A Sermon by
The Rev. Barbara Mraz
March 15, 2015
St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
St Paul, Minnesota
Ephesians 2:1-10 John 3:14-21
If asked, how would you describe your religious faith?
Would you say you say you’re a Christian? Or would you be more comfortable saying “Episcopalian”? Maybe you would just say you’re a member of St. John’s or you’re spiritual but not religious? Or you’re a seeker—looking for something and you’ll know it when you see it?
There are some parallels between religion and relationships. I’ve had people tell me there must be a reason I choose the relationships I do, like it says something about my inner self that I should deal with. Well, it’s not like there’s a smorgasbord, of say, possible partners lined up and you say, “All things considered, I’ll take number four Bob.”
And few of us choose a religion by lining up all our available options, creating lists of pros and cons for each, and then making an almost mathematical decision to be an Anglican or a Buddhist or a Baptist (actually, you can probably find a Facebook test for this). Logical reasoning is not what usually brings us to church or keeps us there.
But to remain a part of a religious tradition, that tradition can’t insult your logical mind or be incompatible with life, as you know it.
In Christianity, I think that such a logical challenge is presented by a section of today’s Gospel: John 3:16.
The first part of the verse is a beautiful condensation of the Christian message: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son….”
It’s the second part that is the rub: “…that whoever believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” The next verse explains: “Those who believe in him are not condemned, but those who do not believe are condemned already.” The twin sister to this passage is John 14:6: “Jesus said, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the father but by me.’” I call these the “Jesus-only” verses. And I know how problematic they have been for many of you.
It is especially important that we come to terms with this Scripture because John 3:16 a kind of a Biblical celebrity. Evangelistic fans hold up signs at professional football games, saying: “John 3:16.” The West Coast burger chain In-Out Burgers prints “John 3:16” on the bottom rims of their cups. The New York-based clothing chain called “Forever 21” prints “John 3:16” on the bottom of their yellow shopping bags. When informed that this phrase was on the bottom of the bag he was carrying, Jason Schultz, a 22-year-old from Brooklyn, was surprised but said that it didn’t bother him that the company wanted to spread a religious message: “It’s a clothing store, man, and like, Jesus wore clothes.” Some deep thinking indeed.
There are two problems with using the Jesus-Only verses as a defining point of Christian faith
If some kind of belief is the litmus test for our eternal souls, certain questions arise: How much belief is required to get into heaven? How much doubt keeps you out? Can you will yourself to believe? Will God know if you’re faking? Some days you believe, some days you don’t.
A second problem is that the Jesus-Only verses are incompatible with the inclusive Jesus we meet in the rest of the Gospels. The Jesus who blesses those who are “poor in spirit” — perhaps doubting, troubled confused. The Jesus who is patient and gentle with doubting Thomas, giving him the proof he needs by showing him his hands and his side. The Jesus who heals, comforts, advocates, loves, challenges, gets upset, but does not spend much if any time talking about the requirement of belief.
We could go further with this, but the point is that if a part of the faith bugs you or is a stumblingblock to a deeper engagement with it, some times you can work it out. Other times maybe not, and you have to leave – I did once. But most of us ignore these things and like good Minnesotans, blame ourselves for just not getting it.
I don’t think that logic and tight arguments are what bring people to religion. Instead it is our human need for meaning and comfort and direction, for rituals to honor the importance of the big moments of life and because something seems to be at work in our lives that is calling us to come closer.
We are doing a Lenten series called “This I Believe” and maybe that is what has prompted me to up the ante, so to speak, and to get specific about my Christianity. Not faith. Not Episcopalianisn. Christianity. I will tell you why I am a Christian in the hopes that something I say or have lived may help illuminate and even explain the journey that you are on yourself. I am not witnessing for Jee-zuss, but for Jesus. I offer the evidence of the heart.
