Archive for John 3:16

Gracing Belief

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 11, 2018 by timtrue

Burning_match

John 3:14-22

1.

I’m sure we’ve all heard this saying before: “Perfect love casts out fear.”

To give us some context, this saying comes from I John 4:18, which reads in full: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.”

So, show of hands: Who out there has reached perfection in love? No one?

A week ago Friday night we played with this contrast between love and fear in my Lenten Class, Love 101. The relationship between love and fear is analogous to the relationship between light and darkness.

I threw out three images from the natural world to illustrate:

  1. The closest thing to absolute darkness I’ve ever experienced: turning off headlamps while spelunking; and the effect of a solitary match lit in that darkest of settings.
  2. A still very dark setting: stargazing on a moonless night; and the amount of light transferred only from planets stars light years away—amazing!
  3. And the brightest natural light I’ve experienced: hiking at noon on the summer Solstice, with the sun as high in the sky as it could be in the thin air of the Sierra Nevadas above treeline; and still I could see shadows—darkness hiding in corners.

Light and darkness exist in a kind of symbiotic relationship.

In that near-absolute dark setting in the cave, it was only dark because of the absence of light, dramatically demonstrated by a solitary match. You can’t have light without darkness—one defines the other.

Yet even in the brightest light I’ve experienced, the high, warm light of the noonday sun, there was shadow: even the brightest light could not chase all the darkness away.

It’s a great illustration for the relationship shared by love and fear:

Fear grips us. It sometimes overwhelms us to the point of despair. But one little flicker of love and fear disperses.

As we grow and mature in our love, we come closer to that perfect love that casts out fear. But we are human, and thus we can never attain to that perfect love that is God. Thus, as good as our love can ever be—as brightly as it can ever shine—fear is never chased completely away, always at least lurking in the shadows.

So, towards the end of our Love 101 hour together, I asked if there was anything from our day’s discussion that we might want to explore further; and someone raised his hand. “This picture of love and fear is very helpful,” he said; “but how does it relate to faith?”

Well, I gave the answer that all good teachers give when someone asks a question that hasn’t occurred to me before: “That’s a very good question.”

2.

In today’s Gospel, I’m happy to say, we find an answer to that question.

Notice, first, how the passage ends:

And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.

Jesus is the light; God is perfect love.

Some people come into the light; and as a result their good deeds, which are done in God, are seen.

Other people, however, would rather not have their deeds exposed. To their detriment, they avoid the light and hide in the darkness. They would rather live in fear than come out into the light of Christ and the love of God.

And do you see how John is playing with the same analogy? Light is to darkness as love is to fear. Symbiosis is at work: one doesn’t exist without the other.

But John brings an additional variable into the equation, one I did not bring into last Friday night’s discussion. This additional variable is seen in the beginning of the passage, summarized in the verse that perhaps above all others in our lifetime has enjoyed rockstar fame, John 3:16.

And we all groan and roll our eyes! For this is an old rockstar; one, we all know, who should have retired long ago; and, dignity suggests, ought to retire now before he hurts himself.

Still, let’s try to see this verse anew; to hear his song afresh, in the context of love and fear we’ve just been discussing:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

And do you hear it? Faith is a part of this song.

John doesn’t say the word itself—faith. But John’s Gospel is about action; and what is the activity—the verb—associated with faith? To believe.

John brings active belief—otherwise known as faith—into our equation.

For John, the people who practice active belief are those who come into the light of Christ and love of God; the people who do not practice faith would rather remain in the shadows of darkness and fear.

But we’re not quite done: faith is only half the variable. Light lives in relationship with darkness. Love lives in relationship with fear. With what, then, does faith live in relationship?

Let’s listen to that old rockstar one more time:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son—

Okay, okay, that’s enough! Retire already.

But, really, my point here is that we like the second half of the song, the part that tells me that all I have to do is practice active belief—that all I have to do is have faith—and I will be saved. But there is an important symbiotic relationship here; and if all we hear is the second half we’ll miss it.

God so loved the world. God gave his only Son. God is actively participating.

As an individual, I like to think that it’s all about me. It’s my faith. I chose to believe. Or, just as readily, I might say, “It’s my atheism; I chose to reject God.”

But we cannot skirt around the matter. In our individual practices of belief or disbelief, God actively participates.

So then, what is this divine participation called?

Grace.

And now our variable is complete.

3.

But grace and faith together? Oh, the tension!

Grace tells me it’s all about God and nothing about me.

But when we tease this logic out to its theological end, the result is called predestination; and predestination is a difficult pill to swallow.

For, while God may have predestined my soul to eternal bliss and salvation, does that mean that God also predestined my unbelieving friend to eternal torment and damnation?

And, since we’re here, what about Adam and Eve? If it’s all about God’s activity, then God must have predestined Adam and Eve to sin; and the time of probation in the Garden of Eden was all a kind of moot, not to mention sadistic, stage play.

