Sermon 4 Lent Yr B
March 20, 2009 Leave a comment
4 Lent Yr B, 22/03/2009
Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &
Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s
South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta
“Whoever believes in Jesus”
The man who was bishop of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris during the early part of the last century, was a great evangelizer. He tried to reach out to unbelievers, scoffers, and cynics. He liked to tell the story of a young man who would stand outside the cathedral and shout derogatory slogans at the people entering to worship. He would call them fools and all kinds of names. The people tried to ignore him but it was difficult.
One day the parish priest went outside to confront the young man, much to the distress of the parishioners. The young man ranted and raved against everything the priest told him. Finally, he addressed the young scoffer by saying, “Look, let’s get this over with once and for all. I’m going to dare you to do something and I bet you can’t do it.” And of course the young man shot back, “I can do anything you propose, you white-robed wimp!”
“Fine,” said the priest. “All I ask you to do is to come into the sanctuary with me. I want you to stare at the figure of Christ, and I want you to scream at the very top of your lungs, as loudly as you can, ‘Christ died on the cross for me and I don’t care one bit.’”
So the young man went into the sanctuary, and screamed as loud as he could, looking at the figure, “Christ died on the cross for me and I don’t care one bit.” The priest said, “Very good. Now do it again.” And again the young man screamed, with a little more hesitancy, “Christ died on the cross for me and I don’t care one bit.” You’re almost done now,” said the priest. “One more time.”
The young man raised his fist, kept looking at the statue, but the words wouldn’t come. He just could not look at the face of Christ and say that any more.
The real punch line came when, after he told the story, the bishop said, “I was that young man. That young man, that defiant young man was me. I thought I didn’t need God, but found out that I did.”1
You, like the young man who became bishop, may have a similar story concerning your crisis of doubt and belief in Christ. What I find interesting in this story is the irresistible drawing power of believing in Christ on the cross.
Having faith in God, believing in Christ, trusting the Holy Spirit—that’s a central theme in our gospel today. I don’t know if you noticed it or were even counting, but the words believe, believes, and believed occur five times. In this conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus emphasises the importance of believing in him as the “lifted up” Saviour of the world. The Gospel of John is very fond of the word believe, it appears over one hundred times. Of course, there are many different ways that we employ the word believe. The word believe has many different meanings. What did it mean for the gospel writer John who was so fond of this word? What does it mean for us today?
I like the following way that a medical doctor speaks of beliefs: A label is a mask life wears.
We put labels on life all the time. “Right,” “wrong,” “success,” “failure,” “lucky,” “unlucky,” may be as limiting a way of seeing things as “diabetic,” “epileptic,” “manic-depressive,” or even “invalid.” Labelling sets up an expectation of life that is often so compelling we can no longer see things as they really are. This expectation often gives us a false sense of familiarity toward something that is really new and unprecedented. We are in relationship with our expectations and not with life itself.
Which brings up the idea that we may become as wounded by the way in which we see an illness as by the illness itself. Belief traps or frees us. Labels may become self-fulfilling prophecies. Studies of voodoo death suggest that in certain circumstances belief may even kill.
We may need to take our labels and even our experts far more lightly. Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen tells the story of a gentlemen who was diagnosed with cancer. He did not deny that he had cancer. He had just taken the same attitude toward his physician’s prognosis that he took toward the words of the government soil experts who analyzed his fields. As they were educated men, he respected them and listened carefully as they showed him the findings of their tests and told him that the corn would not grow in this field. He valued their opinions. But, he said, “A lot of time the corn grows anyway.”
In my experience, a diagnosis is an opinion and not a prediction. What would it be like if more people allowed for the presence of the unknown, and accepted the words of their medical experts in this same way? The diagnosis is cancer. What that will mean remains to be seen.
Like a diagnosis, a label is an attempt to assert control and manage uncertainty. It may allow us the security and comfort of a mental closure and encourage us not to think about things again. But life never comes to a closure, life is process, even mystery. Life is known only by those who have found a way to be comfortable with change and the unknown. Given the nature of life, there may be no security, but only adventure.2
As followers of Jesus, believing in him involves being open to change and the unknown. Our life with Jesus may not be secure by worldly standards. Believing in Jesus means living life as one adventure after another—not necessarily knowing for certain what the future holds. We do however know who holds the future and whom we are adventuring with—Jesus, the Saviour who is lifted up and who draws us to himself through his being lifted up onto the cross and three days later being lifted up on the day of resurrection.
So, looking back at today’s gospel again, here’s what it means for us to believe, to trust in Jesus as the lifted up Saviour, we: “may have eternal life; may not perish but may have eternal life. Those who believe in him are not condemned.”
Now the act of believing, the act of trusting in Jesus more than anyone or anything in life is also a gift given to us from God. We cannot do this by ourselves. We cannot save ourselves. God in Christ, through the work of the Holy Spirit, the word and the sacraments, the death and resurrection of Jesus save us. We believe this is true only because God gives us the gift of belief. Now that we’ve been given this gift of believing in Jesus we respond first by praising and thanking him for the gift; then by serving him with our lives.
As we celebrate the gift of believing in Jesus; in thanking, praising and serving him with our lives; we discover that what the gospel writer meant by eternal life is a life that begins right now. Eternal life in the Fourth Gospel does not only mean life after death; life in the world to come; heaven. No, eternal life in this Gospel means life right now. Life right now in all of its richness. Eternal life means we live under the power and influence of faith, hope and love; the greatest gifts of the Holy Spirit. Faith means we believe in Jesus more than anyone or anything else in life. Hope means our future is not our own. Rather, we place our lives in Christ’s hands who holds and determines the future. Love means that we can take risks to care for others in unselfish ways the same way Jesus did in his public ministry. He is our perfect example of how we can love one another. The words of one of my favourite Lenten hymns comes to mind: “Love to the loveless shown, That they might lovely be.”3 We don’t deserve Christ’s love, yet he loves us unconditionally and makes us “lovely” in God’s eyes, thanks to his death on the cross. We may think that our neighbour doesn’t deserve our love, yet Christ calls us to follow his example and love our neighbour unconditionally; and in so doing they too “might lovely be.” Love is an adventure in living for Jesus and for others; giving of ourselves sacrificially. In so doing we discover how Christ’s being lifted up saves us and our neighbour as our believing, our faith is active, becomes real in love. Amen.
1 Wm. J. Bausch, A World Of Stories for Preachers and Teachers and all who love stories that move and challenge (New London, CT: Twenty-Third Publications & Blackrock, Co Dublin: The Columba Press, Eighth Printing, 2007), pp. 244-245.
2 Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D., Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories That Heal (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996), pp. 66-67.
3 Hymn #94, in LBW, “My Song Is Love Unknown,” by Samuel Crossman.