Friday, March 17, 2017

March 19, Lent 3: Belief Is Drinking

Exodus 17:1-7, Psalm 95, Romans 5:1-11, John 4:5-42

“Woman, believe me,” says the Lord Jesus. Believe him as he turns the conversation to make a complex theological pronouncement about the hour having come, and true worship, and where salvation comes from, and do the Jews know better than the Samaritans, and about God being a spirit, and about spirit and truth. Got all that? If she believes all that, what does that do for her?

This pronouncement of Jesus alters the tone of their conversation, this most wonderful and subtle conversation between two characters in all the New Testament so far. Two single people, at a well, at noon-time—a time of day when no other women will be there. Not just any well—Jacob’s well, and Jacob was the patriarch who fell in love with a woman who showed up at a well. Moses met his wife at a well. In the Torah a well is a setting for romance. And here this stranger is asking this woman if she will have a drink with him. And then it’s not long before he makes a comment about her sex life. The potential for flirtation is noticed by the disciples when they show up, we are told, but they keep their mouths shut until she walks off.

The potential is there but Our Lord does not go there. And yet the conversation is direct and even intimate. After the opening exchange about water, which, as typical in St. John’s Gospel, plays on an initial misunderstanding of what the Lord Jesus says, the woman catches up to him, and she says emphatically, “Yes, give me this living water.” She’s getting it that the living water is prophetic.

That’s when the Lord Jesus tells her to fetch her husband, and she says she doesn’t have one and he says, you’ve had five and the one you’re with now is not. “Well, I can see you’re a prophet, let’s change the subject!” The woman is canny, and she deflects the attention from her love-life.

Which actually may have included lots of suffering. In that society, her husbands had the power of marriage and divorce. Five men had taken her and then divorced her. Now one man has offered her some minimal security. Or was it less brutal than that? She appears to be smart and engaging. Had she maybe had some discretion in her life, but looked for love in the wrong places? It’s hard to know how three-dimensional a picture we should try to make of her, without being anachronistic.

In any case she deflects the attention from her love-life with her question on theology, about the bitter doctrinal dispute between the Samaritans and the Jews. Under the surface of doctrine were issues of ethnic enmity, economic distress, and political hatred. Despite the nice conversation, Our Lord is still the enemy. But that’s just when he says, “Woman, believe me.” Believe that I have come to this dispute to be the solution that moves beyond the points of the dispute. “The hour is coming.”

She gets where he’s going. She recognizes the prophecies. She knows her stuff. She says, “I know the Messiah is coming.” But that’s strange for her to say. By rights she should have no interest in the Messiah, who being from the House of David would bring political victory to Jerusalem and be an enemy to the Samaritans. This woman doesn’t fit. She’s an outsider to her own people. But she says it, “When the Messiah comes, he will tell us everything,” and Jesus answers, “I am. I’m him talking to you.” “I am”—what the Lord God said to Moses from the burning bush. “I am.” It’s the climax of the story. There’s nothing further she needs to believe. It all comes down to him. Belief in him.

The spell breaks when the disciples arrive, and she departs for home. What does she mean when she tells her villagers to come see a man who told her everything she ever did? In that short conversation? What had he said that read her whole life as an open book, that she felt known by him, and also comprehensible to her own self? Could this be what the Messiah is like, and not our enemy but for us too, not the political savior of Jerusalem, but the savior of the world? And is this the result of belief in him, that in him you both recognize your God and you recognize yourself?

The appeal of this story is the close engagement of these two characters. He initiates, and she keeps responding, except for that one time when she initiates to change the subject. The appeal is how this is a picture of Christian belief, and how much of belief is a response to God’s initiative.

We have this cultural idea that belief is a free choice that humans make or not, upon their own initiative. But the story confirms our experience, that your belief is mostly your responding to the mysterious initiative of God that you just can’t shake, and at the same time you’re often just trying to hang on, your belief is just trying to stay in and keep making sense. Only occasionally can I say, “I know the Messiah is coming!” and feel a small triumph of confidence. Belief is like nursing. I mean, you the believer are the little baby and God is your mother and your belief is your attaching to her breast.

Drinking is the story’s metaphor. The woman’s believing is her drinking, and what Jesus is doing is pouring into her his life, he pours his Spirit into her.

Let me import the language of the Epistle to the Romans. I’ll repeat it for you because I love it so much: “Meanwhile, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” I am saying that the Lord Jesus is pouring God’s love into her heart and she is drinking it by her belief. I am saying that belief is a two-directional engagement: you invest your belief in God, and God invests God’s own Spirit in you, right through the medium of your belief.

You need God to do this back to you, because of your suffering. The problem with suffering is what you see in our first lesson, from Exodus 17, with the Children of Israel thirsty in the desert.

