Commentary: Believing is more than a one-time decision of heart

By Bishop Peggy A. Johnson

This time of year, the word “believe” shows up in curious places. It’s printed on glossy department store shopping bags and sewn on wooly Christmas sweaters.

Bishop Peggy A. Johnson

It is a comfy word, kind of holy but not too holy because, after all, the Christmas season has become more of a festival of commercialism, family gatherings and feasting — but less about Jesus or his mission.

Madison Avenue would still like to maintain an air of magic in its advertising by using the word “believe.” It is something you can’t buy, something miraculous, even if that only means telling a little girl, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” to believe in. Deep down inside, we all want to believe in something beyond ourselves, something reassuring and eternal. Such things cannot be purchased at the mall and placed under the Christmas tree.

Bedrock of faith

Believing is the bedrock of the Christian faith. It is the affirmation of what we know and profess about God’s mission to save the world. Believing in Jesus means we are trusting in him for the forgiveness of our sins and eternal life. But it doesn’t stop there.

Christians are called to live in alignment with the essence of the teachings of Jesus, who is present with us in the spirit once we believe. We become his agents, so that when people see what we do in his name, they, too, may come to believe and follow Jesus. Believing is a lifetime of service, not just a one-time decision of the heart.

What does your witness look like? When people encounter you in the world, do they experience the love, acceptance, generosity and grace of Jesus in you? Can people with heavy loads to bear believe that God really cares about them because of the generosity that you extend? Do people from a different ethnic background experience the hospitality and kindness that you would give to Jesus himself?

Leo Tolstoy’s classic Christmas story, “Martin the Cobbler,” features a poor cobbler who was told in a dream that Jesus would visit him Christmas Day. Instead of Jesus at the door, there were three needy visitors, and he helped each one. By the end of the day, Martin was sad that he did not receive a visit from Jesus as promised.

‘To one of the least of these … ’

In a vision, the Lord explained that the three needy visitors Martin helped were indeed his visit in disguise. “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).

Still today, Jesus visits us in the anxious faces and outstretched hands of persons in need — the stranger, the alien and even those we don’t particularly like. As we serve them with grace and generosity, we are proclaiming to the world what we believe and whom we serve. This is a profound way to inspire belief in our divided world. It is our very best tool of evangelism.

Believing is not just a wistful word, the lyric of a song or a shiny decoration on a Christmas tree. It is a twofold process of faith and works. The two are inseparable, as we navigate through our Christian journey in the world, especially at Christmas. That is when the world is looking and listening a little more closely for signs of hope, for good news and for something to truly believe in.

Bishop Peggy A. Johnson began her assignment to lead nearly 900 churches in the Philadelphia area, comprised of the Eastern Pennsylvania and Peninsula-Delaware Annual Conferences, in 2008.