Kerry R Mansir
March 11, 2018
Christ Church, Gardiner
Believe. It’s an important word in our Gospel reading today. In fact, the word believe appears in this Gospel selection 5 times in just 7 sentences.
And there is power in words. Language shapes who we are. It helps us to understand where we have been and where we are going. But we also have to use them carefully…those words that we choose to make meaning of our lives.
We need to know what we mean by them and how they are being heard by others.
For example these words we heard this morning: “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.”
There is not a more famous line of scripture in all of the New Testament.
Some would say that this is not just the most famous, but the most important line in our scriptures. They would say it’s the key to eternal life. The key to our very salvation.
And yet…these are words we must handle carefully. We must be thoughtful about them. As people of faith who believe in a God of love…a love that we declare extends to the whole world…we have to confess that these words can be used in dangerous ways.
When I hear that everyone who believes in Jesus may not perish but have eternal life, I have to stop and consider what I mean by that. Do I mean that my Jewish sister and brother in law and their beautiful children are outside God’s promise to save the world? What about my Syrian friend who is Muslim? They certainly don’t believe in Jesus in the way that I do. And yet, when I proclaim that God so loved the world, I believe they are included in that love.
So I want to talk for a few minutes this morning about what we mean by our word, “believe.” We say it every Sunday, when we say together the Nicene Creed. “We believe…” We believe in one God. We believe in one Lord Jesus. We believe in the holy Spirit.
When I was in my early 20’s, I had a crisis of faith. Not unusual at that age to be questioning things But my crisis wasn’t really about my relationship with God. I felt pretty good about that. My crisis was with the church. With religion. Maybe some of you can sympathize with that. And my problem with so many of the churches that I had been a part of was what I saw as a John 3:16 way of seeing the world and being Christian.
Let me be clear…I’m not saying it’s the fault of the writer of John, I’m not sure how John intended us to interpret this statement that he attributes to Jesus. But what has happened is that the words of John 3:16 have become for many Christians the litmus test for salvation. For a relationship with God. And if believing in Jesus means that we have the promise of eternal life, what are we to conclude it means if one doesn’t believe?
So during this crisis of faith, I was searching for, longing for a way of being Christian that didn’t exclude other faiths from the love and promise of God.
And my salvation from that crisis was discovering modern Christian writers who had experienced the same conflict I had. Writers like Harvey Cox, Brian Maclaren, Diana Butler Bass, and Marcus Borg. People who were writing from within the church about a different way of being Christian.
Something I read from Marcus Borg that sticks out for me is this, “Christianity is not about “right beliefs.” It is about a change of heart. It is about the transformation of ourselves at that deep level that shapes our vision, our commitment, and our values.”
Borg helped me to understand what we mean or don’t mean when we use the word believe. He pointed out that this idea that believing a set of doctrines is the defining characteristic of being a Christian is a relatively new phenomenon in the history of our faith, beginning around the time of the Reformation. When the Protestant Church split from Catholicism, there was a need to define what we believed that distinguished us from the Catholics. And then as Protestantism split into many different denominations, there was an ongoing need to identify by different sets of beliefs. For example, whether we should baptize children or adults.
This desire to define what it meant to be Christian was reinforced by the Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution. A modern, scientific way of knowing things challenged many Christian conventional ideas like the creation of the world in seven days and the resurrection of Jesus just to name a couple. The response of most of Western Christianity was to dig in deeper. To assert belief in spite of scientific evidence. And so…biblical literalism was born.
But Borg and others don’t conclude from this history that it’s okay to just NOT believe in anything. What they have done is to help Christians think more broadly about what it means to believe.
The claim by many of these scholars is that while the language of believing has been around since early Christianity, like in our verses from the Gospel of John today, it wasn’t being used then to mean correct theological beliefs. The meaning of believing for these Gospel writers was closer in definition to the word “beloving.” Followers of Jesus were being called to “belove” Jesus and God, to commit themselves to a relationship of faithfulness.
Our creeds begin with the Latin word, “credo” which has been translated into English for us as “I believe.” But the Latin roots of the word are better translated as “I give my heart to…”. So when we say our creeds, we are giving our hearts to the stories of our faith found in those creeds… That there is one God. That God created the earth. That God sent a Son to take on our human flesh and to show us God’s power over death through the resurrection and ascension and the promise to come again ushering in a kingdom of justice and love. That God comes to us in the Holy Spirit and continues to speak to us.
I am happy to believe, to give my heart to all of these things.
So back to our Gospel for today and the John 3:16 verse that has so much to say about belief and is so often singled out as the epitome of Christian faith. We often forget, that this verse and passage is part of a bigger narrative. It’s part of the story of Nicodemus. Nicodemus came to ask questions of Jesus in the night, under the cover of darkness, probably because he was a Pharisee and the Pharisees weren’t exactly friends of Jesus in John’s Gospel.
But Nicodemus was drawn to Jesus and his message and he wanted to learn more. And Jesus speaks to him with his poetic language about being born again, being born of water and the spirit. He speaks of being raised up to save the people as Moses raised up the serpent to save the Israelites in the wilderness. He speaks of believing that God loved the world so much that he sent his Son, Jesus, to save it.
And Nicodemus doesn’t go away after this story in John. He appears again to argue against the chief priest and Pharisees who want to arrest Jesus. And he appears at the end of John’s gospel to help Joseph of Arimathea take the body of Jesus down from the cross and prepare it for burial. Nicodemus was putting himself in danger to do these things. And I don’t think he risked his life for a belief system.
Nicodemus was willing to sacrifice his life because he discovered that being in relationship with Jesus profoundly changed him. Beloving Jesus and giving his heart to the promise that Jesus brought for our broken and sinful world was worth more than his own life.
For Christians, it is in Jesus that we meet God and give our hearts to the promise that we are loved, our world is loved, and that God will not forget us. Other faiths meet God in other ways. And that’s okay.
When we aren’t so caught up in our orthodoxy, our right beliefs, it frees us to focus on sharing the love of God as widely as possible. When we hear the stories of Jesus, we hear about him pulling down barriers, not erecting walls of separation.
And when people walk through the doors of a church, a house of God, our question for them is not what they believe, but do they know that they are beloved. Because those are the words that transform our lives. Amen.