I am a Christian because I need a philosophy to live by, and I don’t want to make it up as I go along. Sometimes art has been my religion and the Bible of Shakespeare or some sublime music or breathtaking poetry that carries me along for quite a while but art is not relational – it is a thing and not a you or a thou, as Martin Buber would say. Dozens of times I have cited these words by the poet T.S. Eliot who became Christian late and life and said he did so because “poetry will not bear the weight of a life.” I get that.
I am a Christian because I think that Jesus of Nazareth was a real live person and I to know this this Jesus is to know what God is like. I also believe there are other paths to God and it is outrageous and naïve and rude to think otherwise.
I am a Christian because I was born into it. Baptized as a child, instructed in the faith by good people who preached Jesus and honored God and who, though they didn’t know it, gave me the questions to ask to facilitate my transition to the next step.
I am a Christian because of St. James Lutheran Church-Wisconsin Synod– and steadfast pastors, and memorizing Bible verses and the tender blessing of the choir sung at the end of each service that I can still hear and feel:
“The Lord bless you and keep you
The Lord make his face to shine upon you
And be gracious unto you
The Lord lift his countenance upon you
And give you peace.”
I am a Christian because of parentally-inflicted guilt, which brought me back to church after ten years away to get my daughters baptized. It was an Episcopal Church in my then- neighborhood in Minneapolis, also named St John’s, and then some stuff happened and I found myself in a pulpit and I’m still here, surprising myself as much as anyone.
In that regard, I found a quotation recently, which really hit me. We are so seldom affirmed for our persistence and I hope you will hear that here. The Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz says: “Early we receive a call, yet it remains incomprehensible, and only late do we discover how obedient we were.”
I’m a Christian because the Cross is an embodiment of the pain and suffering of the world caused by separation – no comforting circle of life here but two jagged lines hammered together in the middle. In a world full of pain and horror, beheadings and torture-porn movies (yes they have those) and rape and poverty and illness, the Cross acknowledges that life can be horrible and God gets that, allowing one of his own children, his beloved, to suffer and die as a statement of solidarity with every suffering person. Whoever has had a son or a daughter or has been a sister or a brother knows there could be no more wrenching image than this.
I am a Christian because of the empty tomb and the Resurrection which I believe really happened because I see it in the second chances, the fresh starts, the healings, the rhythm of life and death in the natural word and in my own life. I am a Christian because I see resurrection in perennial gardens and robins returning and the feeling I always get at funerals that it is not the end.
I am a Christian because it’s my story.
I am a Christian because of St Francis and the animals and Pope Francis and his late night visits to the poor.
And because of the Prodigal Son who screwed up big time and was welcomed home with the biggest party ever by his smiling father with his open arms and because of the woman at the well and how Jesus told her everything she ever did and it was okay and because of the woman who poured the expensive perfume on the feet of Jesus and wiped them with her hair and the beauty of that gesture and the art of it.
I am a Christian because of Stephen Charleston and Mariann Budde – bishops whose eloquence and clarity take my breath away and because of Barbara Brown Taylor and Frederick Buechener and all of the dead writers who throw me lifelines from the grave.
I am a Christian because I don’t have to accept atonement theology and because I don’t think that the millions who follow Christ could all delusional or wishful thinkers.
I am a Christian because of words, always words: “Into paradise may the angels lead you. At your coming may the martyrs receive you, and bring you into the holy city Jerusalem.”….”Give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous…”
I am a Christian because nothing in the world is more powerful than love and Christianity says love wins. It may take 30 seconds or 30 years but love will win.
I am a Christian because of the St Olaf College choir singing their signature song, “Beautiful Savior” and the memory of my mother’s face as she listened. The fair Lord Jesus, the beautiful savior, was enough for her. I no longer judge her for this. Or myself.
I am a Christian because I think I would be lost I would be without it.
As often happens, I was given the exact words I needed to end this sermon. Or because of my obedience in collecting quotations. Marilyn Robinson, at the end of her novel, Gilead writes them: “It all means more than I can tell you. So you must not judge what I know by what I find words for.”