John 3:1-17; Psalm 23
Rev. Tom Herbek
March 12, 2017
Robert Fulgham once wrote:
In Indonesia, there is a word. Belum is the word and it means “not quite yet.” A lovely word implying continuing possibility. “Do you speak English?” “Belum.” Not quite yet. “Do you have any children?” “Belum.” “Do you know the meaning of life?” “Belum.” It is considered both impolite and cynical to say “No” outright. This leads to some funny moments. “Is the taxi on fire?” “Belum.” Not quite yet.
It’s an attitude akin to that behind the old vaudeville joke: “Do you play the violin?” “I don’t know, I never tried.”
Perhaps. Maybe. Possibly. Not yes or no, but within the realm of what might be. Soft edges are welcome in this great bus ride of human adventure.
-It Was On Fire When I Lay Down on It
This way of seeing reality is foreign to many in our culture, where we want clear definite answers to all questions, including faith questions. The need for certainty in the midst of our tenuous lives on a dangerously unpredictable planet, is real and understandable. Religious leaders who can package and deliver absolute answers find receptive audiences. Tune in to any religious broadcast, and you will hear preacher after preacher speak with absolute certainty that he (it is almost always a he) has all the correct answers.
Perhaps these clear solutions to salvation, to life’s big questions, work for some people, but they just don’t work for me. I prefer to answer the question, “Are you saved?” with: “Not quite yet”. “Belum.”
It seems to me that salvation is a process that will take our whole life. It is not an event that happens and then is completed. Nicodemus was confused by Jesus’ statement that he had to be born again or born anew, had to be born of the spirit of God. As Marcus Borg defines this term of “born anew”, it means that Nicodemus must undergo “personal transformation.” Transformation is a process of becoming more compassionate, more whole, which is an ongoing process for all of us.
The primary meaning of the Hebrew and Greek words translated as salvation is “made you well”. To be made well is an ongoing, every day, life-long process. As Marcus Borg shared this Franciscan blessing with us when he was here, my desire also is to move away from easy answers: “May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half-truths and superficial relationships, so that you may live deep within your heart.”
In his wonderful book released just after he spent the weekend with us, entitled Speaking Christian, Borg writes about John 3:16-17:
God loves the divinely created world – not just you and me, not just Christians, not just people, but the whole of creation.
That he gave his only Son: John’s Gospel does not include the notion of substitutionary sacrifice; indeed, none of the Gospels do. The giving of the Son in John refers to the incarnation as a whole, that Jesus was filled with God, and not primarily to the death of Jesus. How much does God love the world? So much that God was willing to become incarnate in the world.
So that everyone who believes in him: The premodern, rather than modern, meaning of believe is intended. In this verse, as in the Bible generally, believe does not mean believing theological claims about Jesus, but beloving Jesus, giving one’s heart, loyalty, fidelity, and commitment to Jesus. This is the way into new life.
May not perish but may have eternal life: Eternal life is commonly understood to mean a blessed afterlife beyond death. But in John’s Gospel, it is a present experience. The Greek words translated into English as eternal life mean “the life of the age to come.” Within John’s theology, this is still future and to be hoped for. But it is also present, something that can be known, experienced now.
To know God and Jesus in the present is to participate already in the life of the age to come.
Thus in John, this verse is not about believing a set of statements about Jesus now for the sake of heaven later. It is about beloving Jesus and beloving God as known in Jesus, in the incarnation, and entering into “the life of the age to come” now. It is not about people going to hell because they don’t believe. It is about the path into life with God now.
Many of us have been told, by many different people, that John 3:16 means something else. But perhaps we should remember Albert Einstein’s wise words: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”
The gospel message is not meant to be something that excludes people, divides people, or judges people. Some people don’t pay any attention to the words that follow in John 3:17, the next verse: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world.”
I like Richard Rohr’s comment about this idea in his book, Things Hidden:
This is Jesus’ simple message: Holiness is no longer to be found through separation from or exclusion of, but in fact, the radical inclusion (read “forgiveness”) of the supposedly contaminating element. Any exclusionary system only lays the solid foundation for violence in thought, word and deed.
My lifetime of studying Jesus would lead me to summarize all of his teaching inside of two prime ideas: forgiveness and inclusion. Don’t believe me; just go through the Gospels, story by story. It is rather self-evident. Forgiveness and inclusion are Jesus’ “great themes.” They are the practical name of love, and without forgiveness and inclusivity love is largely a sentimental valentine. They are also the two practices that most undercut human violence.
Let me unpack that even further: What Leviticus 16-27 had described as the “law of holiness,” separation from sinful people, the rejection of certain actions and things, is turned around in Jesus so that it is instead the very act of separation, superiority and rejecting that is in fact the sin!
There is to be no separation of people in terms of “saved” or not, of what we say or believe. When we stop asking, “What do I need to believe?” “What words do I need to say?”, and ask instead, “What do I need to do?”, then we are becoming healed. Francis of Assisi once commented: “Preach the gospel at all times; when necessary, use words.” Clearly, the words are not what is most important. I like what Diana Butler Bass wrote:
The early community that followed Jesus was a community of practice. Jesus’s followers did not sit around a fire and listen to lectures on Christian theology. They listened to stories that taught them how to act toward one another, what to do in the world. They healed people, offered hospitality, prayed together, challenged traditional practices and rituals, ministered to the sick, comforted the grieving, fasted, and forgave. These actions induced wonder, gave them courage, empowered hope, and opened up a new vision of God. By doing things together, they began to see differently.
