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I have picked the lectionary readings from the Feast of the Holy Cross that fell on September 14, that is yesterday.
According to tradition, Saint Helena, mother of Constantine, discovered the True Cross when she was on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The feast of the Holy Cross on 14 September marks the dedication of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusaelm in 335.
The two readings for today are from the Book of Numbers 21, and John 3. I am sure many of you are familiar with John 3:16.
21:4b but the people became impatient on the way.
21:5 The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.”
21:6 Then the LORD sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.
21:7 The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.
21:8 And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.”
21:9 So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.
3:13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.
3:14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,
3:15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
3:16 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.
3:17 Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
“Whoever believes in him may have eternal life”
What does believing in Jesus mean?
Does it mean affirming a set of ideas / beliefs about Jesus to be true?
Karen Armstrong, renowned author and historian, writes:
“It was during the late 17th century, as the western conception of truth became more notional, that the word “belief” changed its meaning. Previously, bileve meant “love, loyalty, commitment”. It was related to the Latin libido and used in the King James Bible to translate the Greek pistis (“trust; faithfulness; involvement”). In demanding pistis, therefore, Jesus was asking for commitment not credulity: people must give everything to the poor, follow him to the end, and commit totally to the coming Kingdom.”
πιστεύω pisteuō (pis-two-o)
In a sermon Brene Brown gave at the Washington National Cathedral in January last year, she called herself a Borg-again-Christian. No, she wasn’t assimilated by aliens (for Star Trek fans here) – she was referring to the late Marcus Borg, one of the leading voices in progressive Christianity. Brene Brown said it was Marcus Borg’s ideas that brought her back to church.
Like Karen Armstrong, Marcus Borg also pointed out that being Christian is about believing a set of teachings or doctrines is a relatively recent distortion of Christianity.
He writes: “It began with the Reformation of the 1500s and the Enlightenment of the 1600s and continues today. Protestants distinguished themselves from Catholics by what they believed compared to what Catholics believed. Then Protestantism divided into many churches, each distinguishing themselves from others by what they believed.”
Of course, the language of “believing” has been part of Christianity from the first century onward. But it didn’t refer primarily to believing the right theological beliefs. It meant something like the English word “beloving.” To believe in God and Jesus was to belove God and Jesus. Namely, it meant to commit one’s self to a relationship of attentiveness and faithfulness. Commitment and fidelity are the ancient meanings of faith and believing.
Even the two most frequently heard Christian creeds, the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed, reflect this understanding. They both begin with the Latin word credo, most commonly translated into English as “I believe.” But the Latin roots of credo mean “I give my heart to.” Of course, both creeds include a list of central Christian convictions. But saying the creed does not mean, “I believe the following affirmations to be literally true.” Rather, it means “I give my heart to God” – and who’s that? The creator of heaven and earth, of all that is. “I give my heart to Jesus – and who’s that? The one we say these things about.
Moreover, believing as “believing the right things” does not intrinsically lead to a changed life. It is possible to have strongly-held beliefs, even more or less right beliefs, and still be unchanged: fearful, self-preoccupied and self-concerned, angry, judgmental, mean, even brutal and violent. Christian history and the history of other religions are filled with examples. Believing has little transformative power.”
Let us return to the passages – do you know what happened to the bronze serpent?
In 2 Kings 18:4, King Hezekiah destroyed the serpent. “He broke into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made, for up to that time the Israelites had been burning incense to it. (It was called Nehushtan.[a])
The bronze serpent had become an idol – and instead of being a reminder of God who is the power behind the healing, the Israelites began to worship it.
Have we, like the Israelites, made the cross into an idol?
Can the cross be an idol?
The cross becomes an idol when it becomes the object of worship instead of pointing to God as the one we worship. The cross is an idol when we make our faith about believing a set of doctrines, which is easy to do, instead of giving our hearts to God, and responding to Jesus invitation to give to the poor, follow him to the end, and commit totally to the coming Kingdom which is very, very difficult do.
When we look at the cross, are we reminded of our relationship with Christ, with God, or do we make it an object of worship?
Marcus Borg writes:
“But I now see that believing in Jesus can (and does) mean something very different from that. The change is pointed to by the root meaning of the word believe. Believe did not originally mean believing a set of doctrines or teachings; in both Greek and Latin its roots mean “to give one’s heart to.” The “heart” is the self at its deepest level. Believing, therefore, does not consist of giving one’s mental assent to something, but involves a much deeper level of one’s self. Believing in Jesus does not mean believing doctrines about him. Rather it means to give one’s heart, one’s self at its deepest level, to the post-Easter Jesus who is the living Lord, the side of God turned toward us, the face of God, the Lord who is also the Spirit.
Believing in Jesus in the sense of giving one’s heart to Jesus is the movement from secondhand religion to firsthand religion, from having heard about Jesus with the hearting of the ear to being in relationship with the Spirit of Christ.”
You see, when we think that believing is a matter about believing the right doctrines or teachings, we have been understanding John 3:16 “For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” as a transaction.
When we take Marcus Borg’s approach – the progressive Christian approach – to give our hearts, ourselves in the deepest level to Christ, we understand John 3:16 as relational.
It is an image of the Christian life not primarily about believing or being good but as relationship with God. That relationship does not leave us unchanged but transforms us into more and more compassionate beings, “into the likeness of Christ.” It is the vision of the Christian life spoken of so eloquently by Paul in a densely passage in 2 Corinthians:
And we all, with unveiled faces, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the likeness of Christ from one degree of glory to another. And this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.” 2 Cor 3:18.
This transformist understanding of the Christian life sees Christian life as a journey of transformation that leads from life under the lordship of culture of the life of companionship of God.
“God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
We are not engaged in a transaction with God – we believe, and we get eternal life. Rather we are saved through our relationship with Christ as we are transforms us into more and more compassionate beings, “into the likeness of Christ.”
And this is not a salvation just from hell – but a salvation for all of creation. Because as we are more compassionate, more connected with creation, we will live and act in alignment with God – for the common good for all.
It is as we become more in the likeness of Christ that we are able to give up what we have, give of ourselves to God’s work in this world.