I watched his face light up like a Christmas tree. This was a face that had previously featured the permanent furrow of an 80 year-old accountant on the brow of a nine year-old. He was sitting, absolutely swallowed up by my bulky, brown, microsuede office couch, next to his mother, her own face fixed in the Virgin Mary’s adoring-yet-quizzical “no seriously, what child is this” repose, and he had been asking some very complicated questions about the metaphysics of our faith. I was (and still am) the new pastor who had not seen this coming, but I recognized it from the mirror of my own past.
In our tradition, a few times a year we invite elementary and middle schoolers who would like to make a personal profession of faith and join the church to participate in our Communicants’ Class. There, they have the opportunity to (re)hear the basics of our faith and practice and to process it over several weeks along with their parents. At the end of the class, each child schedules an “interview” with a pastor, a parent, and usually another staff member to make sure we’re all on the same page about this next big step. Occasionally the tables are turned and it’s the pastor and not the child who ends up being interviewed! Sometimes we decide it’s best to wait until next time to let some things simmer. Our young friend was one of those who had previously decided to give it time, and here he was a year later, visibly troubled that twelve months hadn’t been enough for him to gain a comprehensive and unassailable understanding of the greatest concepts in human history. The brightness came when I told him who else wrestled with doubt: “All of us,” I said.
There’s an inherent tension in the linear relationship between believing and belonging, and it always comes up when we talk about church membership. The traditional question with regard to the membership process is, “What must we believe in order to belong?” It’s an important consideration if we are to faithfully safeguard the gospel we’ve been given. But I think an equally important question is, “If part of what we are to believe is that we belong, then how much belonging do we need to experience before we can truly believe it?” At the height of Enlightenment Rationalism, renowned French thinker Blaise Pascal challenged his earnestly doubting friends to join the local church and actually experience the liturgy, the sacrament, the fellowship of Christ’s body. Then, he wagered, they would know it to be true.
I think that’s what Jesus is showing us in this week’s text, too. Sometimes, for whatever reason, a thing feels just too good to be true. Jesus doesn’t then command unthinking allegiance but invites his disciples to taste and touch and see, to experience his goodness firsthand, and through that experience to receive the most potent arguments for the truth of his resurrection. As my young brother comes through the line to receive the body and blood of Christ each week, I can’t help but smile as I think about the devout parents who love him, the wider community to which he is vowed, and the word, sacrament, and prayer into which he is constantly immersed as he willingly “belongs” himself to Christ’s bride, even as he wonders along with the greatest theologians at the mechanics of it all. More and more, as he belongs, I trust he will come to realize that those truths about which he has real and rational doubts are in fact simply too good to be false.