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Action in Trust
Text: John 3:1-17
Let’s say you want to get to San Francisco. And let’s say you were starting here in Cambridge. Here are some ways you could do that. You could wander around aimlessly, hoping that in time you’d stumble into San Francisco. Probably not going to happen. Or better, you could realize that San Francisco is almost due west of Cambridge, and that if you had a compass you could walk in a straight line from one city to the other. Except you would have to bushwhack, ford streams, cross rugged mountains, and generally have a rough time of it. Or better yet, you could walk on a path already laid out, a path marked on a map and labeled with a sign that said “the way to San Francisco,” a road that without too much bother and in time would get you to where you hoped to go.
Life in the real world is colored with suffering. It is human to be a little lost. To be unsure of what we are doing and whether it is worthwhile. And whether it is good. Sometimes we are desperate and at wits’ end. Sometimes sad or just confused. Sometimes angry at injustices done to us, to others, to strangers. Sometimes we wonder what will happen to the world. Things are out of kilter.
We desire to be somewhere that feels like home, homey, at peace with ourselves and others. We long to be surrounded by beauty and the company of friends and the intimacy of a person to love.
How shall we get from where we are to where we want to be? We can wander around aimlessly, trying one thing or another. Or, we can sort of head in the direction we want to go, blazing our own trail. Or we can follow a way already laid down and labeled. Jesus says he is the Way. He has a big sign saying “this way to peace.” Peace of mind, peace in the world. This way to an abundant life. Those who read that big sign of Jesus, have varying responses. Some say, some of you say, “you bet, I’m already in San Francisco.” Some say “I’m on the path.” Some wonder whether there are other ways, too. And others wonder whether the journey on which Jesus leads us takes us somewhere else, not in this life at all.
This passage we just heard in John is rightly famous. And for some it is the essence of Christianity. Born again Christians (that’s from verse 3) carry signs quoting John 3:16. In this passage, Jesus first talks about a transformed life and then how to get it.
First, Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be born from above. The word he uses for “above” also means “again.” Nicodemus is confused by the two meanings, and he and Jesus talk past each other, but no matter how you hear what Jesus says, it is clear that you cannot go on living life the way you were before. If you want to have a different kind of life, you can’t go on living the old kind of way. If you want, on a larger sense, a different kind of world, you can’t conduct business as usual.
This is not a moral or even a spiritual judgment. It is not saying you have to come to some crucial decision in your life, or to make some impassioned declaration, or anything. It is saying that if you follow Jesus you had better expect something new to happen. There will be surprises. Who knows where the wind blows? cautions Jesus. Walking the way of Jesus will change your life. That’s what we are hoping for, right? To get from where you are now to where you hope to be. Where you hope to be will, you hope, be different from where you start out. Another way to hear what Jesus say: be prepared for a change. Following Jesus will disrupt things.
Then, Jesus promises, according to the Bible verses we just heard, that whoever believes in him will have eternal life. We’ve talked a lot in the past about what John means by eternal life. To summarize: for John, eternal life is not something you have to die for. Eternal life is abundant life, starting here and now but not diminished by death. Eternal life is the San Francisco in our metaphor. What we hope for.
Lutherans make much of the difference between grace and works. Grace is God’s free gift. Works are things people tell us we must do to earn the gift. Grace: free. Works: earn. So is what Jesus says about belief a grace-statement or a works-statement? Is it something we have to do before God loves and forgives us and gives us abundant life? Whenever we have a Bible study here at Faith someone always says: but isn’t believing a work? It’s a good question.
I usually answer that it is better to translate the word Jesus uses for “belief” as “trust.” It is the same word in Greek, the language of the Gospels. And I say that God makes us an offer, which if we trust God, we accept. Sort of like someone promises to pick you up at the mall, but you don’t trust that person and you walk home anyway. The gift is offered, but you never get its value because you don’t trust the giver. Jesus says, this is the path to San Francisco, but you don’t believe him and you end up in Houston instead. Whose fault is that? If the answer is that is is your fault, then trust is a work, too. By grace you get to the destination even when you wander about aimlessly and refuse to stay on track. That’s what grace means. You get what you don’t deserve.
Part of the problem here is that the words “belief” and “trust” sound like things we can do sitting on our couches. Some little thought-thing, a minor change of mind. What does the Gospel passage mean when it says “believe in” Jesus? When we use the phrase in normal discourse it implies affectionate admiration. Something we might say to a friend. You can do it, Sally, I believe in you. Is that what Jesus means? Or, are we to believe something about Jesus (like, he is God’s son, which is an article of our creed), or are we to believe something Jesus says?
Or does Jesus expect, as I think he does, that we take him to be our leader. That we are followers of him. That the path which he lays down is the path we walk. Very rarely in the Gospels does Jesus tell us what to believe, meaning what to think. Very often he tells us what to do. Jesus has written, by his words and example, a user’s manual for, or a tour guide to, the abundant life. In it he has told us what to do if we want to get to the destination we hope for. If we trust his leadership, then we are disciples, his followers. He leads the way to abundant life. In this sense, belief is action taken in a realm of trust.
Jesus says: if you want to follow me on this path to abundant life, then you actually have to follow me. Perhaps this, too, is a work in the Lutheran sense, but if so it is a subtle one. It is like saying, if you want to go to the store, you actually have to go to the store.
The picture of the ministry of Jesus in John is a picture of change in the world and in people. It is not a picture of new doctrine. It is rarely about convictions. It is often about transformation. Water into wine. Sickness into health. Death into life. Suffering into abundance.
That is usually how it works: transformation first, conviction later. That is how it worked for Martin Luther; though he wrote pages and pages of learned opinion, it all started with a transforming experience he had. Our understanding of things—our doctrine—comes after the stories in our lives. The stories don’t illustrate the doctrine. The doctrine—such as the doctrine of the Trinity we celebrate today—is a way to make sense of the stories. What we think comes from what we do.
We seek in our search for God a way to stand in the world. For some organizing center to what interests us, how we behave toward others, who we hang with, how we deal with adversity, how grateful we are. Having Jesus in our lives gives us a chance to get from here to there. It means being able to do things, to be someone, that you could not (or would not) before. To have a new life.