March 18, 2012
Fourth Sunday in Lent
The Rev. Dr. Brent Was
“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have life eternal.”
What verse is that? John 3:16. Is there any other verse besides the 23rd Psalm that anyone here recognizes by chapter and verse? For Christians who do not treat scripture as the literal words of God, John 3:16 is complicated. It is very specific. It is hard to make sense of outside of a literal framework. And it attracts a lot of energy. If you ever see a Bible verse anywhere, chances are it is this one. Church of the Harvest over on Fox Hollow has it on a big banner. There has been a woman on the corner of 29th and Willamette with it on a sign. You see it on bumper stickers. It is everywhere.
Some years ago I was in a hospital chaplaincy training program. We did a lot, I mean a lot of group process work, and it was great. In particular, it was great because folks came together from very different religious backgrounds to do this training. There was a Roman Catholic who worked as a hospital chaplain, a liberal Baptist (married to a Shia Muslim), a run of the mill Boston area Congregationalist; these three were women. There was a classmate and friend of mine, a pretty whacky Methodist who when he wasn’t in divinity school was a comedy writer. There was me, the resolutely seeking and confused Anglo-Catholic Buddhist Unitarian, and finally a woman from a very, very conservative black Pentecostal church. We had lively conversations, as you could imagine.
One day though, our Pentecostal member was very upset regarding me. Not upset with me, but for me and my immortal soul. In group check-in she was crying because she realized that I was going to Hell because I did not believe in Jesus; well not properly at least, being a Unitarian. In her eyes, so she told me, I was essentially godless, I had abandoned Christ and she was genuinely scared for me.
I had a lot of thoughts about that episode. I still do. I was amazed that this woman had such deep feelings, really deep emotions on my behalf. Being in the presence of a true believer, let alone receiving the prayers of a true believer is powerful medicine. Whenever you receive such an outpouring of emotion it affects you. It affected me. And not all badly, it was very moving.
And I was also so deeply offended. I was offended that she was so confident that her way was the only possible way. I was offended by the judgments she made about me and my life and my destiny. I encountered a lot of the same religious bigotry in the Marine Corps, bad religion, “God is an angry God who likes wars sometimes” kind of bad religion. If you were not in on it you were an unbeliever, and worse was if you believed differently, then you were somehow apostate. But what I think offended me the most deeply had nothing to do with her and her beliefs, but arose in my own longing for beliefs so sure and simple, so cut and dry, so easy that everything would be ok if I could just believe this one thing truly enough. She lived the fantasy that I was searching for and seeing it I recoiled, but still felt denied something. All extremely mature thoughts.
But these feelings of judgment, religious judgment, they are common. Has anyone else here had an experience like this?
The result of all of this for me was that it took me another full year to leave the UUs and come here, to the one true church (that is a joke). This encounter scared me off for a while while I tried to figure out if I believed Christian enough to really call myself Christian. And it was this specific question, the issue of John 3:16 that was my primary stumbling block. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have life eternal.” It was a stumbling block in part because of the actual words of it, I did not know if I believed that. I didn’t even know what it meant. More so though, it was a stumbling block in the way that these words are used. If you don’t believe in these words fully enough, or if they mean something to you that is different than is generally accepted, your beliefs don’t count. They are used to segregate the true believers from the less true believers, the authentic Christians from the less serious, the sheep from the goats.
And I’ll tell you, some of those fears are deeply imbedded in my heart, I still wrestle with them. First are the specific questions: What does it mean to believe in Jesus Christ? What does eternal life mean? What would it mean if our God really did sacrifice an only child to a horrific, violent death to atone for the sins of the world? That’s pretty gruesome, and I think untrue, but we’ll wait for Easter to get into that. And then I get into the bigger picture of beliefs in general. Do I believe rightly enough? Do I even believe enough? And most importantly, does it matter what we believe?
To this last question, “Does it matter what we believe?” I will risk an answer. In a word the answer is yes and no. The specifics of our beliefs, let’s say our opinion on the words of the Nicene creed, or our ideas about the factual accuracy of Biblical narratives, or literal meanings of symbols, rituals or sacraments, those I would say do not matter. It might be interesting, it surely is, but it does not matter to God because they are unidimensional things, ideas, thoughts, beliefs. They are based on the individual. They are very narrow in their scope and their impact on the world.
Take for instance the question, “What is God?” A great question. A desperately meaningful question that we all need to ponder deeply in our hearts, but the answers we come up with, the specific answers we deduce from prayer, reflection and deep thought matter to us; but to our community, in and of themselves, they do not matter. We do not do a lot of testifying in Episcopal churches. We don’t witness to each other or the world the specifics of how we believe God in Christ has touched our lives, or how we believe God is supposed to touch our lives. Those kind of specifics are generally more divisive then they are community building. The whole experience I had in that chaplaincy group was that. I did not believe rightly and was therefore not acceptable to the group. No matter how much genuine sadness was expressed, those beliefs excluded, those beliefs diminished the beloved community that God in Christ desires for us. What we specifically believe I do not think matters.
That we believe, this is another matter entirely. And by this I mean it is not about what we believe, it is not about specifics, but it matters decisively that we have faith. Beliefs are based on ourselves, our observations, our educations, our upbringings, the specifics of our faith tradition’s teachings, the books we call Holy, even the specific religious teachers we have in our past and present. Beliefs are human creations. Faith, though, faith is a gift from God. Faith comes to us by grace alone. Paul wrote to his Ephesian friends, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”
Faith is our mind, body and spirit opened to take God inside of ourselves deeply, deep enough to change our lives. We do not change our lives by changing our minds, there has to be an opening. That opening is faith. Faith is our whole selves opened to intimacy with other people, with other creatures, with our own complex inner worlds. Beliefs lead to judgments, delineation and separation from others and from ourselves. Faith is trust in the true nature of things. It is trusting that we know Goodness when we meet it, Truth when we hear it, Beauty when we see it. It is trusting that we will recognize the Word of God when it is written on the wall in front of us. It is not about us, not in the least. It is about shedding presuppositions, putting ourselves in a posture of receptivity to learn from God directly and through those we share this life with. We know that faith is a gift of God because it is incredibly simple and is terribly difficult, always a hallmark of true holiness. If you doubt it, think of turn the other cheek, give away everything that you own and follow me, and do not worry about tomorrow because today has enough worries for itself. Those are words I have faith in. I know they are true. Do I believe them? How could that possibly matter?
“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have life eternal.” Have faith that God so loves the world that whatever needs doing will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven. Have faith. AMEN.