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How Trust and Belief Are Two Different Things (And Why It Matters)

Belief implies that the action is limited to the mind. To the head. About what you can assent to conceptually. You can believe someone or something without trusting it. But trust is so much more than that.
How Trust and Belief Are Two Different Things (And Why It Matters)
Photo by Erik-Jan Leusink / Unsplash

Sermon Delivered at The Local Church
April 24, 2022 • Easter 2C
Scripture: John 20:19–31

Some of you know that our family got to spend a few days of post-Easter Sabbath this past week at my favorite place in the world. Last Sunday was Easter Sunday, and then by Monday evening, we were on a plane bound for The Most Magical Place on Earth. By Friday afternoon, we were back in Pittsboro. It all happened so fast. And I had this realization when we were there that I probably spent as much time — if not more time — thinking about the trip, looking forward to it, talking about it, and planning all of the things than the amount of time actually being there on the trip itself. And in the blink of an eye, it’s all over.

Maybe it’s not Disney World for you — but it could be something else. Have you ever experienced this? You spend so much time preparing and looking forward to something. Building it up. Getting hype. All of the things. And then it happens, and there’s such a letdown when it’s over.

I do this after I’ve ordered something online, too. I get the tracking number and punch it in, and then every few minutes, I’m refreshing the browser to see if the package has left the UPS sorting facility in Louisville, Kentucky. If you’ve ever ordered a pizza from Domino’s and used their online tracker, you know something about this, too. And then once it arrives and you’re holding it — whether it’s your new iPhone or new sneakers or a large pizza — there’s still a bit of a letdown.

Evolutionary psychologists have studied this phenomenon and have found that this anticipation itself triggers a huge dopamine hit in the brain. It basically maxes out your pleasure center and makes a big promise about the value of whatever it is you’re waiting for. But then once you receive it, that dopamine hit isn’t nearly as big, and that’s the letdown you feel.

And so instead, when we feel that letdown — that disappointment, what do we do? In most instances, we’ll chase after the next thing that’s going to give us that hit. That will solve all our problems. Psychologists have determined that that’s exactly how it’s supposed to work. It’s related to natural selection and evolution, and it’s all pretty fascinating.

And I say all of this because, well, Easter is different. Easter is not that. Easter is different — by design. I saw a tweet this week from a pastor and author I admire that was about this very thing, and he said — rightly, I think — that one of the most unfortunate aspects of our culture is how quickly we move from one thing to the next. How fast our attention shifts. How we’ve been conditioned to live in, what he calls, a “perpetual state of inattention.”

We see it in the outrage of the day. In the news stories that are wall-to-wall one minute and disappear the next. In the trends and tweets that are so hard to keep up with. In the relentless pursuit of what’s new and what’s next. I do this, too. Goodness.

But Easter is different. And this is why, as I said in my email yesterday, that Easter is more than a day. It’s instead a whole season — called Eastertide. This is the wisdom of the church through the centuries and the wisdom of the church calendar, too. It doesn’t constantly move us to what’s new and what’s next. Instead, it’s countercultural in that the rhythm — the shape of our common life together — is cyclical. There’s a grounding and anchoring rhythm to it.

And it’s no coincidence either that Eastertide, at 50 days, is longer than Lent which is only 40. All of it together is beckoning us to slow down. To stay a while. To bask in it. Unlike your Domino’s pizza and the latest trend and your vacation and that thing you ordered from Amazon, that feeling isn’t gone in an instant. It lingers, and like a dog in the perfect patch of grass, we get to roll around in it for fifty days.

The good news of resurrection — of love defeating death, of the hope of a new world right here and right now — is that good. And so for the next few weeks, we’re going to spend some time doing just that. Slowly rolling around in Easter. Turning the gem and examining it from different angles. Savoring some of these post-resurrection stories and wondering together what good news they bring to our time and our place.

