Believe in Jesus or Get Your Nails Done?

March 11, 2018

Series: March 2018

Category: Lent

Speaker: Rob McClellan

John 3:14-21

14“And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

16“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

17“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” THIS IS HOLY WISDOM, HOLY WORD. THANKS BE TO GOD.

Believe in Jesus or Get Your Nails Done?

          While on vacation some time ago, we were at a favorite food stand and got to talking with the woman who owned it.  When she found out that my wife and I were clergy she was eager to talk to us—that can break one of two ways by the way, (sometimes the other party simply makes a break for it!).  This woman was very forthright with her faith.  She spoke about her involvement in her church and then proceeded to tell us about all the young people she hired, many of whom were from other countries.  International workers are part of the local tourist economy there as in many places.  She was particularly excited to tell us about the Muslims she had hired that she was trying to “bring to Christ.”

I want to be careful to be respectful of the faith of the faithful. This woman was earnest.  She seemed kind.  Her faith was important to her, and there’s no doubt she genuinely felt that what she was doing was good.  I don’t dismiss that, and I don’t dismiss her.  And yet when I hear people talk that way, something in me clenches up.  For me, I think it’s because I have been and worked in certain Christian circles in which faith seemed purely formulaic:  You say this and in return you get that.  “That” means heaven, and “this” means accepting Jesus as your Savior, the Christian version of signing on the dotted line.  At least in some of those I have encountered the sole goal seems to be to get others to make the very same proclamation.  If you carry it to the extreme, it’s kind of senseless, even silly.  Why would the whole goal of faith simply be to be able to say those words and yet change nothing else?  Very few people would frame it this way, but sometimes this is precisely how it functions.    

The language of Lord and Savior is part of the ordination vows pastors and church officers alike take, but claiming Jesus in this way is intended to be more than a simple proclamation: Jesus is Lord and Savior and Caesar is not.  That’s the unspoken part of the vow.  It’s a statement of one’s whole life orientation.  Furthermore that singular vow sits in the context of nine such vows all of which point to a greater orientation. 

The propositional approach to the faith is rooted in statements from Scripture such as the one from today, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16). Taken formulaically, however, this breaks down on a number of fronts.  First, the notion that it promises heaven after death ignores that fact that Jesus spent much of his time trying to show people how the kingdom of heaven was at hand right here and now.  He constantly pointed to how the reign of God was being made manifest already, even as it was also on its way in a grander sense.  Why should we have to wait until we’re dead to experience eternal life?  I was speaking with the program director of Zephyr Point, a Presbyterian camp and conference center in Tahoe, where I’ll be the chaplain for a week of family camp the first week in July.  When he was telling me about their staff, to whom I’ll be preaching, he said they’re doing a lot of talking about how the kingdom or reign of God is not something to trying and get to.  Rather, it’s something to participate in, to embody, to live into being. 

Secondly, we often construe eternal life as only measuring life in terms of quantity. That’s clearly part of it, but there is also a sense in which eternal is meant to signify something about life qualitatively.  It is eternity, divinity, experienced in the here and now, entering the realm of time and space where we exist.

Third, so often these words from Scripture are used to condemn people who do not accept them in a formulaic manner. However, this violates the very standards of this text, for what does Jesus say, but that “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world” (Jn. 3:17). Christians are quick to cite John 3:16, and yet we are perhaps too quick to continue to 3:17. Sadly, so often those who claim to have received Jesus, to believe in him, come bearing only condemnation for the world, and to condemn others who believe differently or not at all.  It’s ironically about the least Christlike way to live.  I don’t want to assume because I don’t of course know, but I wonder how much the woman at the food stand saw how much God already loved those workers, how much God was already at work in their lives.  If we are not careful, we as Christians can slip into a kind of arrogance, in which we assume we have the kingdom of God and it is our job to bring it to those who are different from us and therefore do not.  If the kingdom is near, it is not simply near to us. 

I do think believing in Jesus is important, but I mean that in a sense that I hope is deeper than how that phrase is often understood. The Celtic teacher Philip Newell tells a story in his book A New Harmony about how one of his sons came to him as an adolescent and “confessed” (note the language) that he didn’t think about Jesus very much.  Newell explained that he thought it was good to think about Jesus, but not as an end in and of itself, but rather because “Jesus shows us the way of love.”[1] Jesus is not the simply the masterpiece we stare at on the wall, or even only the icon before which we must remain in perpetual genuflection; rather he is the window, nay he is the doorway, the opening into new life, a new birth of being.  Jesus is, quite literally, the way. 