The same goes for Judas Iscariot. If he were only a puppet in God’s hands, then he actually betrayed Jesus under no volition of his own—and is therefore to be pitied above all other human beings.

But it’s no good, on the other hand, to say it’s all faith; for all faith places salvation in my hands. Whether or not I go to heaven at the last day depends on my personal steadfastness and self-control.

But my heart and my head wage war against one another. In my head, I know the disciplines I have set for myself to keep. But my heart tells me it’s okay to give in. And when I’m weary or fatigued—you know the drill—my heart always seems to win out.

Moreover, if my faith is all up to me, then God is removed to some far-off place and has little to nothing to do with me. And, really, who wants that!

Like light and darkness and fear and love, faith exists in symbiosis with grace.

4.

But there’s a key difference.

Love and fear exist together in tension, as do faith and grace. But we strive towards the goal of perfect love; and concurrently of casting out fear. Perfect love is our destination.

When it comes to faith and grace, however, our goal is not one over the other, but balance.

I came across a question this week[i] that sums it up well: “Put more personally, is my salvation dependent upon the steadfastness of my faith, or will I be graced by God whether or not I am faithful?”

The answer, according to that old rockstar, is yes.

Your faith and God’s grace go hand in hand.

Over in the Gospel of Mark, it sounds like this:

Jesus said to him, “If you are able! —All things can be done for the one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!” When Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You spirit that keeps this boy from speaking and hearing, I command you, come out of him, and never enter him again!” (Mark 9:23-25).

“All things can be done”—God’s grace—“for the one who believes”—your faith.

“I believe”—semi-colon: same breath—“help my unbelief!”

This is the mysterious tension we find when grace and faith work harmoniously together.

May God be gracious to us all in our belief and unbelief.

[i] Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2, p. 120; Joseph D. Small.

Advertisements

Light from Nicodemus

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 12, 2017 by timtrue

Henry_Ossawa_Tanner_-_Jesus_and_nicodemus

John 3:1-17

We’re in Year A this year. Year A’s pretty cool.

Year A is the first of three years in our Revised Common Lectionary.  That is, starting with Advent and continuing through the 29th Proper, aka “Christ the King Sunday,” the passages of scripture we hear read on Sunday mornings all year follow Year A’s outline.

Next year will be Year B.  The following year will be Year C.  And the year after that will be back to Year A.

So, if you’re sitting in this church on the 2nd Sunday of Lent in 2020, you’ll hear the same scripture passages that were read today.

And I for one am glad to be back in Year A.

That’s because in Year A we encounter four very special people, all from the Gospel of John, four weeks in a row, during Lent, who appear nowhere else in the Bible.

Over the next four Sundays, we’ll hear the stories of four wonderful, surprisingly modern saints of God, from whom we can learn much—if we’re willing to take the time and listen to them.

To listen, I said.  This means we’ll have to figure out not what the world has told us we need to learn from them—not what the world tells us John 3:16 means, for instance—but what each has to teach us from his or her own story.

So, who are these people?

Today, John introduces us to Nicodemus, who comes to Jesus secretly, by night; and has an image-laden conversation with him about what it means to be born from above, or born again.

Next week it’s the woman at the well, a Samaritan woman—confronting us simultaneously with culturally sensitive issues of race and gender!—who encounters Jesus and quickly runs off to share the good news with her friends and family.

The week after that brings us to an unnamed man blind from birth, whom Jesus heals, and who then confounds the very teachers of Israel.

Finally, in Lent 5, we encounter Lazarus, not to be confused with the blind beggar in the parable from Matthew.  This Lazarus is the brother of Mary and Martha, whom Jesus first weeps over and then raises from the dead.

All four of these characters are found only in John’s Gospel; all four are surprisingly modern; all four encounter Jesus.

And through all four encounters, over the next four weeks, we will encounter Jesus ourselves.

He might even confront us, even challenge us, to think about our place in the world in new ways, an appropriate heart-and-soul exercise for Lent.

So, yeah, Year A’s pretty cool.

Who, then, is this guy, Nicodemus?

The passage begins: “There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.  He came to Jesus by night.”

What can we surmise?

Nicodemus is a Pharisee; and a community leader.  Yet at the same time he seeks Jesus out.

He seeks Jesus, who by this time has already been singled out by both the Pharisees and the Jewish community leaders as someone to steer clear of.

Jesus turned over the tables of the moneychangers, after all!  Why, he’s uneducated, the son of a carpenter!  Maybe he’s not all there, if you catch my meaning.

Yet Nicodemus doesn’t want to steer clear of him.  Maybe his community is on the right track: maybe there is something not quite right about this man Jesus.  Still, despite what the world around him—his world—is telling him, Nicodemus finds himself actually drawn to Jesus.

So he goes to him.  At night.  Under the cover of darkness.  In secret.

Wearing sunglasses.  And a hat.  To avoid the local Paparazzi.

I wonder, is Nicodemus spiritual but not religious?

