This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on the Second Sunday of Lent, March 12, 2017.
There’s a ton squeezed into these seventeen verses from the Gospel of John. It’s hard to know what to make of it all, and I won’t attempt to unpack the entire text in our brief time together. But I expect a couple phrases caught your attention.
First, Jesus’ response to Nicodemus that one must be “born again” in order to enter the kingdom of God. These words, popularized by American Evangelicalism, have come to be associated with the importance of personally accepting Jesus into one’s heart. And unfortunately, these words have too often been applied as a litmus test in an attempt to separate so-called “Born Again” Christians from other faithful.
The other verse that no doubt jumped out was John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” Luther called this verse “the gospel in a nutshell” and it has served as that for many, signaling God’s profound love for us and indicating the depths to which God will go to convey that love. It too, however, has sometimes served as a wedge between those who “believe” and are “saved” and those who, some say, are not.
It is ironic and unfortunate that two verses that are so central to the faith of many, just as surely divide good people from one another.
I admit that these verses were stumbling blocks for me when I was first finding my way back to the church in my mid-twenties. Thomas Jefferson famously used a pen knife to cut out passages in the Bible that he found troublesome. I have never been willing to entirely reject difficult passages, but rather have sought to interpret them in ways that have meaning and integrity for me.
In this spirit, I will share some reflections on John 3:16, not to say that this is what the author meant when he wrote this verse, but as an example of a kind of interpretation that is available to any of you who wrestle with particular passages in the Bible.
First, the term eternal life is one that has not always been accessible to me. Over time I have come to interpret this for myself to mean “perfect and timeless union with the divine.”
God sent Jesus so that everyone who believes in him may experience perfect and timeless union with the divine.
But the most significant issue for me when I was first exploring my faith was what it means to believe. What does it mean to believe in Jesus? Maybe that sounds like an odd question. For some the answer will be self-evident. For some, to believe in Jesus means to believe that the biblical claims about him are factual, that he was born of a virgin, and that he was bodily resurrected after his death on the cross, and most importantly that he that he is the Messiah, our Savior. Those thirty years ago when I was first taking passages like this one seriously this answer was not apparent to me.
But there are other ways to understand what it means to believe, aren’t there?
The Greek word translated as believe is pisteuo (pist-yoo’-o) which means to put faith in, to trust in, place confidence in, and have fidelity to. Think of what we mean when we affirm a child, spouse or friend by saying, “I believe in you.” This means that we have full confidence in that one, even to the point, perhaps, where we would put our life in their hands.
What would it mean to apply this understanding of belief to Jesus? To trust, to be faithful to, to put our life in the hands of Jesus?
To answer this, we need to understand who Jesus is, what he represents.
In the gospels, Jesus is referred to as both the Son of Man and the Son of God.
Son of Man emphasizes Jesus’ humanity. In this persona we find something familiar, one that is always like us.
Son of God emphasizes Jesus’ divinity. In this persona we encounter difference, one that is forever other.
In Jesus we encounter both ourselves and the other, friend and stranger.
So, what does it look like to believe in this Jesus, familiar yet foreign, to trust, to be faithful to, to put our life in the hands of one that is the same but different?
Listen for these themes of belief in self and other in this story from the Washington Post.
When the Nazis ripped his family from their home in Poland, Ben Stern survived life in the Warsaw Ghetto, nine concentration camps, including Auschwitz, and the death march from Buchenwald by never losing faith in human kindness.
Following the war, Stern and his wife immigrated to America with no education, no trade, and no money, and could not speak English. But he had his life.
“I was reborn,” Stern says (note the language he chooses). “I did not forget what happened to me, but I was determined to rebuild the family that I lost and speak out about the pain and losses that so many people suffered, because they were hated because of their particular religion. In America we found a mixture of religions being accepted and that was opening the door for a free life that was a gift; until today I am thankful for the opportunity to enjoy the freedom to build the beautiful family that I have.”
