“So they said to him,
‘What can we do to accomplish the works of God?’
Jesus answered and said to them,
“This is the work of God, that you believe in the one he sent.’ ” (Jn 6:29)
Jesus’s words here are intriguing. His followers have asked him how they can accomplish God’s works and he answers with the idea of belief in the one whom he sent.
What is meant by belief? In English, we might say, “I believe you” as a way to affirm assent to a person’s ideas. The Greek here suggests something a little different, as Jesus talks about belief in a person, not in an idea. The verb for “believe” here is pisteuete in the Greek, which is closely connected to the verb peitho, or to persuade. Someone who believes has been persuaded. The word for belief (pistis) also connotes the idea of something being trustworthy or reliable. So, essentially, the passage affirms the importance of trust in Jesus as a person who can be relied upon. It is much deeper than stating a creed of words, or belief in concepts, and goes to the idea of trusting in a person.
We see this kind of trust in Stephen in the reading from Acts (Acts 6: 8-15), when Stephen is engaged in his mission despite the anger being raised against him, which the author of Acts attributes to people clinging to their customs and to the way “things have always been.” Despite all the anger around him, Stephen’s face is describes as being like that of an angel, perhaps suggesting that he has peace in his mission and is not too deeply perturbed by those who are fearful. In the comparison to angels, I imagine not someone flashing power, but someone who is really “grounded,” who has an interior calm that is not thrown off by the forces swirling around him.
Interestingly, the people who are angry at Stephen are the ones who are very focused on belief in terms of preserving the “correct” ideology. They are upset that the Christians are changing the customs that have been handed down to them from the past. Stephen, though, relies on the Spirit, suggesting a kind of flexibility of learning something new, and knowing what to say next, that is dependent on the Spirit and not on custom. Stephen is open to new possibilities because he trusts not in ideas, but in a person, Jesus.
This is a good model for us, too, as we try to problem solve across difficult cultural divides in the US over issues of religion and culture–not so much to lock ourselves into custom or ideology but rather to be open to the Spirit and to a trust that God can accomplish something new, if unfamiliar, in our midst. That requires a certain degree of trust, not only in God but also in one another.