Text: John 3:1-17 (born from above)
“Who’ll walk me down to church when I’m sixty years of age / When the ragged dog they gave me has been ten years in the grave / And senorita play guitar, play it just for you / My rosary has broken and my beads have all slipped through.”
This verse from Elton John’s song Sixty Years On ran through my head last week as I celebrated my 60th birthday. John wrote it in 1970 when he was just 23 years old. This means that he arrived at age 60 ahead of me. He will turn 70 later this month.
Here is another verse from Sixty Years On: “You’ve hung up your great coat and you’ve laid down your gun / You know the war you fought in wasn’t too much fun / As for me, I’ve no wish to be living sixty years on.”
When I was a teenager in the 1970s, I might have agreed with these lyrics. But having now passed my 60th birthday, I feel happy to be living “sixty years on” even if this means I am considered a Senior in some circumstances.
But despite being a Senior, I have only been a minister for six years. And of the approximately 300 sermons I have written, today’s is only the second one that reflects on the third chapter of the Gospel of John. This chapter contains John 3:16, which is the most quoted verse from the entire Bible: “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.”
The first time I preached on this passage was on March 16, 2014. This was a significant day for me and the congregation. That evening, Edmonton Presbytery held a service here to celebrate a covenant between the Presbytery, me, and Mill Woods United Church as its called minister.
I liked both the morning service during which I reflected on John 3:16 and the evening service where Rev. Catherine McLean of St. Paul’s United Church preached. I was impressed that her sermon referred to mine from that morning. When Catherine and I had met in the week leading up the covenanting service, I told her that if she wanted to get a sense of me as a minister, she could check out my sermon blog; and it was clear that she had read my morning sermon as she prepared her remarks for the evening!
I called that 2014 sermon “Born again: into belief or faith?” It has been the most viewed sermon on my blog, probably because I linked to it several times in social media discussions about the thorny issue of what ministers are supposed to believe.
As I said three years ago, turning infidels into believers is not part of my ministry. Instead, I am drawn to churches that engage us in practices to help us live out our highest values, care for one another, and struggle for a world closer to the dream of heaven on earth.
A few weeks ago, I got an email from someone asking me why Christianity is true. My response is that I don’t judge great faith traditions like Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism as either true or false. Instead, I am thankful when they allow us to pursue virtues like honesty, humility, and kindness. At their best, any of these traditions can help us to love, which is humanity’s most sacred value.
For me, a key Christian practice is walking a path of death and resurrection. This explains why I appreciate Lent. Walking this path strips us of false certainties, including ancient traditions and beliefs. In the journey of Jesus’ friends to Jerusalem, their illusions in national glory and a violent god are laid bare. After the painful death of these illusions on Good Friday, they discover the rebirth of a more universal Love at Easter.
It is impossible to live without beliefs. And in the 21st Century, our faith leads many of us beyond ancient dogma. Following Jesus helps us to be grasped by a faith that allows us to be skeptical of ancient beliefs even as it facilitates our work of mutual care, spiritual practice, and justice-seeking.
In 2012, Diana Butler-Bass published a book called “Christianity After Religion.” In it, she said the church has traditionally focused on belief first, which is then supposed to change how we behave, and which finally might lead us to join the church — believing, behaving, and belonging in that order.
Bass reverses this. She urges seekers to first join a community of faith in which they can engage in practices of prayer, outreach, and justice. It is only after spending time on these practices that one’s beliefs might be transformed. In place of the old order of believing, behaving, and belonging, Bass recommends its opposite: belonging, behaving, and believing.
I like her suggestion, and it provides today’s sermon title. A first step is accepting Jesus’ call to start the journey. In walking with Jesus and joining him at Table, we discover again that we are beloved children of God. All of us have come from Love, and to Love we all return. On the path, we remember that we are healed at deep levels and freed from the fears of our egos. Then after engaging in spiritual practice, outreach, and justice-work, we might stumble upon new beliefs.
In the 21st Century, these new beliefs are often opposed to ancient ones such as the idea that God condemns everyone to hell except those who accept Jesus as their personal saviour; or those who belong to the Roman Catholic Church; or those who believe in the Shia or Sunni doctrines of Islam.
I am not opposed to religious traditions when they provide a set of practices that help us to grow in love. Happily, many evangelical, Catholic, Shia and Sunni communities offer such practices. Joining any of them could facilitate the death of old beliefs and the rebirth of the virtues we call Love.
However, I am disappointed in the number of religious leaders who still focus on turning infidels into believers. Some evangelical, Catholic, Shia and Sunni leaders still loudly proclaim the necessity of adopting their belief system to avoid the flames of hell even though in today’s intercultural society many of us have concluded these various systems are as much illusions as were the dreams of national glory and divine violence of Jesus’ first followers.
Last weekend in Vancouver, the news media reported on conflict between Christians who focus on belief and those who focus on belonging.
Rev. Franklin Graham, the son of legendary evangelist Billy Graham, spoke at the Festival of Hope in Rogers Arena in Vancouver. In February, Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson and a coalition of church leaders asked Graham not to come to the Festival because of his stance towards LGBTQ people and Muslims. The anti-Graham coalition included leaders of the Roman Catholic, United, Anglican, Lutheran, Mennonite, and Baptist churches. Their open letter criticized Graham for saying that Muslims should be banned from the United States because “Islam is an evil and wicked religion;” that LGBTQ persons are agents of Satan who should not be allowed to enter churches; and that the outcome of the 2016 U.S. presidential election reflected “the hand of God.”
Despite the protest, Graham came to Vancouver and preached on his understanding of biblical passages like John 3:16, John 14:6 in which Jesus says “no one comes to the Father except through me” and others that suggest belief in Jesus is the only way to avoid hell. Despite the protest, thousands of people flocked to Roger’s Arena to participate in Graham’s services of praise, music and worship.
I am glad that the Mayor and church leaders in Vancouver spoke out against Graham. His focus on belief and his attempts to get the state to enforce his hateful ideas about Muslims and LGBTQ people violate the values of hospitality and love.
Graham thinks that he is following the teachings about love found in John 3:16. But I think he has wandered from the path of death and resurrection. I hope that Graham will repent of his hatred of gays and Muslims and find his way back to a path on which false certainties die and Love is reborn.
As for Mill Woods United, I pray that by singing, praying, and serving together we will remember that God so loved the world that God gifted us with everything we need for a joyous life of service. It is a life that leads inevitably to the source of Love from which we have all come.
Sixty years on, this is a message that I am thrilled to be able to continue to preach.
Thanks be to God.