Their suffering produced complaining, and complaining produced quarreling, and quarreling led to resistance, and they threatened their leaders. Years of slavery had trained them to expect the worst and resist authority. They were a people traumatized, and their exodus was traumatic too. They did not know how to live in the desert and they feared abandonment. “Is the Lord among us or not?” Their hopes were disappointed. They represent our natural condition. Every day we face this nature in us, and we quarrel and complain about our disappointed lives and we test the love of God.

What our lessons suggest to us today is that the opposite of belief is not unbelief, at least not for religious people. The opposite of belief is complaining and quarreling. And that’s what pushes love away. You believe in love, but testing pushes love away. Like you’re angry with someone you love, or even just disappointed—you test them, then you push them away, and then you give up trying, like the woman at the well. Gradually, slowly, you dry up, you get dry and hard, and you harden your hearts. You can confess it. It’s Lent.

Harden not your hearts. Soften your hearts. Just as Moses gets water from the rock, so the Lord Jesus pours his love into the heart of the woman at the well, and that softens her and gets her spirit flowing. She suffered her sequence of husbands, apparently, with endurance, and her endurance produced her character, yet hope still disappointed her, so now the Lord Jesus pours his love into her and gives her hope. You can see the fruit of her hope in her mission to her village, she is the very first evangelist in the Gospel of John. She overflows. And the story ends with everybody believing—it is a full harvest of belief and an overflowing fountain of life in his name.

Right now in our congregation we are interested in action. I get that. Political action, social action, which needs to happen among us; also action for the congregation, in the renovation of our sanctuary, and soon getting ready for our homeless shelter. Also we’re going to need two or three new teachers for Sunday School next year. All good works, and faith without works is dead. If you believe something, what good is your belief if you don’t act on it.

But today our lessons call you back from action to belief itself. It is, after all, the season of Lent. Come back to drink. Don’t take your belief for granted. Don’t stop drinking. You need to get filled up again, in order to keep your suffering turning the right way round towards hope.

The marvelous story calls for your belief. That’s all it requires but it does call for that. Not your strong belief but your thirsty belief—if only that there’s nothing else to believe in. I invite you to believe the promise that God’s love has been poured into your hearts by the Holy Spirit.

Copyright © 2017, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Thursday, March 09, 2017

March 12, Lent 2, Belief Is Rebirth

Genesis 12:1-4a, Psalm 121, Romans 4:1-5, 13-17, John 3:1-17

This example I have used before: You know the game of Quidditch from Harry Potter. The young wizards ride their brooms and score points by tossing the Quaffle through the scoring ring, while trying not to get hit by the black spheres called the Bludgers. On each team one player is the Seeker, who only chases the Golden Snitch, and it’s the Golden Snitch that wins the game, no matter how many Quaffle points your team tallies up. It’s all or nothing with the Golden Snitch.

Quidditch nicely illustrates the conventional Christian logic of belief. Most of the players are like Roman Catholics, who gradually score points by the Quaffles of sacramental observance and good works, avoiding as best they can mortal sins–the Bludgers. Evangelicals are Seekers who ignore all that tedious teamwork and scoring, to go off on their own and just believe in Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior, and snatch the Golden Snitch of salvation. Just believe in Jesus and you win it all.

Or, don’t believe in Jesus and you lose it all. No matter how otherwise good or bad you are, God will not forgive your not believing, and you go to hell. Belief in Jesus is like an airline ticket, or a visa stamped on your passport, or a password for a webpage. If you believe, you’re admitted to eternal life. If you don’t believe, you lose, you perish. Doesn’t the gospel lesson say it: “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whoso believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.”

What is this thing called “belief”? Belief is more important to Christianity than to any other faith. So today I begin an eight part series of sermons on Belief. I will ask the lessons every week to tell us about belief. I hope to develop a richer picture of belief than the conventional one, more like a journey than a game. More like The Hobbit than Harry Potter, ha!

Every human being is a believer. In something. Even atheists. Science depends on the belief in the general lawfulness of the universe. You can’t function as a human being without believing in many things, and belief is one of the things that distinguishes us among the animals.

I suspect it’s because we are the animals that speak. For speaking to work, the words we exchange with each other have to be trustworthy. We are the animals who say, “I give you my word,” and, “Believe you me.” Our use of language requires our exercise of belief simply as an anthropological necessity. Other species show evidences of love, but we are the species that can make promises, so we are the animals who believe.

