Year B, 4th Sunday in Lent
We are deeply into the season of Lent, and our worship is expressing the themes of repentance, penitence, and self-examination. We start with silence, remember the Ten Commandments, confess our sins, and sing pleadingly for mercy from God. Today I want to examine why we do all this, and the Gospel reading provides an excellent opportunity.
“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.
This is one of the most popular quotes favored by evangelical Christians, and it is certainly beautiful, but for our purposes today I want to include the verses that follow that famous passage.
“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. Those 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. (John 3:16-18)
There are two very different understandings of Christian salvation, and the interpretation of today’s Gospel shows them in stark contrast. In one understanding, salvation comes from obedience to the law of God. You must believe the right things. You must believe that God has the power to save people just because they believe in Jesus as the Son of God. You must believe that everything, all the miracles and signs of scripture, happened just as they are described, and obey all the rules and laws God gives, and by doing so you will be saved. You will avoid punishment when you die and you will be rewarded, both now in life and after your death.
This version of Christianity is not wrong. I don’t mean to say that. When we are small children, our parents make rules. Don’t touch anything on the stove. Go to bed at 7 PM. Eat your vegetables. As we grow, these rules begin to chafe and seem arbitrary, but parents enforce them for our benefit and safety. We impose rules on children because they lack the capacity to discern right behavior for themselves, but we also hope that they will develop the capacity to discern right actions for themselves as they mature.
In the other understanding of Christianity belief takes on a very different meaning. You are saved by growing closer to God, by participating in what God is doing in the world, and you do so by trusting in God. You must believe in Jesus, but belief is the verb form of faith. To believe is to have faith. To believe in Jesus is to cherish, hold dear, and trust in Jesus as the revelation of God. In this understanding we are saved not by believing the right things, but through a life-long process of enlightenment.
Perhaps an example from the world of music will help. When you learn a musical instrument you start with nothing but rules. You learn how to physically manipulate the instrument. You learn how to read music and play that on your instrument. You learn about major keys and minor keys, and about creating harmonies. You learn about dynamics, from pianissimo to forte, from soft to loud. What all of these things allow you to do is to make music through your instrument. The rules also make it possible for you to make music with others. When you follow the rules of music the notes you make on your instrument should fit together with the notes of other musicians.
Eventually, you may go beyond the rules to a deep understanding of the structure of music and you begin to express your soul through music. Great musicians learn to blend with and compliment other musicians as they play together. A musician can be technically brilliant without ever being a great musician. Greatness requires a spiritual engagement with the music and the instrument and with other musicians. Greatness requires a transcendence of the rules. The rules are only there to guide us to transcendent beauty as we make music together.
There is a time when we need the rules of our religion. Life can be chaotic. Rules can be as comforting as a life raft, saving us from the dangers and assaults of life. Love God. Love your neighbor as you love yourself. Honor your parents. Do not commit adultery. Do not steal. These are good rules and they can bring order and civility to our lives. But do we stop there? Is obedience to the rules enough? Can we live together in self-transcending love the way great musicians make music together? How do we get beyond following rules to the transcendent beauty of union with God?
That brings us back to the subject of Lent. We can follow all the rules of Christianity and still experience spiritual boredom. To experience spiritual transcendence, we also have to do our own work of growing emotionally and spiritually. We have to be willing to be challenged to forgive others and to repent of our own faults. Obedience to rules is not enough.
Lent is a time to look into the dark corners of our lives, and our relationships for the purpose of growing spiritually. Lent is a time to do the hard work of enlightenment.
Look into your own life and ask:
- Where do I need to grow?
- What do I need to let go of?
- Who do I need to forgive?
- What do I need to beg forgiveness for?
- Who do I need to apologize to?
- What are the issues in my life that keep me from loving others?
- What do I cling to instead of trusting in God?
The salvation God offers us through Christ is a process of enlightenment, and we cannot experience enlightenment by just being more loving or by following a better set of rules. We have to do the hard work of confronting our failures, shortcomings, and weaknesses.
In Lent we do that work. We bring our failures, shortcomings, and weaknesses to the forefront, and then we take them to the cross. We offer our lives, such as they are, to God, dying to our selves and rising again with Christ in the resurrection to new life at Easter.
It is very frightening to do this work, but take heart. Have courage.
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. 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. (John 3:16-17)
The Rev. David Marshall
St. Dunstan’s Church, Shoreline WA
March 15, 2015