And as we see in our gospel story today, sometimes that good news is difficult to believe. It’s the traditional reading for the Second Sunday of Easter from John’s gospel — John’s narrative retelling of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Mary Magdalene has been to the garden. She saw that the stone had been removed and the body gone. And she was weeping there, but then Jesus, who Mary had mistaken for the gardener, spoke to her. And it took a minute to click, but when she realized that it was Jesus, she shouted for joy and went back and told the others that she had seen the Lord.

And according to John, no sooner had these things taken place that the disciples are back in the house — the last place they’d seen Jesus — and the doors are locked for fear of the Jewish leaders. After all, if they killed Jesus, just imagine what they might do to them. And all of a sudden, Jesus appears among them and says to them, “Peace be with you.” He showed them his hands and his side. He shows them his wounds and says again — reiterating, because certainly we can’t hear it or experience it or receive it enough — “Peace be with you.” And then he sends them. And then he breathes on them. The Greek there, rather than breathes on, is actually breathes into — inviting a connection in the hearer and reader’s minds to how, according to the prophet Ezekiel, God breathes new life into dry bones and how, in Genesis, God kicked up the dust — the dirt, the humus — and breathed life into it to create human beings.

John is underlining and circling and highlighting and putting all kinds of neon signs around the idea that something new is happening here, too. This is a re-creation. It’s a new day.

But Thomas isn’t there for any of this. For Jesus’ appearance. For the breath. For the words of peace spoken over them. Thomas isn’t there. We don’t know where he is. But he’s not with the others. And when he does finally show up, the disciples are like, “You’re not going to believe what we saw. We have seen the Lord,” they say — echoing Mary’s testimony and giving Thomas all kinds of FOMO.

And so Thomas responds, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hands in his side, I will not believe.”

Maybe you’ve heard the moniker, “Doubting Thomas,” because Thomas refuses to simply give assent to the testimony of the other disciples. He refuses to blindly accept what he hasn’t yet seen — that they all apparently have. And so all he’s asking for is what they’ve all already received: for that abiding presence of Jesus to show up. He wants to be able to say with them, “I have seen the Lord.” Then he’ll believe.

So first, I want to name that I get it. As I mentioned last week, resurrection is hard to believe. That’s on purpose. It’s meant to leave us astonished and force us to hold belief and disbelief in tension and then invite us to keep going, compelling us to move deeper into the mystery of it all. If the resurrection was easy to grasp and if this was merely about a blind assent, then we wouldn’t be here. It wouldn’t carry the weight that it has for generations.

All this is to say: It is faithful to doubt. In fact, it’s vital. Because it means our faith — with all its questions and uncertainty — is alive. It means that we’re alive. It means that this stuff matters to us and in our world.

So if you don’t have it all figured out, if you have a hard time getting on board with this whole Jesus thing, or think that some of this stuff seems pretty far-fetched or are uncomfortable with the label, “Christian,” because of all it’s come to mean and all of the ways it’s been used and misused: Welcome aboard. Hop in. You’re in good company.

It makes me think of my friend, Mark. Back when I was part of a church in Virginia, Mark showed up one day and said, “Look, I don’t believe in any of this Jesus stuff, but I just need some friends.” I said, “Great.” We didn’t waste any time. The next day, we had lunch at Chipotle. Over the years, Mark taught me so much about what it means to follow Jesus — like how those two things, Jesus and friendship, are so intimately and intricately connected. I hope I did the same for him.

And what Mark and Thomas have in common — beyond the questioning, beyond the doubt — is that they were both vulnerable enough to name what they needed. Friendship for Mark. Presence for Thomas. I think sometimes when we hear this story, we miss that — the vulnerability of Thomas. Sometimes we gloss over the risk it was for him to say in community, “No, y’all. Look, you saw Jesus. I love that for you, but I need more.”

And as far as we can tell, they didn’t try to pressure him. They didn’t give him an ultimatum or cut him off. They didn’t try to coerce a confession out of him. They instead gave Thomas the space he needed to process, to ask, to wonder — and stood alongside him in it all. That’s the power of beloved community that resurrection makes possible.

