Year B, Lent 4 March 11, 2018 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.”
Scripture-wise, it doesn’t get much more iconic than that. John 3:16. It is one of those verses you see on bumper stickers, or tattooed to people, and sometimes just by number, you don’t even need to credit St. John the Evangelist with this rendering of Jesus’ words.
Sometimes words are so familiar that they lose meaning, or they are so laden with baggage, that you can’t see them for themselves. Here is another telling of it, from The Message, a paraphrase version of the Bible. It is quite helpful at times, like this one. It goes: “This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; but believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life.” Believing in Him we won’t perish? We won’t be destroyed? We will have eternal life, a whole and lasting life? That’s it, isn’t it? What we are looking for. In our beautiful and complicated and blessed and lonely world, don’t we dream of our lives being whole? Of having lives with meaning, not just time passed between meals? To be in union with the God, source of it all, and in communion with all the rest of it, to feel part of all that is, not separate, not alone, not, as Paul or John or Jesus would say, perishing?
Do you ever wish that there was something so powerful in the world that in just laying our eyes on it we are saved? Just being in its presence our lives are brought from the brink of death and back into the green fields of life? Do you ever long for something like Moses’ bronze totem that saved the snake-bitten in the Sinai? And not for sloth’s sake, not because you want an easy path to a good end, but because you want the feeling of splendor and honor and royal power and being held and cared for and seen and named? I think a lot of us maybe don’t feel that longing because we don’t let ourselves feel that longing. We are reasonable people, and maybe we find that an unreasonable expectation of God. It is foolish to want such a thing, such security felt in something so intangible. Foolishness.
In many places in scripture, but never as clearly and plainly as our gospel today and its towering 16th verse, we are assured that we have that, that we have full and perfect salvation, whole, lasting, or as John puts it, eternal life promised to us. That something powerful beyond imagination that some of us long for is right there, the Kingdom is at Hand if we only had the eyes to see it. And to get those eyes, all we have to do is believe in Him.
Believe. What does that mean to you, to believe? What does it mean when we say, as we do every Sunday and major feast, “We believe in God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth…”? What do we mean when we continue, “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God…”? What do you mean when you become part of that royal we and say “We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life…”? What does it mean that we “believe”? and how could that, believing, in anything, save us?
This is one of those mysteries of faith that make reasonable people, as many of us in this room hold ourselves to be, pretty uncomfortable. I don’t get a lot of people in my office seeking theological counsel. Griefs, ethical dilemmas, repenting of sins past and present, lots of that, but not many theological or doctrinal problems, concerns or even questions. Episcopalians aren’t generally burdened with such things. Not many folks are concerned with doctrines of Atonement. Not a lot of sleep lost over the implications of consubstantiation. (If you want to learn about that, or at least how to spell it, come to the instructed Eucharist at 12:30). There is one exception though, one thing that people come to me, not infrequently, and with real consternation: those darned creeds.
And it is not the Creeds, per se, not the content, folks aren’t worried about the difference between being begotten or being made, or why we sometimes leave out the “…and the Son,” the filioque clause. No, it’s not that; it’s the “We believe…”
What does it mean to say that you believe something? What does it mean to believe something? That seems like it should be a pretty basic understanding amongst Christian folks. We’re supposed to believe in God. In the Bible. In the Resurrection. There is a lot to the notion of believing, and not all of it is foolishness.
Some folks believe, right here amongst us. Just straight up believe, believe the story, the Jesus story, maybe all of it, maybe just key points, but believe it like someone might believe that Spring is coming. Which it is. If you are there, God bless you. If you are not, beware judgement. Believing, believing as cognitive assent, our minds saying “yes, this is fact” is not primitive, or ignorant, willful or natural, it is a gift of faith that many understand as a gift from God, and we need to respect that. We might not agree (whatever that means), or feel anything remotely like that, but believing that x,y and z actually happened is a legitimate, authentic, and sometimes enviable experience of God.