That to be human is to believe is taught by the Bible right from the start, in the story of the Garden of Eden that we read last week. When God planted that special tree in the middle of the Garden, and told the man and the woman not to eat from it, that required their believing God, and so the tree was a gift to make them human beings. A normal animal would see the lovely fruit and just eat it. Animals live in unity with their appetites. But God gave Adam and Eve the gift of freedom from appetite, that they could keep choosing not to eat that fruit, and their continual choosing not to eat the fruit is what made them and kept them human beings. When they stopped believing that what God told them was the best, and ate the fruit, they fell from being fully human beings.

They began to die. Their dying was less a punishment than the natural result of their failure to keep believing, of losing their full humanity. When we don’t believe, we perish. The word “perish,” as used by Jesus with Nicodemus, you may take at face value—not as code for going to hell, which, as an immortality of terror, is the opposite of perishing. Jesus does not teach that not believing gets you immortality in hell, but that you fall out of the surpassingly abundant life of God.

Belief is access to life, abundant life, eternal life, to the surpassingly human life from the Holy Spirit that God intends for us. Not just for when we die, but for now. Belief is more like learning Chinese than getting a visa. It’s more like learning to skate than knowing a password. It’s rich and present and practical, and so for the next few weeks we’re going to consider what belief is like.

Have you have noticed in our weekly liturgy the two different ways that I introduce the Apostles Creed? Sometimes I ask you, “What do you believe?” and sometimes I ask you, “In whom do you believe?” The answer is the same, you cannot separate them. Belief that and belief in. In other words, what God has done is what gives God personal credibility, and you credit God for what God has done. “Credit” comes from credo, the Latin for “I believe.”

When St. Paul writes in our epistle that Abram believed God, it’s more the “what” than the “in whom.” I mean, Abram barely knew who this God was. This was the first time this God had ever talked to the man, and we have no evidence of any prior relationship. Yet the Bible treats it so matter of fact, as if believing what this God promises you is the most natural thing in the world. Which it is supposed to be.

That’s the point, that’s the core: God calls and God promises. What you do is you believe the call and you believe the promises. You answer the call, you desire the promises, and, like Abram, you act on your desire, you step out on the promises. That’s belief.

Then St. Paul says this surprising thing, that belief in the promises is how you “inherit the world.” Not inherit heaven, but the world. Belief is not a ticket out of the world but your rebirth to your original calling of being God’s agent and steward in the world, because God “so loved the world.” So believing in God’s promises is not to make you religious, it’s to make you more than a sophisticated primate. Believing the promises is not just to make you a Christian, it’s to make you a human being!

It’s not only the promises, it’s the promiser. The promises take you to the one who promises. The remarkable claim that the Lord Jesus makes before Nicodemus is that he is both the promise and the promiser. It’s shocking to Nicodemus, but to help him the Lord Jesus appeals to Moses: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever who believes in him may have eternal life.” There’s the “what,” the promise, and there’s the “whom,” the promiser within the promise, the Son of Man.

So here is a take home: If somebody asks you what you as a Christian believe, you could stand and recite the Apostles Creed, but I think a shorter answer is more useful: “I believe in the promises of God as delivered by Jesus.” What do Christians believe? You believe in the promises of God as delivered by Jesus. Okay, so then what do Christians do? We act upon those promises.

Finally, there is a further mystery inside this gospel lesson, and it’s a great one. There’s another “whom” and another “what” in which to believe. The “whom” is yourself and the “what” is that you were “born again.” When you believe in Jesus you may also believe in your new self and when you believe his promises you may believe in his promise about yourself: You are born again. There are two of you. There is new life inside you. A life that God keeps alive and will not let die.

It’s a great mistake but a common one that being born again is based on some decision you have made for Christ. To make rebirth depend on your own decision is totally to miss the metaphor. No baby has ever decided to be born. A baby is born because of the love between a woman and man. It was their love, physically expressed, that nine months later resulted in a baby being born, and the baby had no say in the matter, but suddenly crying “Here I am!”

You are born of water and the Spirit. It’s your own personal virgin birth. The Spirit of the Most High has overshadowed you and conceived in your old self your new self, fragile, vulnerable, childlike, sweet and clean, protected in your pouch like a baby kangaroo, and you are the mother who feeds and nourishes and teaches and loves your new self, who will live on after your old self dies.

Your old self you are painfully aware of. To know your new self requires your belief, your belief in the promise of God to you that it is your true self. I invite you to believe this about yourself, what you cannot know for sure in terms of abstract knowledge or even in emotional confidence, but you can believe it.

Believe that you have this small, clear space within yourself, believe that your desire to believe is the proof of your belief, no matter how small, weak, intermittent, or confused your belief may feel to you. Believe this about your belief because the power of your belief is not in yourself, but in the power of the Spirit of God, the power of God’s love, the Spirit of God who loves you.

Copyright © 2017, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.