I’m mentioned him several times—probably because he was formative in my spiritual and religious development—but Dr. Kay Koidio, one of my chemistry teachers in high school, once asked me a question to which I wish I could give a different answer than the one I gave way back then. I was a senior in high school. I had already taken one year-long class with Dr. Koidio and was preparing to start another quarter-long class. He was a devout Muslim known to the high school community for, among other things, a strict observance of Ramadan and the five-times-daily prayers. One day, he stopped me in the hallway and asked, “Why are you a Christian?” It caught me so off guard that I replied, “Well, why are you a Muslim?” Without hesitation, he responded, “Because I do not want to go to hell.” After only a brief pause to consider his response, I said, “Me too, that’s why I’m a Christian—because I don’t want to go to hell.” Within only a few minutes I realized that I wished I had said something else.
I am not a Christian because I don’t want to go to hell. Although hell seemed a pretty scary concept—one I would still prefer to avoid—even at 17-years-old I had already figured that I wanted to be a Christian because I wanted to go to heaven. That might seem like a meaningless distinction, but I assure you that as one who made that transition from fear to faith it was an important transition.
Now, though, I think I’d give an even different response. Why am I a Christian? Because I want to have life—the life God has promised me—and I want to have it now.
Today is the feast of John of Damascus. He was a very, very, very smart Christian who lived during a time when Islam had begun to spread throughout the near-east. Steadfast in his faith, he reportedly worked as the right-hand-man for the caliph who ruled over Islamic Syria. And despite being an integral part of a publicly Islamic caliphate, John of Damascus held firm to his belief in the resurrection. He synthesized copious amounts of Christian theological scholarship and produced important writings that still guide the church in its beliefs. He was openly opposed to the iconoclast movement that made the veneration and public display of icons illegal. When we celebrate his feast, we use the proper preface for Easter, which underscores his commitment to the “Paschal mystery.” Most notably to me today, we read John 5:24-27 as we remember him.
Jesus said, "Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life. (John 5:24)
For most of my life, I have heard those words of Jesus as a test. If you believe, then you go to heaven. If not, you go to hell. At first those were scary words, and I worried as a young child whether I would pass the test when I died and go to heaven. Eventually, I relaxed a little bit and found confidence that indeed I did apprehend the whole Jesus-thing and knew that, when tested, I would pass. But now, I’m hearing those words of Jesus in a totally different way.
Jesus didn’t say, “anyone who hears my word and understand it has eternal life.” Instead he says believe. What does it mean to believe? Belief is not the same thing as understanding, and John of Damascus knew that.
Jesus isn’t suggesting that only those who pass the understanding test make it into heaven. He’s saying that those who believe have life. Imagine being a Christian icon in a country dominated by Islam. We share a similar story, and we both respect Jesus, but our belief about what happened to him differs. In the Qur’an (4:157-58), Jesus is said to have been not actually crucified and killed as God instead raised him to himself as a substitute was killed on the cross. For John of Damascus, there wasn’t really any way around it. That’s a difference that we can’t gloss over. So how do you hold fast to Christianity in a circumstance like that? How do you justify, explain, rationalize, and argue for a belief that is explicitly contradictory to those with whom you are discussing it?
Understanding is not the same thing as believing. And the life that Jesus promises isn’t the some-day life in heaven but the life now. That suggests to me that believing as Jesus invites us to manifests itself here and now not as intellectual assent but as deep, soul-level commitment. This is the “peace that passes all understanding” that “keep[s] [our] hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God and of his Son Jesus Christ.” We don’t talk about that peace coming from our understanding but from the knowledge that passes all understanding. And what kind of knowledge is that? That’s belief. That’s life-changing, life-filling, life-restoring faith. John of Damascus had it. And we’re invited to have it, too.