John wrote his Gospel for all of us who grapple with this reality: “But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). For John, the greatest work that we can perform is to believe because, by believing, we are able to do God’s work: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent” (John 6:29). The author of this Gospel presents the reader with various people who come into contact with Jesus and enter into dialogue with him. Each of them represents a different type of “believer” who responds with a different degree of faith.
Take for instance Nicodemus. Nicodemus believes in secret but not in public. There is a sincere faith here but at the human level. It is more like a friendship. He is attracted to Jesus, and his faith moves him to develop a friendship with Jesus.
Then there are the crowds who follow Jesus because he is popular and doing incredible things, like multiplying loaves of bread and fish. But the crowds are unable to grasp the true significance of the miracle (John prefers the word “sign”). They are unable to understand that through these signs Jesus was revealing his divine identity to them.
How about the Samaritan woman — the “heretic”? Her story is similar to the blind man who is healed. These two begin their relationship with Jesus like we begin ours — completely unaware of his true identity. They soon become captivated by him, and their faith grows. They recognize Jesus progressively, first as an important person, then as a prophet, and finally as the Messiah. In fact, in both accounts, Jesus expressly reveals his true identity — but only when the person is ready. Their faith then allows each of them to invite others to join in their own journey of discovery and faith in Jesus.
There are also the Apostles — Philip, Peter and Thomas. They believe in Jesus, but have a hard time embracing everything that Jesus is revealing to them. Even though Peter is able to articulate that Jesus is the Messiah, he ends up denying that he knows him while Jesus is being questioned by the religious authorities who end up condemning him to death. Philip wants Jesus to show them his Father, whom he keeps telling them about. Isn’t this what all of us desire? Thomas’ faith is shaken by Jesus’ death, so he cannot embrace his resurrection. Each of them believe that Jesus is just another intermediary that God was using, another manifestation of God’s presence, like any of the previous prophets.
Others, like Mary Magdalene, and John, are examples of a type of believer who chooses to remain with Jesus, even through the tragedy of his passion and death. They do not abandon him. Because they continually put themselves in Jesus’ presence, their faith continues to progress. It is these disciples who run to the tomb on Easter morning and are the first to believe what Jesus had already told them — that he would rise from the dead.
Each of these believers can help us on our own journey of faith. They reassure us that believing in Jesus may be difficult at times and that mistakes are inevitable. The first name that was given to this group of disciples was “The Way.” They understood that belief in Jesus is progressive: it requires a journey. It has a beginning, it progresses, and, eventually, it will be perfected. Being attracted to Jesus and becoming his friend, as Nicodemus did, may be helpful in the beginning, but it is not enough. We can make horrible mistakes on the way, like Peter, but this does not completely sabotage our journey of faith. Articulating the difficulties that we have, or articulating what we believe, like the Samaritan woman, is important in order to continue making progress on this journey of faith.
Try out this spiritual exercise for reflecting on your faith journey:
- Jot down your responses to these two questions: Where are you on this journey that we call faith? Who is Jesus to you?
- Which of the biblical characters mentioned above best fits who you are right now in your faith journey?
- Read some Gospel passages associated with that character a few times — maybe even every day for a week.
- What word, question or action attracts you — perhaps comes to your mind — after you have read and re-read the passages?
- What questions do you want to ask Jesus? What do you want to tell him?
- Identify what your next step in faith might be, perhaps using the journey of the person you chose to guide you.
- Write a prayer that you can say every day to remind you of the progress you would like to make.
- Repeat this exercise every now and then to see how you have progressed.