Monday, February 18, 2008

The Following or the Faith?

John 3: 1-17

You’ve probably all heard this text before, somewhere. It is the story that contains one of the most famous scriptures used during field goals in football and free throws in basketball. No, not as a prayer by the kicker, or by the shooter, but enterprising young Christians who have deduced that during those moments of the televised game, when the camera is more stationary than usual, and pointed at the end of the field or court, they can hold up a sign that says “John 3:16”. For god so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, Jesus Christ, so that all who believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life”. One of the true bedrock statements of the faith, to be sure, but there is a lot more going on, here.

Let’s retell the story: Jesus is in Jerusalem, and it is near to Passover. There’s a lot of ferment in the air, it is a tumultuous time, and one of the religious leaders comes to see him. Now this guy, Nicodemus by name, is inclined to believe in Jesus and his teachings, and he says that there are others. They have a conversation about the relationship of God and a new Spirit brought from God, and Jesus says that one must be born from above. Born of the spirit, he says. Nicodemus fixates on the born bit, and ignores the rest. How can one be born a second time, he thinks?

Jesus seems to be saying here that the only way to understand being born of the Spirit is to be born of the spirit. You can’t explain what it feels like, you can’t explain how your mind alters.

This week was Valentines’ day, and it seems to me that love and romance is a similar concept to what I mean. You can’t explain it unless you have experienced it, and if you have done it more than once, then you also know that it is different each time.

To know, we have to do first. It’s not the way we want it; we want to think about it, like buying a car—do the research on it’s safety rating, it’s fuel mileage, ask other owners what they think of it, test drive it,, arrange for the financing, before you actually buy the car. You can’t do that with love, romance, and commitment; there’s a large amount of uncertainty when you fall in love. “Who is this person?” “Who will this person become in 30 years?”

We’ve taken a lot of uncertainty about it, of course—there are still cultures in the world who won’t even let you meet the person you will marry until the day of the wedding. Now that is uncertainty! Here, though there is still a large amount. We may know their families, we may know their financial security, but there is still a certain amount of uncertainty.

I like to think of it in the way my vows were worded when my wife and I got married; “loving what I know, and trusting what I don’t yet know.” All marriages and long term covenantal relationships have this idea at their root.

It is no different for the Christian relationship with God. It is no accident that Jesus says more than once in the Bible “come and see.” There’s just some things you can’t explain. All you can know is that there are a lot of people out there who have had their lives changed by their relationship with God, and that there must be something to it.

But there is this chicken and egg-ness of it. For it to work, for faith to become part of our lives, we have to believe in some things we can’t see. We have to commit without all of our questions answered. We are attracted to what it claims, we can see what it has done for others, but we can’t kick the tires; we can’t surf the web for information; we can’t solve the mystery before we start the book.

Which comes first? The faith or the following? In our world, we want to know where the end is. What does this get me?

You don’t get to know. Faith in God will bring you joy, but not in ways you can predict. Faith in Jesus Christ will bring you comfort, but not necessarily the way you want. The faith of our fathers and mothers will bring you a deep and rich life, but not the way you picture it in your mind.

So, the following has to come first, and the faith will come. John Wesley, the founder of our denomination, is quoted as saying that we must preach Christ until we have Christ. I’ve also heard it said that to become the person you want to be, you have to act like the person you want to be. We don’t get romantic love until we commit to it. Nicodemus won’t “get” being born from above until he follows Christ.

And that’s the way it needs to work. The guys in the end zones of football games may or may not believe in Christ, but I hope they understand that saying “For God so Loved the World . . . “ is a hard thing to swallow for a world that isn’t oriented to trusting what they can’t see. The wind blows, Jesus says, and we do not know where it came from or where it goes. It takes a leap to try to trust in the wind without reaching for the weather report, the wind direction map and the isobars graph, but that is where Nicodemus must go.

That is where we must go, too. And if it is a true journey of faith in Christ, we must do it again and again, every day. We must step out in faith together as a community, we must step out in faith as individuals. Where are we being called? Where does God want us to serve the world?

What we do know is that we are not called to stay still. We are not called to preserve a way of life by putting it under glass, or to be afraid of the world. We are not called to hide in our homes and defend our faith by withdrawing from the world. As Christians, we are called to go out into the world and to serve it in its pain, knowing that because God so loved the world, and because we are His people, we must engage the world.

Which comes first? The faith or the following? Just as Nicodemus comes to a place where he ends up claiming Jesus’ body after his crucifixion, making a public statement of a sort, so to we must make our faith public somehow.

Follow Jesus, and the faith will come.

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