+ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Not being a sports fan and not having access to cable television I don’t know if this is still a thing or not, but one used to see people on tv in stadia holding up signs that read “John 3:16.” Is this still a thing? Well, I’ve joked before with some of you that I wish all those people who carry around those signs would change it up once in a while and write “Matthew 25” on some of them. Of course, they’re both important bits of scripture, but there’s a danger when one plucks a single verse out of context instead of understanding it in light of the whole body of scripture and how the church has interpreted it over the course of two millennia. You see, my worry is that the folks who carry around the John 3:16 signs assume that the verse means something like “in order to go to heaven, you have to give cognitive assent to the proposition that Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of God who died for our sins.” Now, of course I believe that proposition to be true with all my heart; you’d be rightly concerned if a priest of the church couldn’t agree to that without qualification.
The problem is that the Greek in John 3:16, “πιστεύων είς αὐτòν”, believing in him, can mean an awful lot more than just agreeing to propositions about Jesus. It’s my professional opinion that the belief envisioned by Jesus in John’s Gospel as well as the church fathers whose creed we recite every week to affirm what we believe, is more appropriately understood to trust and to act faithfully based on that trust. Simply saying “I believe that” in the same sense in which one believes 1 and 1 is 2 is just the first step.
I hasten to add (and this should not surprise those of you who’ve heard my sermons before) that this is not to say that we earn our way into heaven by being good. It is, however, to say that the fruit of the spirit, the natural outcome of having faith in Christ, are the sorts of expectations we see in Matthew 25–feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the prisoner, and so forth–which is why I joke about supplementing (not replacing) the John 3:16 signs with Matthew 25 signs. Actually, I am in the loop enough to have read about the “He Gets Us” advertisements at this years Super Bowl, and their message might be a good example of doing something like this. (I realize there was some controversy over those because of some of the ad campaign’s funders and their politics; I can’t say I agree with the politics of every person who may have funded it either, but people applying that kind of purity test when the message was clearly about Jesus loving us and healing our divisions probably need to get over themselves.) Anyway, the point here is that salutary faith is about more than merely assenting to propositions and nothing else.
Now, all that said, I’ve got some good news for you. You don’t have to worry. You’re not going to Hell because you’re not especially good at meeting the demands faith enjoins on us. None of us is particularly good at it. But, you’ve already been saved. Now this is dangerous information to give out, because people who are afraid of Hell can sometimes behave a lot better. Geneva, when John Calvin was more-or-less in charge was one of the most peaceful, prosperous, democratic places in the world, because everyone was so concerned with showing signs of their election through good behavior, among other things.
As much as it pains me to admit it, the Puritan history of our own country has had much the same effect on our own country. While our Anglican forebears on this continent were growing fat and lazy and treating humans like property in the Southern Colonies, those stick-in-the-mud Puritans up in New England were creating communities of mutual responsibility and laying the foundations for a country that could get on without a king, because they were (for all their faults) so darned law-abiding and committed to equality, at least by the standards of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. Unfortunately, a big part of it is that they were afraid that if they didn’t they’d go to hell quite literally.
The theological truth might at first seem socially dangerous, because people realize that they’re not going to burn because they’re bad. I’m not sure how I feel about that. Or maybe I do, but thank God I’m not God. I’m certainly not as loving and gracious and forgiving as God. In today’s Epistle, we get an extremely generous view of salvation. We are all children of Abraham, and God has reckoned us all worthy of Salvation because of the Blood of Christ. In his conversation with Nicodemus in this morning’s Gospel, before he gets to the bit sport fans keep quoting, the only litmus test Jesus gives is that we be “born from above.” (Notice by the bye “born from above” may be a more literal translation “γεννηθᾔ ἀνωθεν”, but Nicodemus clearly understands Jesus to mean “born again.”) He says we must be born again or from above of water and of the Spirit. Lots of modern Christians believe this means an affective shift within the soul (somewhere along a spectrum between the heart being strangely warmed and rolling in the aisles). We sacramentally-minded Christians tend to believe this means we must be born physically and then receive the New Birth of Baptism. Most of us (myself included) receive this regeneration when we’re too young to understand the nature of that Second Birth and are merely passive recipients of God’s Grace.
So the good news is that we don’t have to worry. We’ve been saved. God’s promise is irrevocable. We’re promised that God will bring all things to their perfection, and that includes our oft-vexed efforts to believe in the fullest sense, such that we continually pray, without contradiction, “Lord, I believe. Help thou mine unbelief.”
That’s the Good News. The difficult news, though, is that we’re not off the hook.
Okay, you’re not going to hell. So what? For about the last half millennium (since the dawn of the Reformation) we’ve been obsessed with one element of salvation- the question of justification. Who’s saved? Who’s not? How does it happen? What if I’m not saved? Who cares?
I don’t mean to be flippant, but it is to me less interesting than how we respond to the nascent form of salvation we’re already experiencing in hope of the Resurrection. God has saved us through the blood of His only Son. We didn’t deserve it. We’ll never earn it. We got it anyway. The precise mechanics of how it works are interesting for theologians, and I love being a part of those discussions as an academic exercise, and it’s certainly going to come up during our bible study of Romans beginning today, but the God’s honest truth is that you don’t have to listen to my expositions on Greek grammer to be saved.
The interesting stuff is what comes afterward. God loves you. You are washed in the soul cleansing blood of the lamb. You have been born anew, born from above, born again whether you knew it or not. You have a mission. Faith without works is dead, says St. James. That doesn’t mean your lackluster efforts in this regard will send you straight to Hell. So what? That’s where every single one of us is, even if you’re among those who’s going to get canonized after you die and at that point you’ll be having such a good time you won’t notice.
In any event, the reality of being saved and not doing anything about it seems worse to me. It means you’ve been given something and haven’t done anything with it. And it’s so simple to take that gift and use it. You’ve just got to love your neighbor. As I’ve said before, that means a lot more than having warm feelings for them. You don’t even need a strangely warmed heart. There are some people I’ve dealt with in life and ministry who don’t get my cockles much above tepid. But I love them. Or at least I try to do. And that’s what we’ve all got to do. To be loving. To return the gift of Grace which we’ve been given. That, my friends, is what it means to believe in something greater than ourselves, to believe in Christ and be saved, and there’s no life filled with more joy and peace than a life lived in the light of that reality.
+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.