Too Many Believers?

By Sarah Cornwell

A Reading from the Gospel of John 11:45-57

45 Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. 46 But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what he had done. 47 So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, “What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. 48 If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” 49 But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all! 50 You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” 51 He did not say this on his own, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation, 52 and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God. 53 So from that day on they planned to put him to death.

54 Jesus therefore no longer walked about openly among the Jews, but went from there to a town called Ephraim in the region near the wilderness; and he remained there with the disciples.

55 Now the Passover of the Jews was near, and many went up from the country to Jerusalem before the Passover to purify themselves. 56 They were looking for Jesus and were asking one another as they stood in the temple, “What do you think? Surely he will not come to the festival, will he?” 57 Now the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that anyone who knew where Jesus was should let them know, so that they might arrest him.


Today’s gospel reading tells of what happens after Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. Many of the Jews witnessed this miracle and believed in him, but now some of them go to inform the Pharisees, who themselves say, “this man is performing many signs,” or in some translations, “miracles.” They all seem to believe that Jesus actually brought Lazarus back from the dead. The Pharisees then say they can’t let Jesus go on like this. Why not? What’s the problem? If the Pharisees let Jesus continue his ministry, then everyone will start believing in him. And if an entire nation follows this one man, the Romans will see it as a potential coup and feel compelled to destroy both the temple and the Jewish people to neutralize the threat.

We might sympathize a little with the Pharisees here and feel we are caught between a similar rock and a hard place. Some of us may be in positions of leadership ourselves and naturally take the responsibilities of those positions seriously. There is nothing wrong with caring for the preservation of God’s people and their places of worship. The crucial caveat is: at what cost? Though the Pharisees believe in the miracles of Jesus, they ultimately decide it is best for the people to deny them and, ultimately, to deny Jesus.

If we unapologetically and unequivocally affirm the miracles of Jesus, from his virgin birth, to his earthly ministry, to the glorious miracle of the resurrection, then we risk offending people. (Doubly so if we don’t shy away from Jesus’ particularly hard teachings.) Won’t this drive people away from the Church, resulting in the ultimate decay of God’s house? Not according to today’s gospel, which claims that the miracles of Jesus are going to make a huge number of believers.

Perhaps we the leaders of God’s church today should take heed, particularly those of us in mainline Protestant churches. When we edit out the miraculous from Christian faith and teaching, do we watch our churches decline? Some of the largest churches today — Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Pentecostal — emphasize the miraculous. Let us at least take pause. The problem of too many believers is a good problem to have.

Sarah Cornwell is a laywoman and an associate of the Eastern Province of the Community of St. Mary. She and her husband have six children and they live in the Hudson Valley north of New York City.

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Today we pray for:

St. Michael’s by-the-Sea Episcopal Church, Carlsbad, Calif.
The Anglican Church of Tanzania


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