Of all the Gospel stories, none illustrates the poignant chasm between one’s professed and operative theologies better than this Sunday’s account of the raising of Lazarus.
I have been intrigued by those technical terms since grad school. Professed Theology: that which we say we believe–what we even believe we believe. And Operative Theology: that which–when push comes to shove–it turns out we actually believe.
Martha, in today’s Gospel, articulates a magnificent professed theology. Confronting Jesus after the death of her brother, she boldly proclaims, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.” Amen, sister; preach!
But as soon as they get to the tomb, she changes her tune. “Take away the stone,” Jesus instructs. And Martha protests, “Lord, by now there will be a stench; he has been dead for four days!”
So which is it, sister? Do you really believe that God will give Jesus whatever he asks? Or is the inside of that tomb the last thing you want to see . . . or smell?
There’s nothing like a little genuine distress to bring our operative theology zooming to the surface. That truth is summed up even more succinctly by the father of a possessed boy in Mark’s Gospel (9:14-29) who cries out “I do believe; help my unbelief!”
Which honestly is okay.
People of faith are supposed to be lifelong learners. We are taught things, and we memorize things, and we repeat things, and often there is no need to examine whether or not we really believe these things–until there is. The awful beauty of being backed into a theological corner is that we might need to confront what we really believe for the very first time. (Hence my trouble with the phrase everything happens for a reason!)
But the good news–for Martha today, for the possessed boy’s father another day, and for us every day–is that God doesn’t need our faith in order to work wonders. Jesus rolled away the stone despite Martha’s apparent disbelief. He healed the possessed boy despite his father’s acknowledged disbelief. And God moves in our lives, no matter how far apart our professed and operative theologies may be.
We do believe, Lord. Help our unbelief!