So now, at the end of his life, the 95-year-old has found an almost perfect antidote to how he was treated by the Nazis: Opening his California home to one of their descendants.
His roommate, Lea Heitfeld, is a 31-year-old German student at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, whose grandparents were active and unrepentant members of the Nazi Party. Rather than shy away from her family’s history, it has inspired her to learn about Jewish people and educate others about their religion and what they endured during the Holocaust. She’s even getting her Master’s Degree in Jewish studies.
Welcoming Heitfeld, the kin of the very people who brutally forced him from his childhood home, to live as his roommate while she finishes her degree feels like “an act of justice,” Stern said in an interview. “It was the right thing to do. I’m doing the opposite of what they did.”
There is much about their living situation that defies norms: the sizable generation gap, the gender divide and, of course, the fact that they’re a Holocaust survivor and the granddaughter of Nazis. And yet they’ve both found they have so much to give each other.
In the evenings, the unlikely pair watch TV together, usually the news. They have dinner together almost every night, and snack on herring salad and crackers before their meal — a mutual favorite. They have long conversations about history and current events and he tells her stories of his life in Poland before the war. Last semester, Stern, who never went to high school or college, audited a graduate class with her, and they walked together to campus every Thursday night.
For Heitfeld, Stern’s friendship is the rarest of gifts — an insight into human resiliency and compassion.
“This act of opening his home, I don’t know how to describe it, how forgiving or how big your heart must be to do that, and what that teaches me to be in the presence of someone who has been through that and is able to have me there and to love me,” she said. “That he was able to open the door for someone who would remind him of all his pain.”
To trust, to be faithful to, to put our life in the hands of one another. Is this what it looks like to believe? Could this be what it means to believe in Jesus?
I sometimes think of the sermons I preach as either having a social justice focus or a pastoral focus, the one looking outward into the world, making an appeal to respond to the needs of others, the other focusing within, seeking to minister to your needs. I’m reminded this morning that this way of thinking sets up a false dichotomy. It seems fair to say that Lea and Ben care for one another personally or pastorally through their shared commitment to each other; while their relationship is also, as Stern says, an act of justice, witnessing to necessary reconciliation in a divided world.
The rise of anti-Semitic-fueled acts in the United States — bomb threats at Jewish community centers and the desecration of Jewish cemeteries — has been weighing heavily on Stern and Heitfeld. The vitriol directed at minority groups, not just Jews, is all too reminiscent. “I walk with a fresh injection of pain and hurt,” Stern said. Heitfeld feels it, too. “I’ve been in more pain that I’m living with a man who went through this and now has to be confronted with this on the news,” she said.
Entrusting our lives to one another requires sharing pain. This is one meaning of Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross, an act of divine empathy and commitment, a willingness to share pain with us. We might even say that the cross represents the place that God and humanity entrust their lives to each other, affirm their belief in one another. It is by believing in the other that Lea and Ben have come to be most fully themselves.
Lea and Ben model for me what it means to live out a belief in Jesus who embodies for me both friend and stranger. Note, neither Lea nor Ben are Christian, but their example informs what it means for me to believe.
Ben Stern concludes, “I feel like it’s important for the reason I survived to tell the world, to tell the next generation what to look out for to have a better, secure, free life,” he said. “It’s important for them to learn how to behave with other people, with other nations, and religions. We’re different, but we’re all human and there is room for each and every one of us in this world. It should be in harmony instead of hatred, racism. … We are all born; we’re all going to go. While we’re here, we should try to improve the world.”
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
I can now say that I believe in Jesus. I trust in, have confidence in, the one who represents for me both friend and stranger, pastor and prophet. And by entrusting my life to this Jesus, I glimpse that promised perfect and timeless union with the divine.
During this Lenten season, I invite you to return to the passages in the Bible that are a stumbling block for you and see if you might find there something to believe in, an opportunity to be born again, an entry, perhaps, into eternal life.