As they wait, a week later, Jesus shows up again to the disciples behind locked doors. This time (thanks be to God) Thomas is there. And again, Jesus says, “Peace be with you.” We can’t hear it enough. And Jesus sees Thomas’s vulnerability and meets him with his own, saying to him, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Jesus offers his whole self, wounds and all, in authenticity and service to Thomas and the others. And when vulnerability meets vulnerability, Thomas offers his confession — the climax of John’s gospel, here: “My Lord and my God!” In other words: You are who you say you are.

And to feel the full weight of this passage and why vulnerability in community is crucial, we have to examine this word that shows up again and again in this story: “Believe…”

Thomas says, Unless I can see the marks of the nails in his hands… I will not believe.” Jesus says, “Do not doubt but believe.” At the very end of this passage, John writes, “These are written so that you may come to believe… and that through believing you may have life in his name.

A little more Greek here for you. The Greek word for believe here is actually pistis. And beyond “belief,” this word can also be translated as “faith” or “trust,” and many scholars actually believe “trust” is the better word here — especially as we think of it in our Western context.

Think about the difference between belief and trust. Belief implies that the action is limited to the mind. To the head. About what you can assent to conceptually. You can believe someone or something without trusting it. But trust is so much more than that, you know? It requires so much more. Trust is about moving from your head outward. It encompasses more than assent. It’s deeper than that. It’s about feeling. It’s mind, yes, but also heart and soul. It’s embodied.

But how does trust happen? How do we move from not trusting to trusting? Here’s the thing: Trust requires vulnerability. There’s risk inherent in it.

Vulnerability is imperative in forming trust. There can’t be trust without it. Shame and vulnerability researcher and author Brené Brown puts it like this:

“Trust is a product of vulnerability that grows over time and requires work, attention, and full engagement.”

Full engagement. Not just engagement of the mind, but full embodied engagement.

And so what I’m getting at here — and what I love about this story — is that when Thomas is vulnerable, when he expresses what he needs in community, is bold enough to not just go along to get along but shares his doubts and questions with those who offer him a safe and brave space to do so, what that does — rather than cut himself off from connection — is that it actually opens Thomas to the possibility of something new. To the possibility of being surprised by grace. To the possibility of experiencing resurrection in his own life and in the world.

And when he takes that risk, he’s met with the vulnerability of Jesus who comes to him — through doors that may have been locked — and blesses him and welcomes him like a loving parent to their child, like a real ride-or-die friend — and it’s there in that intersection that the magic happens. There where vulnerability meets vulnerability. Where questions meet scars. That’s where the transformation happens. Where the trust builds. Where resurrection takes root. That’s what allows Thomas to receive the peace — the breath of God — that makes him new. That’s what allows him to exclaim, “My Lord and my God!”

This story gives us a framework for how to live as followers of Jesus. It gives us a framework for life together — one of vulnerability, authenticity, and honesty — where we will be met, held, blessed, breathed into, and given new life.

So I wonder this morning what this sort of vulnerability in community might look like for you.

Does it look like drumming up the courage to ask that question about this whole Jesus thing that you’ve been wanting to ask?

Does it mean being honest with yourself or with someone else and trusting that you’ll be met with grace rather than admonishment?

Does it look like asking someone if they want to grab coffee and just waiting to see what happens? Or making time for someone else?

Does it look like stepping out of your comfort zone and doing the thing you’ve been putting off because it might be too costly?

Does it look like breathing new life into the world around you just as God breathes into you?

Does it mean taking the risk to put down roots in this faith community, planting your flag, and calling it your own?

Does it look like asking about baptism — and wondering what it might mean for you?

I don’t know what it looks like for you, but I do know that Jesus will meet you there with all of himself. And we’ll be alongside you, too. Believe me. Or don’t. But either way, come and see.