Some of us are not there. Your rector is not there. Belief, the idea of believing is very complicated for me. I left the church at 13 when I refused to go through confirmation. Flat-out refused. (My sisters didn’t have that option and they haven’t been back to church since and look at me… a cautionary tale for parents). I wasn’t fleeing anything. We went to a nice, liberal UCC Congregational church north of Boston. As far as I could tell, the message was, “Be good like Jesus.” Hard to argue with that, but it didn’t quite stir my soul. Then in the Marines I ran into some hard fundamentalism. “When I lay my head down at night I pray to Jesus Christ my Lord and Savior that I get to lead this battalion in its call to glory.” A battalion commander said that to us at an officer’s Christmas party. My first 30 years of exposure to Christianity was limited and unsatisfactory.
Fast forward a bit and I have this weird call experience (long story), and find myself in seminary as a Unitarian. And in seminary, I start learning about Christianity, I got my first glimpses into the universe that is the Church. And I was hooked. Bad. But for one thing: believing! I don’t even know what I “believed” or “disbelieved,” like in my mind, but I didn’t know why that mattered. That didn’t seem important sitting on the meditation cushion in Godly silence or gathered around the Lord’s table in the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist. I felt pulled to the church, but I didn’t know what I “believed,” so I wrote to something like ten of my divinity school professors. These were Harvard folks, truly the best and the brightest (well, according to Harvard folks), and my question was this: what do you need to believe to consider yourself Christian? Sounded like a straightforward question. And do you what the answer was? Nothing. Not that you don’t need to believe in anything, but I got no answer. Nothing. Not a peep. Many are uncomfortable with belief. That didn’t help my mood.
Over time, what I figured out is that I just didn’t understand what it meant to believe. I didn’t understand what it meant when I confessed “I believe in God, the Father, the Almighty…” I didn’t understand that I do actually believe that God loved the world so much that He gave us His Son, and when we believe in Him, we will have a whole and lasting, an eternal life. And in believing that, my life is better. I see, not all the time, but often enough, I see that powerful, loving, healing and welcoming force that holds us all together. I see it, I have faith in it, I feel like I am in right relationship with God the world and everything and I am generally a better person than I would be otherwise to boot. Thanks be to God. What kind of belief is that?
One way to consider belief is through what one of our beloveds here referred to as one of the Borgian heresies. Marcus Borg, late son of Oregon, Episcopalian, New Testament scholar, bane of conservatives everywhere, blew my socks off at divinity school. He opened the door to all of this for me in an idea he called “post-critical naiveté.” That’s a mouthful, but he illustrates its meaning in a little saying he attributes to a Native American story teller: I don’t know if it happened this way, but I know this story is true.
Believing in something doesn’t mean you have to believe what every word, every letter, every stroke of every letter carries on its surface. Think of the Creation Story, the first one (there are two). “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth…” The creation took six days, then God rested on the seventh. I don’t believe that. I don’t believe it took six days. Not even seven. But I do believe that there was a beginning, that there was nothing, then bang! (A very big bang) and then there was something. And as time progressed, more things came into being, things got more complex, land emerged from the sea, plants emerged. Creatures evolved in the sea, then on land. Birds, creeping things, cattle, then us, the pinnacle of evolution (at least by some measures). I believe that story as much as I believe anything. It didn’t happen that way, in six days, but the story is true, it happened, the meta-narrative, the symbolic meaning of the story is right on and it helps. Post-critical naiveté opened scripture for me in a most amazing way.
But that’s an easy step, not even a leap. It is all here, in our head. Starting with our heads can lead us deeper, it surely did for me, but we can accommodate our intellectual doubts pretty easily. We can metaphorize or allegorize scripture and tradition all over the place, but that is not much different than proof texting, really. Different folks use scripture differently, and that is fine. The hard part is letting this stuff, the things we are asked to believe in, letting them alight on our hearts, inhabit our souls, transform, or even (yikes!) Convert us into (yikes!) Believers, which can be just another way of saying people who really, truly, actually have God in Christ with the Holy Spirit in their lives in a way that changes them.