Jesus did not walk by the Sea of Galilee and shout to fishermen, “Have faith!” Instead, he asked them to do something: “Follow me.” When they followed, he gave them more things to do. At first, he demonstrated what he wanted them to do. Then he did it with them. Finally, he sent them out to do it themselves, telling them to proclaim God’s reign and cure the sick. When they returned from this first mission, they could not believe what had happened. They discovered that proclaiming the kingdom was not a matter of teaching doctrine; rather, the kingdom was a matter of imitating Jesus’s actions. Jesus did not tell them to have faith. He pushed them into the world to practice faith. The disciples did not hope the world would change. They changed it. And, in doing so, they themselves changed.
- Christianity After Religion
I believe this process of transformation is ongoing and it takes our whole life to fulfill it, and it is not always clear or straightforward. Our soul is the place where the messiness of life is tolerated and even appreciated. It is where we are replenished and made well. But this transformation, this salvation process, is very personal, quite individualized, and we must make it our own. It would be so much easier if we could just have someone tell us exactly what to do. But being born again is just as much of an individual process as it is the first time we are born.
This same type of thought is echoed by cellist Yo-Yo Ma about becoming a musician:
When I was around seven, we moved to New York. I was already studying the cello, and a couple of years later my parents signed me up to take lessons from Leonard Rose. Leonard was a great cellist, and a renowned teacher. Fortunately, he was also patient, because I was a very shy boy.
When I listened to Leonard play, I thought, “How can you make such a gorgeous sound? How can anyone do that?” But that’s not what music is about. Which he knew. What Leonard said was, “I’ve taught you many things, but now you have to go off and learn on your own.”
Because in fact the worst thing you can do is say to yourself, “I want to be just like somebody else.” You have to absorb knowledge from someone else, but ultimately you have to find your own voice.
We must each find our own voice in this process of being born again. But the other side of this is that, even though transformation is very personal, we need other people to help us as midwives in this process of rebirth.
Quaker activist, educator, and author Parker Palmer gives us some guidelines about how to help each other:
Inner work, though it is a deeply personal matter, is not necessarily a private matter: inner work can be helped along in community. Indeed, doing inner work together is a vital counterpoint to doing it alone. Left to our own devices, we may delude ourselves in ways that others can help us correct.
But how a community offers such help is a critical question. We are surrounded by communities based on the practice of “setting each other straight”— an ultimately totalitarian practice bound to drive the shy soul into hiding.
Fortunately, there are other models of community discernment and support.
For example, there is the Quaker clearness committee. You take a personal issue to this small group of people who are prohibited from suggesting “fixes” or giving you advice but who for three hours pose honest, open questions to help you discover your inner truth. Communal processes of this sort are supportive but not invasive. They help us probe questions and possibilities but forbid us from rendering judgment, allowing us to serve as midwives to a birth of consciousness that can only come from within. The key to this form of community involves holding a paradox— the paradox of having relationships in which we protect each other’s aloneness. We must come together in ways that respect the solitude of the soul, that avoid the unconscious violence we do when we try to save each other, that evoke our capacity to hold another life without dishonoring its mystery, never trying to coerce the other into meeting our own needs.
–Let Your Life Speak
Are you saved? Not yet. It is a process, life-long, challenging, rewarding, fulfilling, both individual and unique, and assisted by others in a community of caring people.
In the epilogue to her first book, Kitchen Table Wisdom, Rachel Remen describes her own journey toward wholeness, with the assistance early on of her grandfather, a rabbi:
One of my fondest memories is of the Sunday afternoons of my childhood. While the rest of the family would assemble in the living room after lunch, discussing world events and politics, my grandfather and I would meet in the kitchen and talk about God. These meetings were secret, as my parents, proud to be modern, viewed God as slightly more than superstition and laid the solutions to all of life’s problems in the lap of science. They would not have been pleased with such talk.
My grandfather and I would sit at the kitchen table talking about the holy nature of the world. He would teach me the special blessings for the many bounties that life offers or read to me from one of the ancient texts he always carried in his pocket. Occasionally he would encourage me to memorize a passage, usually from Psalms or Proverbs or a little book called Pirkey Avot, Sayings of Our Fathers. The psalms and proverbs were beautiful and easy to remember, and the blessings too, but the Sayings were difficult for me, as they were complex and subtle, a bit much for a six-year-old.
But I could see how much my grandfather loved these words, and supported by his love, I would try to understand them and learn them by heart.
When my attention flagged, my grandfather would encourage me to continue with the tiniest sip of the Manischewitz Sacramental Concord Grape wine which he kept hidden in the back of the refrigerator. It was a blatant bribe. I loved the wine.
I remember struggling with one of the Sayings. It was the Jewish koan:
If I am not for me, then who is for me?
If I am just for me, then who am I?
And if not now, then when?
The words made no sense at all to me, and even my grandfather’s patient explanations did not help. Finally I cried out in frustration, “Grandpa, I don’t know what it means.” “Ah, Rachel,” he said, “then remember it and wait. Someday if you need to know it, its meaning will come to you.”
Perhaps wisdom is simply a matter of waiting, and healing a question of time. And, anything good you’ve ever been given is yours forever.
Being born again, transformation, salvation all takes time. If we are fortunate, we have good guides on the journey who are patient and understanding, who do not attempt to impose their own journey on us.
Are you saved?
As for me, Belum – not quite yet!