This wording trips us up too. It is also in John’s Gospel that we hear how Jesus is “the way, and the truth, and the life,” and that “No one comes to the Father” except through him (Jn. 14:6).  We hear that, and some of us clench up.  Newell tells a story about a rabbi being asked about these words.  This can often be a point of tension between Christians and Jews, between Christians and non-Christians.  You can imagine the surprise, then, when the rabbi answered without hesitation, “Oh, I agree with those words.” 

“But how can you as a rabbi believe that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life?” came the reply.

“Because,” said the rabbi, “I believe that Jesus’ way is the way of love, that Jesus’ truth is the truth of love, and that Jesus’ life is the life of love. No one comes to the Father but through love.”[2]  Of course the only way to know God is through love, first God’s love of us, and in moments, our love of God and what God has loved.  Love is God’s language, God’s way of relating, and so of course to know God one must know something of love. 

This understanding makes today’s story from Numbers which you heard earlier…well, less weird. Let’s admit it; it seems weird.  Moses is dealing with a people wandering through the wilderness romanticizing their time in slavery, where they at least received three square a day.  So, to shape them up in the midst of all their complaining, God sends poisonous serpents to bite them.  How’s that for positive parenting?!  Having learned their lesson, the people cry out, God hears their cries and instructs Moses to make a bronze serpent.  From then on, whenever anyone gets bitten, they just need to look at the bronze serpent and they’ll live.  Jesus says, in effect, “That bronze serpent…that’s me.” 

Read formulaically, it’s a bizarre way for Jesus to talk about himself. Just look at him and live?  As Newell puts it, this turns Jesus into some insecure savior who simply needs his ego stroked through constant attention.  Read with a deeper understanding, we recognize that Jesus is saying look at my way, the way, the way of love.  Orient yourself to that way and there you will find eternal life.  It’s less of a formula in a mathematical sense and more like formula in the sense of nourishment, nourishment for a birth into new life. 

People who give themselves over to the way of love live out that love in remarkable and remarkably creative ways, and they can do so even through the most devastating of circumstances. Phaly Nuon survived the killing fields of Pol Pot in Cambodia in the 1970s.  After witnessing the rape and murder of her teenage daughter and starvation of her baby, she survived for three years in the jungle on her own, walking in with two children and emerging with only one.  You can imagine the trauma she met when she arrived at the refugee camp.  She saw post-traumatic stress in the women all around her, and, of course, inside herself.  She described survival as walking through a jungle of depression, fear, pain, and sadness.

Her solution…Her creative way…Her way of love was to do the other women’s nails. She began performing simple manicures and pedicures.  She thought that by helping the women feel more beautiful they would be able to emerge from isolation.  She thought it would help them learn how to feel again, which would allow them then to inhabit their bodies, which is part of what it means to be human.  It was intrinsically brilliant, the intimacy, safe intimacy, of human touch again being restored, where touch had only been violent, the humanizing restoration of beauty, whereas before it may have brought the worst kind of attention.  The simple, but profound act of being face to face with another, and slightly below them in a posture of service, returning dignity.  The practical teaching of a job skill.  The slow learning to love again.  Little by little, they filed away the calluses necessarily built up but no longer necessary, they offered color to one another to where it had been drained away, and the glory of attending to one another and being attended to  As they began physically trusting of one another, they began to trust one another emotionally, to trust and to talk to the only people in the world who knew exactly what they had been through, and through it all, to heal.

Did they ever profess to believe in Jesus? You see in an instance such as this what an irrelevant question that is.  Believe in Christ?  They were Christ to one another. 

As you have heard, we will be building welcome kits for newly relocated refugees to our homeland. There will be a speaker and conversation about this today after the service, and I urge you to attend.  These people have come here because they are perishing, because their homes are perishing.  That is the definition of a refugee.  Nobody wants to be forced to flee their home or face death…or worse.  Many of these welcome kits will include just the kinds of supplies one might use for daily life, kitchen supplies, bedding perhaps, things one uses in the bathroom…like nail clippers and files.  Our children will be writing welcome notes.  Everybody can do something.  The ideal is that we will sit face to face with these people in relationship, but you have to start somewhere.

Imagine that, that we could be those who not only are granted life by seeing this way of Jesus, but that we too could extend that life to others who are perishing, through such a simple act. In the process, we might just experience eternal life too.  Amen.

[1] John Philip Newell, A New Harmony: The Spirit, the Earth, and The Human Soul (San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass, 2011), 118.

[2] Ibid.