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.

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