Scriptures: Psalm 121, John 3:1-17
In John 3:1-17 my sympathies are with Nicodemus. He acknowledges that Jesus is "a teacher who has come from God," (Jn. 3:2) but in the gospel account Jesus simply uses Nicodemus as a foil. "No one," Jesus says, "can see the kingdom of God without being born from above." When Nicodemus questions how this can be, Jesus speaks to him, as if he is ignorant. "What is flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit." (Jn. 3:3-6)
Jesus doesn’t explain but alludes to Moses lifting up a serpent in the wilderness and says: "so must the Son of Man be lifted up," if those with faith are to have eternal life. (Jn. 3:15) Then the gospel of John records a statement that is often quoted by Christians to explain their faith: "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." (Jn. 3:16)
We might well ask for some proof that God loves the world. In the first century, the world was under Roman rule. In the twenty-first century, the world is largely under American rule. Is this evidence of God’s love? In either century? Moreover, the Hebrew scriptures, which were read by Jesus and the author of this gospel, say little about God loving the world, but rather tell of God’s covenant with the ancestors of the Jews. God’s "steadfast love," Nicodemus might counter, quoting a phrase that is common in the Psalms, is for us, the Jews, the chosen people, not for the world.
The gospel, however, proclaims that God’s love for the world is manifested in the death of the Son of Man, because eternal life comes through faith in him. Apparently, God does not love the world as it is, and either cannot or will not change it. Instead, God offers eternal life to all those in the world who have faith in Christ.
Faith, the gospel of John tells us, is the key to eternal life. But what is faith?
It is not belief. In John 3:16 the verb is usually rendered in English as "believe in," but in the Greek gospel this is the verb form of the noun that we translate as faith. In English "faith" doesn’t have a verb form, but shares the verb "believe" with the noun "belief." Generally, when we mean belief we say "believe that," and when we mean faith we say "believe in."
In contemporary English belief refers to propositions we hold and convictions we assert. Faith refers to relationships, to trust, to being faithful. Belief is a state of mind; faith is a way of being.
Many Christians will dispute the distinction I am making by claiming that Christians are saved by their beliefs, but conservative and liberal Christians will differ in how they state the beliefs required of a Christian. Conservatives will emphasize believing that Jesus is the Son of God and that the Bible is the infallible or inerrant word of God, whereas liberals will focus on believing that God is love and that Jesus shows us the way to God through his life and death. These differences in belief are important, as they most likely affect the way these Christians live. But belief is not faith.
Read the New Testament and substitute the word "belief" wherever you find the word "faith." If that isn’t convincing enough, substitute the verb "believe that" wherever you find "believe in." Still not persuaded? Then try to replace the words "faithful" and "faithfulness" with "belief-ful" and "belief-fulness." These words don’t exist, you will say, and I reply, "That’s the point." Faith and belief are different words with different meanings, and the New Testament is about faith not belief.
Yet, in drawing the distinction between faith and belief, we’ve only said what faith isn’t. If faith isn't belief, what is it? The best synonym for faith is trust. Christian faith is trust in Christ, trust that God is in Christ.
For us this means trusting that the God of the Hebrew scriptures is the God of the New Testament. The Christian Bible tells us that the God who created Adam and Eve, the God who freed the Israelites from Egypt, the God who gave the law to Moses, the God who anointed David King of Israel, the God who called the prophets to judge their people of Israel, the God who used the Babylonians to destroy the temple in Jerusalem, and the God who used the Persians to have the temple rebuilt, that this God became flesh in Jesus Christ and was crucified by the rulers of the world, so that all people might have eternal life.
I don’t blame Jews for finding this unbelievable. The dying God on the cross is not the God they know through the Hebrew scriptures. Actually, I don’t blame anyone, who finds this unbelievable, because I find the beliefs extrapolated from the Christian Bible to be largely unbelievable.
But we should not be judging Christians by their beliefs. The point isn't whether or not we have the right beliefs, but our faith.
The Apostles’ Creed is not a litmus test of Christian beliefs. The Apostles’ Creed does not say, “ I believe that God is the Father Almighty," nor does it say, “ believe that Jesus Christ is the only Son of God . . . ." The Apostles’ Creed does not say, “I believe that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary" and so on. The Apostles’ Creed says: “I believe in . . . God, the Father Almighty…and in Jesus Christ his only Son…who was born of the Virgin Mary."
The verb is crucial. For "believe in" substitute "I have faith in" or "I trust in" and then say the Apostles’ Creed. "I have faith in God, the Father Almighty.” “I trust in God . . . and in Jesus Christ his only Son . . . who was born of the Virgin Mary." The Creed is an affirmation of faith and trust in the God we know through the biblical story.
We have faith in this God, the God we know through the New Testament. The Apostles’ Creed is not a list of propositional statements that we have to hold as beliefs, to be Christian,. Instead, the Apostles' Creed reminds us that faith in Christ means trusting in the God we know in scripture.
So, what does "faith in Christ" really mean? In faith, we enter into the kingdom of God by living, as Paul says, in Christ. Faith is how we live out the Bible story. Faith is not a way of thinking, but a way of being and becoming. Amen.