Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year B
14 March 2021
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
After high school and before university I spent a year with a Lutheran monastic community that ran a retreat centre. It was a year in which I had hoped to grow deeper in my faith, mostly through being part of that community, and somewhat perhaps through working and serving in the retreat centre.
I had visited the community before. One of the brothers (they all had committed to the monastic vows of poverty, celibacy, and obedience) had been an interior decorator before he had earned his PhD in theology. Everything was beautiful and transmitted a sense of the presence of God, to which the well placed icons contributed.
The place itself was beautiful. A monastery and cathedral church commissioned by Henry the Lion in the 12th century, built on an island in a sizable lake. Over the centuries a causeway was built, so that church and monastery were now situated on a peninsula, still surrounded by water and a medieval town centre.
If you had been there for retreats you would have thought this place was going to get you as close to God as you might be able to while living on this earth. The place emanated holiness, or so it seemed.
However, life there was not that holy. Everyone, me included, brought their own issues. Mostly they were issues of vocation. But also of pride and anger. Difficulty living in peace with the parish that worshipped in the Cathedral church. And the parish had difficulty living with the brothers, “Didn’t we get rid of that during the Reformation?”
And so it turned out that I had been naive to assume that living there would be as perfect and idyllic as being on a retreat.
We may all have had illusions of this kind. Assuming that the marriage will always carry the same enchantment as courtship, that a job will always seem fulfilling, that the church is a place free from conflict, that our children will always admire us, and whatever else may come to mind.
We may put this off as wishful thinking but the problem is that it’s fundamentally unrealistic about life. Life is messy, people are messy, relationships are messy. We are complicated beings and the only way to live lives faithful to our calling as followers of Jesus is to take all these things seriously. I am not only my piety and wisdom, but also my pride, neediness, and anger. We are not only spirit but also body, and our bodies have bearing on our spirit.
I am thinking of this as I read our passage from John three, part of the conversation between Nicodemus the pharisee and Jesus. John 3:16 was one of the verses we memorized in confirmation class or Sunday School, or both. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that all who believe in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
It is a beautiful verse.
It is also a verse that has accumulated some baggage. The very first time I met one of my wife’s parents’ neighbours, he said not, “How do you do?” or “Pleased to meet you,” but “Have you been born again?” (which references the preceding verses)
Believing in Jesus here becomes a thing I must do to be saved, to be born again, to have eternal life. Here believing becomes a work I must perform. And on the performance of it hangs my eternal salvation, which is why some Christians ask so insistently whether one believes in Jesus, whether one is born again. Yet believing, as the neighbour’s question illustrates, is principally for me so that I can have eternal life, which usually means as much as to go to heaven.
And yet while Jesus promises eternal life, Jesus promises it not only for the future but for today. This means that Jesus not only promises for life to never end, but for our life to be filled with Jesus’ own presence, for Jesus is not only the way and the truth but the life. (John 14:6) And the life with Jesus is different from the life without Jesus.
And so, understanding our faith primarily as the ticket to heaven – as much as I long to spend eternity in God’s presence, forgets that life is messy and that faith is not only giving ascent to certain propositions or saying a particular prayer (giving my life to Jesus), but living with God’s people in the world where we have to navigate real life, real people, and real issues. And it’s not only about my salvation, my abundant life but yours, too, which is where the rubber hits the road, where my giving my life to Jesus becomes evident.
The main reason I have shied away from offering Holy Communion virtually is that the community Jesus founded is a real community of real people. People who were excited about Jesus, people who were afraid, who betrayed and abandoned him, and who jockeyed for positions in the Kingdom of God. Giving himself to them was not just a pastoral act that was to bring them comfort, as much as they may have needed comfort (though arguably, Jesus needed it more) but it was a transformative act. Jesus gave himself to them for them not only to receive his body but to be his body in the world, learning to work their way through their struggles with themselves, each other, and the world, knowing all along that they were forgiven and that Jesus was with them as they were now his body.
In 1935 (the Nazis had come to power in 1933) the German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “He who does not cry out for the Jew, may not sing Gregorian chants.”1 The point being that faith did not consist only of ritual and teachings but must become embodied in us.
The Baptist pastor Kyle Childress writes that in much of American Christianity many of us have sung “Just as I Am” and never cried out for those who are in poverty, or for the Earth. He says, we never even notice our racism, we go right along with bigotry, hatred and violence, and we have no place to stand against ruthless corporations, or the war-mongering state. Childress goes on to say that Clarence Jordan, who was instrumental in the founding of Habitat for Humanity, “remembers from his boyhood a man in his Baptist church in Georgia who sang in the choir on Sunday and was a jailer who beat black inmates on Monday and never once saw any incongruity. The man was born again, had eternal life, had Jesus in his heart and likely could quote John 3:16 from memory.”2
God loved the world. God so loved the world. God still loves the world.
The next thing Jesus does in the Gospel of John is to leave Galilee and go to Samaria, where he meets the woman at the well. Jesus not only says that God loves the world but he is the embodiment of that love, he came into the world and he goes into the world, into places others wouldn’t go.
May we who are God’s beloved love as God loves and go where Jesus goes.
1 see E. Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer und die Juden, page 195, referenced in Heinrich Grosse, Niemand kann zwei Herren dienen – Zur Geschichte der Evangelischen Kirche im Nationalsozialismus und in der Nachkriegszeit, Hannover 2010: 2010 Blumhardt Verlag, page 27