Doing the Truth

Fourth Sunday of Lent Scripture Readings

Today’s reading from Saint John’s Gospel is quite interesting in that it’s made up of a very short saying from Jesus and a very long reflection on it from the evangelist himself. The passage comes at the end of Jesus’s discussion with Nicodemus, a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin who came to Jesus at night for fear of being recognized. In time, Nicodemus would become a devoted disciple. That transformation parallels the message we find in the gospel itself. The discussion Nicodemus has with Jesus is centered on the question of rebirth—emerging from one reality and entering into another through the ritual of baptism. One passes through the water to transition from one condition to another, from darkness into the light of day. Jesus concludes the discussion with the words quoted in our gospel passage, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”

If you’re unfamiliar with the reference to Moses, it’s taken from the Book of Numbers [21:4-9], where the Israelites were wandering in the desert and were being attacked by venomous snakes they referred to as “fiery serpents,” probably because of their painful bites. The remedy for those bites was a staff that Moses set up containing a bronze replica of a fiery serpent. Whoever was bitten by a serpent and looked at the staff would recover. It’s impossible to read this story without thinking of the staff of Asclepius, the Greek god of healing who carried a similar staff adorned with a snake for healing. Jesus uses the story of Moses to illustrate clearly the passage from sickness and death to healing and life. What’s remarkable in what Jesus tells Nicodemus is that, as the Son of Man, Jesus equates his own work with that of the passage from death to life. It’s also unavoidable to understand Jesus’s being “lifted up” as referring both to his being raised up on the cross and to his being raised up from the tomb.

The remainder of the gospel passage is most likely John’s reflection on what had gone before. He begins with a radical statement. He says, “God so loved the world …” It’s an unequivocal statement. God’s relationship to the world is nothing less than pure, unreserved, unconditional love and compassion. The concept of a punishing god derives from a misunderstanding of God’s relationship to his creation … particularly to humankind. Consider today’s first reading from the Book of Chronicles. Although we see there the people of Israel turning away from their faith in God and going their own way, we also see God continuing to reach out to them and asking for their return to him. Although the passage does speak of “the anger of Yahweh against his people,” was it actually God’s anger that inflicted punishments on them, or wasn’t it rather the consequences of their own actions that caused their suffering? God, much as he loves his people, loves them enough not to interfere with the consequences of their actions. Try it. Try rolling a boulder to the edge of a cliff and, at the last second, beg God to stop it from rolling over the edge. God will not shield us from the consequences of our actions.

Turning back to the gospel, we read that “… God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” Saved from what, if not the consequences of our infidelities? Infidelity means unfaithfulness. If the problem is unfaithfulness, then the solution must be faith. Let’s talk about that. We conflate faith with a belief in the existence of God. However, among the ancients, atheism was practically unheard of. True, Psalm 14 begins with the words, “The fool says in his heart, ‘there is no God.’” But, what follows is not a theological treatise on the existence of God, but rather a commentary on what we might call practical atheism. It reads, “They are corrupt, and their actions are evil; not one of them does good.” There’s nothing theoretical there. It’s all about faithless behavior. So, if believing in the Son of God is not an intellectual pursuit, what is it? What do we mean by faith?

The Greek word used in our gospels for both “faith” and “belief” is the word πιστις (pistis). My dictionary defines πιστις (pistis) as “trust in others.” Trust is not an intellectual pursuit, but an act of the will. Belief in God has nothing to do with understanding the Trinity. Belief in God’s Son has nothing to do with understanding the Incarnation. Belief in God has everything to do with trusting that the God who raised Jesus out of his suffering and death can and will do the same for us. We are saved from the futility and consequences of our selfish actions by choosing to trust in a loving God. It’s our trust in God that allows him to raise us up from our difficulties. Faith—that is, trust—in God sounds simple. Yet, it means saying to ourselves in every situation, “I can’t; God can; I think I’ll let him.”

Faith lies in our willingness to allow God to run the show. Doing it is a lot harder than saying it, especially when life appears to be careening out of control. That’s when we want with every fiber of our being to grab the steering wheel and say to God, “That’s all right. I’ve got this. I’ll take it from here.” As I’ve said many times, we don’t “got this.” We never did. We never will.

So what? Are we to just sit on our hands and hope that God’s going to do everything for us? Here’s a saying I particularly like: “God doesn’t do the dishes.” We all have responsibilities. We have responsibilities to ourselves, to God, and to others. Our trust in God is reflected in our behavior. If God gave his only Son so that we might not perish but have eternal life, then our responsibility is nothing less. We are called to give of ourselves to ensure our own bodily and mental health, our own spiritual health, and the maintenance of healthy relationships with one another. We are answerable for how we foster these relationships. Ours is to put in the effort, trusting that God will take care of the results.

The gospel ends on a reflective note, giving us an insight into the Last Judgment as it’s playing out in our midst right here and now. We don’t have to wait until the “end of the world” to know whether we’ve been saved or condemned. God has already provided us with everything we need. He’s given us a “boost up.” The only question now is, do we trust God? Are we willing to take the hand extended down to us to raise us up, or are we going to continue time and again to try to do it on our own? Why are we afraid to trust God? Do we fear we’re not going to get what we want? Is it acceptable for us to sacrifice others’ well-being so that we can get ours? We’re afraid to look at our choices too carefully lest we discover just how selfish many of them really are. It’s easier to keep ourselves in the dark. John reminds us that “…people preferred darkness to light because their works were evil.”

To wrap up our consideration of our Scripture readings, I want to point out a tiny but significant nuance in the last sentence. It’s not perfectly clear in our translation where it says, “…whoever lives the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God.” The better translation says, “…whoever does the truth…” We don’t generally think of doing the truth, but, in effect, that’s the essence of spirituality. The truth is what really exists without pretense or falsehood. Doing the truth means embracing reality—God’s reality—reality the way it is rather than how we wish it were. Doing the truth means accepting and embracing our responsibilities to ourselves, to God, and to one another, doing our level best as God would have us do, and leaving the results up to God. What we do speaks far louder than what we say. We profess our faith by trusting God and doing the truth in love.

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