It’s as if he wants to know Jesus, to know God through Jesus; but he’s not sure.  On the one hand, his way of approaching God, his religion, hasn’t been entirely satisfactory for him; while at the same time, on the other hand, he’s apparently skeptical that Jesus will be the answer he seeks.

We get locked into our own methods pretty easily, don’t we—our own ways of doing things, our own ways of approaching Jesus?

Mine’s through prayer.  What’s yours?

Oh, well mine’s through nature.  What about you?

Mine’s through praying the sinner’s prayer.  How about you?

Me?  Ah, I find Jesus in the liturgy.

And so on it goes.

But what if we find ourselves becoming spiritually curious?  What if we begin to look over denominational fences?  What then?

Some of you know my own story of how I came to the Episcopal Church from Presbyterian and Reformed circles.

I was a part-time staff member of a small church of a different denomination, working as a worship leader.

Yet I found myself drawn especially to two things about the Episcopal Church: its liturgy and music; and its sacramental theology.  I found myself wanting to attend the local Episcopal parish.  But I couldn’t, since I had obligations at the other place.

Well, what to do?

As it turns out, Holy Week was approaching.  So my family and I decided to attend the local Episcopal parish, St. John’s, for the Triduum, that three-day drama that comes at the end of Holy Week: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Great Vigil.

By the end of these three days, we were convinced: The Episcopal Church would have to become our new home.

But that first time we donned the doors, on that Maundy Thursday—I couldn’t help but feel a lot like I was playing hooky; like I was doing something very wrong; like I was dishonoring the tradition to which I belonged; like I was somehow being unfaithful or disloyal.

How surprisingly modern Nicodemus’s story is!

So, what is the main lesson we learn from him?

Our world has made a lot of the conversation that takes place in today’s Gospel.

What does it mean to be “born from above” (as the version we heard today puts it; or, to put it in a more popularized outfit, what does it mean to be born again)?

The imagery of rebirth has captured the modern American evangelical imagination.

We’ve all heard the question, or some variation of it: Are you a born-again Christian?

I don’t know about you, but I feel this question has been overused; that the phrase born-again Christian ought to be put on a list of banned Christian lingo.

It’s a polarizing phrase.

To one group of Christians, it’s an identifier, as much as to say, “Yeah, you say you’re a Christian.  But are you really in?  Are you born again?”

Whereas to another group, it’s derogatory or pejorative, as much as to say, “Are you actually one of those fringe wackos: are you born again?”

And because it’s polarizing, we’ve been distracted from the main point here.  The main point is not about individual souls being born again.  John 3:16, that favorite verse of countless people, says that God so loved the world.  It’s not about individual souls here so much as it is about all of creation.

So, let’s put this phrase away, on the list of banned Christian lingo, at least for a while, until it loses its polarizing quality.

Fortunately for us, there’s another image that comes out of this passage.  And I’m convinced that this other image, not the image of rebirth, is in fact the overarching image by which we can understand Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus.

What is this image?  Light and darkness.

The passage begins with this image (Nicodemus comes to Jesus by cover of darkness); and with this image the passage ends (light exposes people’s deeds, Jesus says).

Light and darkness here, not rebirth, is the governing image: it’s only after one has been reborn that one comes out of darkness into light.

So, what happens when we look at Nicodemus through this lens of light and darkness?

Nicodemus first comes to Jesus in darkness.  He is seeking.  He is curious.  He is probably concerned about what his community will think of him.  He may even be confused.

And isn’t this a lot like us?  Don’t we know a lot about darkness?  Isn’t our faith hard to understand?  Isn’t being a Christian often confusing?  Aren’t we seeing the looking glass only dimly?  Aren’t these all mere shadowlands?

By the way, we face darkness at both the individual and corporate levels.  The corporate Church, throughout its history, has made many errors.  I only have to mention the Crusades to prove that point.

But, this coming to Jesus in darkness isn’t all that we see of Nicodemus in the Gospel of John.  He shows up again, later, near the end, with another heretofore secret disciple, a certain man by the name of Joseph of Arimathea, who owns a tomb hewn of out rock on his property, the very tomb into which Jesus’ body will be laid.

Do you remember this part of the Easter story?

Nicodemus and Joseph come and carry Jesus’ body away and lay it in the tomb.

And they do this deed in the full light of day!

Despite his convoluted faith, fully aware that his religious and community colleagues would see him, fully aware that his deeds and faith would be exposed in the full light of day, Nicodemus throws caution to the wind and carries Jesus’ body away.

Despite the Church’s mistakes, whether in the Middle Ages or in the modern day; despite how confusing and convoluted our theology can be, the Church has been called to keep throwing caution to the wind, to keep carrying on Jesus’ work in the full light of today.

And what is this work?

Only to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, and to heal the sick.

Only to care for orphans and widows.

Only to walk across town with food in our backpacks to donate to those less fortunate than ourselves.

Only to love all creation in such a way that it might be born anew.