Jesus is not asking us to intellectually agree with a set of propositions, but to entrust our hearts to him in love. (Listen.)
Many years ago, I left home and went away to university. I came from a background where people talk about faith and science and politics and everything else, and perpetually wonder and ask questions. At university, I expected the same. I hooked up with the first Christian group which presented itself, but soon felt totally bewildered. I found myself in conversations I never wanted to have, in which the acceptability of women in leadership, the theory of evolution, questions of sexuality and gender, and many other issues were put under the microscope, and my position was always shown to be wrong.
Again and again, I would try to participate in what I thought was a dialogue, but would come away feeling like I had lost an argument that I didn’t even know I’d been having. It soon became clear to me that I couldn’t be a Christian. I could never think of the right texts to argue with those blokes (and they were always blokes); I couldn’t believe the ‘right’ things; I felt constantly trapped, and angry, and even ashamed. And so for several years I left church altogether, and it took several years after that for me to regain any confidence in faith.
I look back on that experience now with great sadness. I was naïve, and they were young. Even so, it still strikes me as appalling that, in trying to ‘save’ me, they undermined what little faith I had. They were demanding I deny things I knew in my bones to be true: that women and men are both called to leadership; that evolution and creation are describing different things; that LGBTIQA+ people are not making a ‘choice’ but are living out the image of God; and many other things. As these positions were judged wrong and unacceptable to God, and as people who held them were treated with a kindly contempt, I felt very effectively condemned. I never felt saved or healed or made whole. Instead, I felt compromised, divided, judged, and like I’d never find a place in the church.
Yet I don’t think those blokes were malicious. Instead, they were convinced that, once I had intellectually assented to their brand of Christianity, I would be ‘saved’ from the judgement dished out by God; and they were informed by the text we heard tonight: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” But is Jesus really saying that, unless I intellectually consent to a conservative Christian agenda, God will punish me? Or is something else going on?
To answer these questions, let’s go back to the context. Jesus is speaking with Nicodemus, a Jewish religious leader who has come to Jesus under cover of night. The gospel writer has already told us that Jesus is the light of the world, and the light of life. Nicodemus comes in darkness, in unknowing, yet he has glimpsed the light and wants to know more.
As their conversation unfolds, it becomes clear that Nicodemus has a lot to learn. But Jesus isn’t anxious. He doesn’t force Nicodemus to assent to anything. Instead, he explains that God loves the world so much that he sent the Son to bring life, more life; and that the Son is not in the business of condemnation, but of salvation, freedom, and healing.
This completely reverses how most people most of the time think about God; perhaps this is why Nicodemus doesn’t get it at first. Because to get it, he has to recognise and let go of some powerful assumptions: for example, that God feels contempt for the world, that Jesus has come to judge the world, and that very many of us are heading for a God-orchestrated eternal punishment. It’s assumptions such as these which drive the ‘love the sinner, hate the sin so much that the sinner hates themselves’ crowd, and which shape their reading even of this text into a warning of God’s impending judgement.
But Jesus is not proclaiming a punishing God. Instead, he’s asking Nicodemus, and us, to change our image of God: away from fear, judgement and death, and towards love, life and healing. And this change can’t be achieved through rational argument. As the gospel writers observed, it’s not wrong thoughts but hardness of heart which makes believing in Jesus so difficult.
This brings me to a matter of translation. The word ‘believe’, the thing that Jesus would have Nicodemus and the whole world do, the thing that was the sticking point for me with the Christians at university, is fraught; its meaning wanders through several languages and some dramatic shifts in culture.
Way back in the fourth century, the New Testament was translated from Greek into Latin by a bloke named Jerome. When he came to the Greek word pistis, he used the Latin word fides, or ‘loyalty’; and that translates into English as ‘faith.’ Now, in Greek, pistis has a verbal form: pisteo. But ‘to faith’ is not a word in Latin (or English), so Jerome used another word. He didn’t choose opinor: ‘I hold an opinion.’ Instead, he chose credo, which comes from the Latin for ‘heart’; it means ‘I give my heart to.’ So pisteo became credo in Latin; and credo is where we get the English word ‘creed.’
Jerome’s translation stood for over a thousand years, until King James ordered scholars to make an English version of the Bible. Then Jerome’s Latin was translated into Middle English, and the word those scholars chose for credo was ‘believe.’
It was a good choice back then. In 1611, when the King James Bible was published, ‘believe’ meant ‘to value’ or ‘to hold dear.’ It came from a German word, belieben, ‘to love’, and you can hear the original sense of both credo and pisteo, ‘to give your heart to something.’
But language changes, and for those of us who are alive now, to ‘believe’ something is to intellectually agree that it is true. This is because we are products of the Enlightenment, which saw a radical shift in how we approach ways of knowing and which equated rational thought with the divine (which, incidentally but not unimportantly, is idolatrous: sorry, Father Brown).
Yet intellectually believing something to be true is not the same as giving your heart to it. When Jesus tells Nicodemus and the world to ‘believe’ in him, he is not asking that we intellectually assent to any particular propositions. Instead, he is asking us to open our hearts: to ‘trust’ in him; to ‘give our hearts’ to him; to be ‘faithful’ to him; and threading through it all is the assumption that this is a relationship built on love. Not judgement. Not condemnation. Not intellectual agreement or rational argument or manipulation or control or contempt. Just love.
Throughout the gospel we meet people who affirm the right things and recite the correct doctrines, yet still show a terrible hardness of heart: Jesus calls them hypocrites. He doesn’t need any more self-righteous religious types in this world. Instead, he’s looking for friends and lovers, with humble open trusting hearts. For it takes a humble heart to admit its image of God is false and must be transformed; it takes an open heart to be receptive to the Holy Spirit; it takes a trusting heart to persevere through the shock, disorientation, mess and pain of being born again. Yet through this mess and pain, a heart can be born of the Holy Spirit into the self-giving love of Jesus Christ.
And it is this self-giving love which saves us. The love which knit us in our mother’s womb, and which knew us and loved us before we were born; the love which is humble and patient and gentle and kind; the love which labours and sweats and feels pain on our behalf; the love which longs to birth us into the world fully alive: this love saves us and heals us and makes us whole when it pours through us and out towards others.
So let us hear Jesus’ words again, in a care-full translation: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever gives their heart to him shall not wither away but shall have full and flourishing life. For God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be healed and made whole.”
Heart by heart, person by person, community by community, let us give our hearts ever more fully to him. And may the Holy Spirit again and again re-birth us into life ever flourishing, as we participate in God’s ongoing renewal and reconciliation of all creation, sustained always by Christ’s self-giving love. For this, and this alone, is the image of God that must shine through us. Amen. Ω
A reflection on John 3:1-17 given to Sanctuary, 8 March 2020 © Alison Sampson, 2020. Image credit: DESIGNECOLOGIST on Unsplash.
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