Faith: A Reflection on John 3:16

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Today’s Gospel reading contains one of the most famous verses in the Bible. “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.”

Unfortunately, this verse is sometimes used as a cudgel to beat down people who don’t hold the proper beliefs.

It is a beautiful verse that can be read as a one-sentence summary of the New Testament. The writer of this Gospel was making a point to people in the early church who believed but were scared to live their faith out loud.

Well, I have a confession to make. I don’t believe.

At least, I don’t believe all the things that many Christians would say that I must believe in order to be saved.

I want to be clear that I truly, deeply believe in the God who made us and redeemed us. But let me give you a few examples of what I don’t believe.

I don’t really believe God made the world as we know it in literally seven days. I don’t believe there was literally a talking snake in a tree talking to the first two humans on Earth.

I don’t believe there was a flood so big that it covered and destroyed the entire world.

Those were stories handed down through generations that gave a particular group of people a shared understanding of their relationship with their Creator. And I’m good with that.

But then there are also some things I don’t believe — that really DO matter.

I do not believe people who have had trouble with the law or with addiction are irredeemable, throw-away people. I do not believe in casting human beings aside, and I don’t believe in vengeance.

I don’t believe science should be ignored, twisted, misrepresented or cherry-picked for religious reasons.

I don’t believe God created me better than anyone else because of my skin color or because I was born within these national borders.

I do not believe people who are LGBTQ+ are an abomination in the sight of God. I don’t believe it’s okay to treat them — or anyone else — like garbage. I don’t believe that who they are and who they love will mean eternal punishment.

I don’t believe in a God who would do that. If they are banned from Heaven because of who they are, well, then I don’t believe there’s much room for me there either.

Nor do I believe a loving God will sentence that kind of eternal punishment to people who hold different beliefs, largely a product of the culture into which they were born.

I don’t believe God heaps suffering on people. Of course, people do experience suffering. And when they do, I don’t believe in trivializing it by suggesting that God has a reason for it.

Suppose feelings of hurt, loss, grief, abandonment, rejection or whatever lead to someone doubting God. What then? I most certainly don’t believe that faltering faith will bring about a terrible, final rejection from God.

And once in a while, when I myself am in that boat, when the whole world seems God-forsaken and broken, I’m not sure what — or even if — I believe.

Of course, this all means that in the eyes of many, many people, I’m a terrible Christian… if I’m even really a Chistian at all.

So, now that I’ve made that confession, I want to share something else with you. There is a lot that I DO believe.

I believe in a loving God who created me, and you… you… and you. Who created each of us in the image of God. Who claims each of us. Who knows us and calls us by name.

I believe in a God who never gives up on us. Who bears our pain and loss, our suffering and burdens. A God who is in the thick of it with us.

I believe in a God who forgives me for my doubt and gives me faith and hope when I can’t find it inside myself.

A basic tenet of our faith in this church comes from our second reading this morning, written by the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 2:8-10. Here’s what he wrote:

“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God — not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what [God] has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”

I’ve come across many people who are convinced that their belief is their ticket to Heaven. They’re proud that they have made the right choice, and they are more than happy to point out the failure of others to believe the right thing.

If I become so proud of choosing the right belief system that I look down on others, then my belief becomes an idol. I might pay lip service to Jesus being my savior, but I am claiming at least some of the credit for myself.

That just doesn’t work.

No, no. I believe, as Paul wrote, that we are saved by grace, through faith. Let’s go a little deeper here.

What about this idea of being saved and having “eternal life”? Eternal is a big word. It’s really hard to wrap our heads around that. In our modern interpretation, we typically think of eternal life as only referring to life after death.

But another way to understand the word “eternal” is a state of being whole. Complete. Unbroken. Rather than linear time running forever forward, it’s like an unbroken hoop. A circle that binds our lives together with each other and with our Creator.

What I am telling you is not that I disbelieve in life after death (because I do believe in that), but rather that today’s very famous Gospel reading is about us, here, now.

God so loved the world that God gives us grace — love and forgiveness that we did not earn. Through the Holy Spirit, God gives us faith… and that’s different from the right set of beliefs.

Do I believe God is real, and that Jesus Christ died on a cross and was raised from the dead? I don’t know… I don’t have the kind of certainty that comes with scientific proof.

But I have faith, and that is a true gift because faith is alive. It’s active. And it’s given to me — and to you — from God.

So, yeah. I believe in life after death, but I don’t believe God put us here to worry, fret and lose sleep over that.

I believe God put us here to live fully. To love deeply. To serve and help each other. To walk beside each other and learn from one another. To show each other that there is hope.

I believe Jesus came to Earth in human form so we would know God is not distant. That God understands and shares in our daily struggles and fears. In our laughter, happiness and joy.

I believe God put us here to take care of the environment and all the world’s resources responsibly.

I believe we were made to celebrate. To sing, dance, make music and art. We were made to learn. To honor and nurture our relationships with God and each other.

I believe in the cross. That the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ means you and I have been made new. That we are not defined by the things we’ve done wrong, said wrong, or believed wrong. We’re not defined by whatever we might have screwed up. We are defined by the bond we have with God, and our call to trust, love and serve.

I believe we were made to share this good news.

You don’t have to believe what I believe. You don’t have to disbelieve what I disbelieve.

But I do believe — with all my heart — that God made you good. God loves you. God claims you as family. God wants you.

If you believe that, then it has the power to start making your life whole again. If you aren’t sure whether you believe that, then pray for God to give you faith amid your uncertainty. Continue to be with people who can share their faith with you.

And whether or not it makes sense in your mind, take this to heart. You are made in God’s own image. You are accepted. You are loved. And though your life will have struggles, you were made to have a life that is whole. THAT is truly something to believe in.

Let us pray: Lord, sometimes we fail in our belief. But you lovingly made us — called, named and claimed each one of us. We ask that you keep refilling us with your gift of faith for lives that are eternal and whole. Amen.