Are You Saved? Is the Wrong Question

John 3:16 billboard
Photo credit: <a href="">Doug Floyd</a>

John 3:14-21

In the same way Moses raised the snake as a banner before the people in the desert, the authentic human must be a banner of real life for everyone to rally around. God loved the world so much that God gave God’s only child to make a way for anyone to follow out of certain death into real life. Certainly, God intended this child to be the world’s rescue, not it’s doom. Those who embrace him are not doomed. But those who don’t embrace him, because they refuse to embrace the way of life, are doomed, by definition.

The verdict is that the spotlight is on. People hide in darkness when they’ve done something wrong. Those who do wrong hate to be exposed and will do anything to avoid being exposed by the spotlight. But if you’ve done right, you’ll want to be in the spotlight so everyone can see the awesome things you’ve done.

Too often, the famous John 3:16 is lifted up (in the end zones at football games, for example) as if it were the magical snake in the wilderness, as if reciting this magical formula would change anyone’s mind.

What the gospel has in mind, though, is that people live authentically human lives as a banner for new life to gather around, and the gospel points to the life of Jesus as being the touchstone of that authentic humanity. It takes more than reciting a theological proposition – even a scriptural one – to lift that banner. It takes embracing a life-giving way of life. It means turning and walking away from life-diminishing activity to life-affirming activity. It means living honestly enough that you have nothing to hide.

The spotlight is on. Forget about “Are you saved?” the more important (and useful) questions are: Are you really who you say you are? Are you really who you appear to be? Are you the same person when (you think) no one is looking? And when you are who you really are, are you authentically human, or are you trying to be something else?

More than “Just a Memory”

man praying at western wall
Photo credit: <a href="">Brian Jeffery Beggerly</a>

John 2:13-22

Just before the Jewish Passover, Jesus went to Jerusalem. In the Temple he found the vendors selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the bankers were also there. He made a whip out of rope and chased all of them out of the temple. He drove out the cattle and sheep, spilled the bankers’ cash boxes everywhere, knocked their kiosks over, and told the dove sellers, “Get these things out of here! Quit making God’s house into a strip mall!”

His students remembered the verse: “I’m obsessed by my devotion to your house.”

The Jewish leaders asked him, “Who gave you permission to do this? Show us a miracle to prove it.”

Jesus answered, “Demolish this temple, and I’ll rebuild it in three days.”

“This temple has been under construction for 46 years!” they said. “And you’re telling us you can do better in 3 days?”

He was referring to his body as a temple. After he returned from the dead, his students remembered what he’d said. Only then they embraced what was written, and what Jesus had said.

In Mark, Luke, and Matthew, the story of Jesus’ temple invasion comes at the end of the story, where it’s the final straw of Jesus’ opposition to the establishment, and sets in motion the events leading to the crucifixion.

A generation later, John tells it near the beginning of the story. The political tension is gone. With the conclusion of the episode, Jesus walks out of the temple as easily as he had walked in. Instead, John uses the story to make a point about the community’s collective memory.

Twice, John tells us, the disciples remembered. As the episode ends, John ties their remembrance to their belief, to their commitment.

Communities can use memory either as a help or a hindrance, and there are plenty of examples of both, and in churches they often center around buildings.

On the one hand, Jesus is obsessed with the proper use of the building, and this obsession becomes a mnemonic touchstone of his followers. On the other hand, the proper use of the building is not really about the building, but about Jesus and what he will do to break free of faith bound to time and materials. John holds these two memories in a balance that prevents them from deteriorating into mere nostalgia (remember the good old days), or turning the means of ministry (a building) into the end itself (God).

At it’s best, community memory is a means of embracing what has been to propel the community forward, not to hold it down to an ideal time or place.

Jesus and the Skeptic

man walking toward the light in the woods
Photo credit: <a href="">Hartwig HKD</a>

John 1:43-51

The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Phil and said, “Tag along!” (Phil was from Bethsaida, the same city Andy and Pete were from.)

Phil found Nate and said, “We’ve found the guy Moses and the truth-tellers were talking about. He’s Jesus, Joe’s kid, from Noweheresville.”

“Nowheresville?” Nate said, “Nothing good’s ever come out of Nowheresville.”

Phil said, “Just come and see.”

When Jesus saw Nate coming, he said, “Now here’s a real patriot! Not a skeptical bone in his body.”

“You don’t know anything about me,” Nate said.

Jesus said, “I know you were sitting under a fig tree when Phil called you.”

“Professor,” Nate said, “You’re the divine one! You’re Israel’s king!”

Jesus said, “You’re saying that just because I told you I saw you sitting under a fig tree! You’ll see bigger things than that. No joke. I’m telling you you’ll see the open gates of heaven and God’s messengers coming and going to the human one.”

Beyond this incident, Nathanael is mentioned only at the end, post resurrection, among the seven who encounter Jesus after an unsuccessful night’s fishing (Jn 21:1-3). So the disciple who questions whether Jesus will amount to anything turns out to be one that disappears into the woodwork.

The whole point of Jesus saying, “Not a skeptical bone in his body,” is that he’s skeptical through and through. Not to mention that a true patriot would never address a peasant from Nowheresville as king and mean it.

When Nate says, “You’re the divine one,” Jesus calls his bluff, saying he will see God’s messengers come only to a human one, but it’s ok, since being human is an “even greater thing.”

In the midst of all this sarcasm and skepticism, the point is that Nate’s expectations of the messiah are completely the opposite of who Jesus really is, and who in spite of that, is still promised, “no joke,” that someday he will see.

For now, Nate is only engaging because he’s going along with his friend Phil. He’s a second-hand disciple. Jesus didn’t call him, Phil did. If Jesus had called him, he probably wouldn’t have come. But that’s ok, too. Because that’s how many of us got into the movement. We were skeptics just checking it out as a favor to a friend. Until we really did see for ourselves that it’s greater to be human.

Merry Christmas

Christmas Child
Photo credit: <a href="">Julien Harneis</a>

John 1:14

The word was born and lived with us.
We have seen how precious he is:
As precious as a parent’s only child,
A gift in which unfathomable reality fully abides.

The man whose birth we celebrate today became the one we celebrate by showing us that the birth of every child has the capacity to change the world.

Behind the mythological stories of Christmas (both ancient and modern), and underneath the shreds of wrapping paper leftover from mere indulgence lies the hope that we might begin to treat every child as having that capacity.

Where we see that kind of love, and when we live our own lives in the reality of it, there is something profoundly worth celebrating.

Merry Christmas!