That’s what concerns Archbishop Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury. He wrote a fabulous little book on the Creeds called Tokens of Trust, we read it in adult ed a couple of years ago. It seems we’re not alone in having trouble “believing” the Creeds or John 3:16.
The good Archbishop writes, “Christian belief is really about knowing who and what to trust.” That’s different. Then he suggests, “…Christianity asks you to trust the God it talks about before it asks you to sign up to a complete system.” That’s very different than I usually think about belief. Trust. It is about trust. These Creeds, these iconic lines of scriptures are statements, tokens of our trust in the God they are written about. Trust. When you think about it, it’s like “duh!” St. John is not asking us to “believe” Jesus, but to “believe in” Jesus. Like I believe in you. I trust your intentions, I trust you will do what you say you will do. I trust.
Look at the creeds. In them creeds, we are not asked to “believe that” God is the creator, or that Jesus is His only Son, or any of the other details; like the Archbishop says, that can come later. We are asked to believe “in” the God that those statements are about. In stating the Creed, we are expressing together our trust that the God we’re all talking about is an aspect of reality, actually the foundation of a benevolent and loving Reality, and who connects us to that Reality, and who empowers us though the gift of life itself. I want to trust that. (I need to, is what it really comes down to).
For example, later on in John’s Gospel, Jesus heals a blind man. His sight restored, Jesus asks if he believes in the Son of Man. He was not asking if he believed He existed, but if he trusted Him, trusted Jesus to be the Son of Man, that is the one set apart from all humanity before God. He believed that!
Another way Archbishop Williams expresses “believe in” is akin to the way Buddhists speak. Buddhists often talk of taking refuge. They take refuge in the Buddha (the Enlightened One), in the Dharma (the Teaching) and in the Sangha (the Community). Believing in God, trusting God, taking refuge in each of the ways God manifests to human beings as the Triune God God is. I trust that God is a solid foundation, a home in which you are safe. I want to take refuge there. I want to believe in a God like that.
There is another aspect of trust we say “we believe in…” in the Creeds or a statement like John 3:16. This is a statement of trust in each other. (Love God and Love Neighbor; Worship One God and what we do matters)! When we say the Creeds, or meditating on John 3:16, we are expressing our trust that these statements, in Williams’ words, “Set out what Christians can expect each other to take for granted…” That “We’re looking in the same direction, working with the same hopes and assumptions.” And I’d add vocabulary and foundational narrative, a common story.
Now this is not some liberal work-around, some way to moderate the foolishness of God so we feel a little less foolish at cocktail parties amongst regular Eugenians, religion’s cultured despisers. Archbishop Williams is not a liberal, but it is a bit of a gateway, perhaps. Cross this threshold and who knows where your faith will take you. That’s been my experience.
We could go on for days about all of this, about what it means to believe. To believe in. But let’s get to the point. It is just like good parenting. If your child knows, trusts, believes in your love for them, they can face the world assured that they are connected to another human being. Intimately, integrally connected. That is the foundation of not just wellness, but of being itself. Building from that it is possible to learn, really grok that they are connected to everyone and everything, that they are not separate, not alone, that they are loved by and in and through the foundation of the universe.
Believing in God, Trusting Jesus Christ, taking refuge in the Holy Spirit, when we take that fully in, when it becomes part of us, part of who we are, part of our identity, that’s what we receive. Assurance of our place in the cosmos, which is one of connection, of communion, of love. What could you do if you knew in the bottom of your heart that God, the power that created everything loves you? What would you possibly be scared of if you actually trusted that your life was in the hands of Jesus Christ whose goodness and courage was so cosmically massive that billions believe that He redeemed the world? How could you fail, how could you be defeated, how could you perish if you actually took refuge in the Holy Spirit, the giver of life itself? In that, with that kind of belief, not only will you not be destroyed, but you will find whole and lasting life. Maybe being in the kind of right relationship we are talking about here, maybe that is the definition of eternal life, not living forever, but living in union with the eternal. I want to believe in that. You?
“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your doing; it is the gift of God.” AME