Sermon on John 3:14-21 for March 11, 2018, Lent +4 B
And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. “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.” Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 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.
I have two sons who are millennials. One of the new terms their generational cohort popularized is the word “meme”. A meme is an idea, or a phrase, that spreads from person to person in a culture. Like genes are replicated in living organisms, memes spread on social media of all kinds until they are nearly universally recognized.
Anyway, the phrase “in my opinion” became a meme at the congregation I served in Gulf Shores. We had several forums in which we wanted to have open discussions, including diverse viewpoints. We wanted people to feel free to share their thoughts without fear of judgment, so we asked people to begin their comments with the preamble, “In my opinion.” We even suggested that if a person forgot to say “in my opinion” that the rest of the group had permission to hear whatever they said as, “In your opinion.” So, “In my opinion” became a meme, almost an inside joke.
Well, what you will hear from me I want to be based on the best scholarship and research available. But sometimes I will venture out on a limb, and when I do, I will flag it as, “In my opinion.” I am going to say something about these biblical texts we have read that I hope is based on the best scholarship available. Then, I want to connect their meaning with our lives today.
But before that, I want to share something that I will flag as “In my opinion.” In my opinion, the more distant, in the past, an event is, the more it looks like it was necessary to have happened. So much that follows from it would have been different otherwise, that it makes it even seem necessary, like the American Revolution, or that we won the Second World War, or that our parents met and married, and that we are their children.
But, I do not think that feeling of necessity and inevitability is anything more than a feeling. I do not think that just because something happened, that it had to happen. There are all kinds of things that happened historically, from the time of the historical Jesus to now, that did not have to happen. But they did happen. And now that time has passed, we have grown comfortable with them, and accept them as inevitable, or maybe unquestionable. In my opinion, that can be a mistake.
“Faith” Changed Meanings
So, let me tell you about something that happened between Jesus and now that did not have to happen, but did, and now so many people accept it as unquestionable that it seems inevitable. It is what happened to the word “faith” or its verbal form “believe.”
According to professor Harvey Cox, the Hollis Professor of Divinity at the Harvard Divinity School, until his retirement, in his book The Future of Faith, the word “faith” and the verb “to believe” went through a massive and unfortunate change of meaning. It changed from meaning trust, to meaning, affirming that something is a fact.
Faith started out meaning trust that Jesus’ way of living was the way that leads to a new kind of life. Faith meant trusting that Jesus’ teachings were powerful and transformative when put into practice. In short, faith meant to trust. Trust that Jesus was the key to the kind of life in God that could change everything for you and even for the world.
Faith as a verb is “to believe.” The Latin word for believe is “credo,” from which we get the word “creed”. The root meaning comes from the word for “heart,” and is also the source of the word “cardio.” Faith originally meant what you give your heart to. We use the word the same way when we speak of putting our faith in someone. We give our heart to them. To break that kind of faith, we call “unfaithfulness”.
Originally, to have faith in Jesus meant to give your heart to him. That’s what it meant for the first followers of Jesus. When you give your heart to Jesus he becomes, for you, “Lord” meaning the one who calls the shots; the one whose agenda becomes your agenda; the one whose values become your values. To give your heart to Jesus is to say that Jesus is the one through whom you understand God; the one through whom you encounter God.
We gather together as people who have given our hearts to Jesus. That is what we mean by the word “faith.” We “believe”, that is, we have given our hearts to Jesus, trusting that his way, his faith in God, his teaching is, for us, the path to transformation – or, to use the traditional word, “salvation.” All of this is going to come up in the gospel text before us this morning.
John and Believing
So, now to the texts before us. In John’s gospel, we read that God sent John the baptist. John had a mission. He prepared the way for Jesus.
By the way, according to John’s gospel, we should all understand ourselves as people who have been sent by God for a mission.
So God sent John. Then, God sent Jesus. He had a mission: to proclaim the presence of the kingdom of God. John says that everyone who believes in Jesus – everyone who gives their hearts to Jesus – everyone who trusts that the Jesus-way, the Jesus-path, the Jesus-perspective about God, about people, about money, about compassion, about inclusion, about justice, is the path to transformation and the way to living in God, the way to experience “salvation.” Salvation is the opposite of “perishing”. John says,
“that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
Now the trouble we face is that “believe in” has radically changed to mean “believe certain ideas about Jesus.” Because of accidents of history, we now have creeds that tell us what kinds of things we must believe to be facts about Jesus: that he was born of a virgin, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried” and so on.
Whether or not you believe that as a fact is one question. But it is not the same as asking, “Do you give your heart to Jesus, do you trust that the Jesus way is the way to live in God, the way to transformation, or salvation?
Being Saved or Perishing
Which brings up the whole question of salvation and perishing. John talks a lot about salvation as “eternal life.” I know that everyone thinks this is the same as “heaven” but that is also a mistake. I believe that we will live after death, though I do not pretend to know much about what the specifics will be like.
But I do know that I need salvation. And I do know that there are ways of living that can only be described as “perishing.” And, like John, I believe it happens here and now. John speaks of “condemnation” as something that happens “already” in the present.
“those who do not believe are condemned already”
We could say “those who do not trust are condemned to a life of perishing “already.” (I know that opens a Pandora’s box of issues, but you cannot go into everything in one sermon; I will be here for a while.)
I think we all know how true that is. Those who think that they will be saved by their money, or their status, or their power, have no answer to the question: “What will any of this mean when you are gone?” It all perishes. We are mortal. Even the names of pyramid-builders are lost in the sands of deserts and of time – how much more so the likes of us?
So what do we need to be saved from? I think the question is not general, but personal. What do you need to be saved from? Is it hopelessness? Is it apathy? Is it despair? Do you need to be saved from self-loathing? From self-preoccupation? From un-forgiveness? From arrogance? From cynicism?
It is easy for me to make a list of things you might need to be saved from. It is the list of what I need to be saved from. Is there hope?
There is Hope
Yes, there is hope. Our hope is in God who, as John says,
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in (or trusts, gives their hears to) him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe (or trust) in him are not condemned”
Clearly, some of the most intense things we need to be saved from are internal to us. Hopelessness, self-loathing, despair, un-forgiveness – these are all inside of us. These are the snakes that poison our lives from within. The only way to find healing is to look at them squarely instead of denying them.
The story from the Hebrew Bible, the first testament was about a plague of snakes that wrought havoc on the Israelites in the wilderness. The solution was to look at the sake, cast in bronze, on the pole. The only path to salvation is to face the thing that is killing us.
What is killing us? We can sum it up with the word “ego.” That self-seeking part of ourselves that we defend against every threat. Salvation never comes from the denial of the ugly side of ego. It comes from facing honestly that we all have egos that want us to orient our lives to ourselves. But this is the path of perishing.
Salvation lies in orienting our lives towards the highest possible good: to goodness, to justice, to compassion, ultimately to love, just as Jesus did. We call this highest good, God. We believe, we have faith, we trust, we give our hearts to the Jesus way as the way to that highest good of goodness, justice, compassion, and love.
So, when we confront modern issues, this is where we start. This is the path out of darkness into the light. As John says, this is what it means to do deeds “in God” -that they are done in the light.
This is what we enact every time we come together at this table. We share one bread, we share one cup and we proclaim the mystery of faith, that God has made us one. We affirm that we have given our hearts to Jesus so that Jesus is Lord: his agenda, his faith, his compassion is now ours.
Having received this sacrament, we are empowered to go out into the world as the body of Christ, actively engaged as instruments of God’s love to the world.