Text: John 3:1-17 (being born from above)
Have you been born-again? Have you accepted Jesus Christ into your heart as your personal saviour and been saved into eternal life?
These are questions not often heard in Mill Woods United. A few minutes ago, we asked Jacob’s parents if they trusted God as the source, incarnation and power of Love. But I hope they didn’t think this was to ward off eternal death.
Today’s Gospel reading highlights belief in Jesus. In the King James translation, the most famous verse from it, John 3:16, goes like this: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
In a Bible class in Toronto a few years ago, the professor asked us to read the United Church Creed from 1968 — the one we recited in this morning’s baptism. One of the student asked why it didn’t describe Jesus as God’s “only begotten Son.”
I imagine it is because “only begotten Son” is hard for many of us to understand, or to swallow. “Begat” and “begotten” are not words used outside church, and the phrase raises a thicket of thorny issues around the conception and status of Jesus.
There are a lot of other heady concepts in today’s reading, which could take a whole lifetime to unpack — being born-again, eternal life, belief in Jesus. It is one of the passages that leads Christians to call ourselves “believers.”
So what is our stance towards “belief” in 2014? What does the United Church believe? And what does it mean to be a believer? These are some of the issues we discuss in “The Big Question” group organized by Tim, which began last Wednesday.
For me, life is journey from fear to faith more than it is about a journey from doubt to belief. I view faith as trust more than as any particular set of beliefs.
I love the phrase “born-again” and its other translations, “born from above” and “born of Spirit.” We symbolized rebirth in the baptism of Jacob this morning. Nine months ago, Jacob was born. This morning he was born-again into the life, death and resurrection of Jesus as the Christ. Although this was only a symbol, we hope that Jacob will experience many pain- and joy-filled baptisms throughout his life. We pray that each one will be a moment of grace and enlightenment, part of his never-ending journey into the heart of the God who is Love.
In Lent, we take up our cross to follow Jesus to Jerusalem where we find death and rebirth. Like baptism, this is not a once-in-a-lifetime event. It happens over and over again, and it starts when we are children.
As infants and toddlers we idolize our parents. One of the first spiritual crises of life is realizing that our parents are as mortal and fallible as we are.
So as we grow up, we replace our parents with new idols — a group of friends, a political cause, a pop star or sports team. Perhaps we become “Beliebers,” those who idolize Justin Bieber. Perhaps we become religious enthusiasts who hold up signs emblazoned with “John 3:16” at football games. Perhaps we devote our energy to social justice causes.
I applaud these forms of devotion. Love of music and musicians, love of God and the good news of God’s healing, and love of fairness and equality are all close to my heart. The problem comes when we get stuck in them, as we always do unfortunately.
If our devotion is to things like alcohol or money, the problem is clear. But even the most worthy causes can become idols. This is why I treasure Lent. During Lent, we look inward, remind ourselves of how fragile life is, and confront the painful death of our idols.
We trust that the journey to the cross leads to rebirth. But a born-again life is never exactly the one we had before. And so life spirals upwards in a series of painful confrontations and joyous rebirths. These Lenten crises also prepare us for the ultimate crisis of death. We have faith that there is life after death, which surely will be nothing like the life of the ego we experience today.
And so I treasure Lent and baptism. I don’t believe in them as much as I trust them. I commit myself to the Grace revealed in them.
In the same way, I don’t believe anything in particular about Jesus — things like his conception by the Holy Spirit, his bodily resurrection, or his status as the only route to salvation. Instead, I trust that the stories about him show us a path of baptism, death, and rebirth that helps us through all the crises of life.
In 2009, one of my heroes, Karen Armstrong, published a book called “The Case for God.” Here is what she wrote about belief:
The word translated as ‘faith’ in the New Testament is the Greek pistis . . . which means ‘trust; loyalty; engagement; commitment’ [Wilfrid Cantwell Smith in Belief and History, 1977 and Faith and Belief, 1979] . . . Jesus was not asking people to ‘believe’ in his divinity . . . he was asking for commitment . . . But when the Bible was translated into English, credo and pisteuo became “I believe’ . . . the word ‘belief’ has since changed its meaning. In Middle English, bileven meant ‘to prize; to value, to hold dear’ It was related to the German belieben (‘to love’), liebe (‘beloved’), and to the Latin libido . . . During the late 17th century as our concept of knowledge became more theoretical, the word ‘belief’ started to be used to describe an intellectual assent to a hypothetical — and often dubious — proposition. [p. 87]
The church used to ask us to trust and love God in Christ. Today it often seems to ask us to believe the unbelievable, which reminds me of Mark Twain’s quip: “Faith is believing something you know ain’t true.”
Some people believe in astrology or lucky numbers. Most of my far-out beliefs are secular. For instance, I believe that the earth orbits the sun, an enormous sphere of hydrogen 150 million km away that is undergoing nuclear fusion. I take these facts on faith.
As for today’s Gospel reading, I neither believe nor disbelieve that Jesus is the only begotten Son of God. Instead, I focus on the healing found on the Way of the Cross. As pilgrims on the road with Jesus, we sometimes experience grace. In those moments, we enter eternal life right here and now. Without having to believe anything, we know in our hearts that all are saved.
I am confident that God doesn’t care what we believe. Instead, God’s grace helps us confront fear over and over again. With grace, we sometimes come to trust in Love despite the awesome mystery of life and death.
This morning, we have made a covenant with Jacob and his parents to walk from our fears and towards faith in community. Tonight, we make a covenant to walk from our fears and towards faith with me as your called minister.
As we journey deeper into Lent, we approach the specter of the cross. In its shadow, we see a sure bedrock of faith: that in death there is also rebirth; that in pain there is also healing; and that in the many hills or valleys of life there is the joy of walking deeper into the heart of love, which is God’s Amazing Grace.
Thanks be to God.