of Nathaniel who moments after meeting Christ, declares, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel.” St. John’s narrative also includes the soul-searching and heartfelt act of act of faith on the lips of St. Thomas who, confronting the resurrected Christ, overcomes his previous hesitation, some might say his prideful stubbornness, and famously announces, “My Lord and my God!” St. John understands conversion to be a process, more akin to the prolonged experience of Thomas than the premature event with Nathaniel. The evangelist hints at faith as a process when he writes that after witnessing the miraculous transformation of water into wine at Cana “his disciples began to believe in him.” Authentic faith is a life-long process, guided by traditional beliefs, strengthened by prayerful encounters, tested by human failings.
The fourth Gospel is a true panorama of conversion incidents, spanning the hesitant to the courageously committed. In this Sunday’s Lenten Gospel, an uncertain Nicodemus approaches Jesus privately and at night – surely a double sign of caution and diffidence. In his heart Nicodemus knows that Jesus holds secrets that will reveal the true meaning of life. Such is his hope or he would not have bothered Jesus. But his well-trained Jewish mind is not convinced of the merits of Jesus’ words. He has questions. Readers of St. John will know that Nicodemus perseveres in his struggle for faith. This wise but guarded man will later assist in the burial of Jesus along with Joseph of Arimathea, another secret disciple. As Nicodemus’ lengthy pursuit of true faith was beginning, the faith of Jesus’ cousin John the Baptist was maturing. John certainly had dealings with Jesus along the banks of the Jordan; Jesus possibly being a disciple of John for a while. It was a confident John who declared before the crowds and before Jesus’ future disciples, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. … Now I have seen and testified that he is the Son of God.” Such was John’s bold act of faith.
The act of faith of the man born blind and then cured by Jesus is particularly touching. The man was pleased that he could now see but he was also exhausted from harassment by religious leaders for his inexplicable cure. Jesus later encountered the stressed man in the street and offered him an even greater gift than eyesight: “When Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, he found him and said, ‘Do you believe in the Son of Man?’ He answered and said, ‘Who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?’ Jesus said to him, ‘You have seen him and the one speaking with you is he.’ He said, ‘I do believe, Lord,’ and he worshiped him.” Other celebrated acts of faith in St. John’s Gospel rest on more prolonged dialogues and enduring encounters.
Jesus’ interaction with the Samaritan woman is an instructive conversation which begins with a discussion of beliefs and morals but ends with a personal awareness by the woman, and later by her townsfolk, of the true nature of the person to whom she is speaking: “The woman said to him, ‘I know that the Messiah is coming, the one called the Anointed; when he comes, he will tell us everything.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am he, the one who is speaking with you.’ Many of the Samaritans of that town began to believe in him because of the word of the woman who testified, ‘He told me everything I have done.’ Many more began to believe in him because of his word, and they said to the woman, ‘We no longer believe because of your word; for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the savior of the world.’ Martha, the bereaved sister of Lazarus, has a similar experience based on her personal friendship with Jesus. Questioned by Jesus, Martha testifies, ‘Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.’ And St. Peter, after Christ’s instruction on the Bread of Life, speaks for his loyal brothers, and in fact for all believers, when he declares, ‘Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.’”
Beliefs direct faith, but faith is more than beliefs. Faith is the orientation of one’s entire life around Jesus Christ. Faith goes beyond beliefs and risks acceptance of the divine person who is Jesus Christ as the decisive, ultimate, but still elusive meaning of life.