Bethany Lutheran Church - Ishpeming Michigan
John 3: 1-17
I would like to begin by saying it is a blessing to be with you today at Bethany Lutheran Church. I have had the honor of spending quality time with your Director for Evangelical Mission, Katherine Finnegan, with Bishop Skrenes, with Pastor Warren and his wife Kathy, and your synod council and I have been treated like royalty. So I am thankful to be preaching here today. Today’s Gospel lesson is one of those that as a preacher you read it and re-read it and re-read it and you ask yourself, “Where do I begin?” There is so much to tackle in these 17 verses I must admit, I was a little overwhelmed.
But, I went to some bible resources and they did not put it this plainly, but if you read the fine print, they suggested not to just jump to what is probably one of the most known bible passages, John 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 have eternal life.” ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him, many not perish but have eternal life.”
This passage is often held up on poster board at sporting events. I have seen countless tee shirts with this passage. If you ask Christians what is their favorite passage from the Bible, many will identify this one. Anyone here today willing to admit this is their favorite? Do you want to preach today? I will touch on this passage, but I want to briefly talk about Nicodemus.
Nicodemus is a leader among the Jews and he comes to see Jesus. Well, we know that this is a problem for Nicodemus because the Jews were struggling with things Jesus was saying and doing that contradicted their belief system. When you read the Bible you always have to notice the choice of words. It says Nicodemus came to Jesus by night. He probably did not want other Jews to know he was coming to see Jesus.
And Nicodemus begins to ask some faith questions and Jesus responds with some answers that seem to confuse Nicodemus. I do not want to get into the exchange between Nicodemus and Jesus, but let’s just say, Jesus gives him answers, but Nicodemus seems to still be a bit confused. One Biblical scholar writing on this passage wrote something that made me really think. She suggests that just as Nicodemus sometimes finds faith unclear, or ambiguous, if we were honest, we do as well.
She suggests that if we take believing as a verb, because we are human, that believing comes with ambiguity, uncertainty and indecisiveness. Nicodemus asked Jesus the following when Jesus answered his faith questions, “How can these things be?.” Of I was going to ask Jesus a question about faith I might ask a question one of the biblical scholars wrote in a commentary I read, “What does faith look like when it is active, living, freeing and changing?”
Well, I am certainly not Jesus, but I think I came with that answer today. My title at the churchwide office is “Program Director for Faith Practices and Book of Faith. So I go around the country and talk about how we are to live out our faith in daily life. There is a team of clergy and laypersons that I work with called the ELCA Faith Practices Team and we have developed numerous resources for our ministry.
In the year 2,000, the ELCA had a focus on discipleship called, “Call To Discipleship” and developed 7 faith practices from that program, Pray, Study, Worship, Invite, Serve, Give, Encourage. When I came to the CWO 2008, we started the faith practices team and one member of the team said that these 7, Pray, Study, Worship, Invite, Serve, Give, Encourage, can be for any faith tradition and perhaps we needed to have some practices that showed that we believe in Jesus Christ. So we did some intense study and reflection and decided that we would use the promises that we say at baptism as the Faith Practices for the ELCA. Those are:
Now, someone here might suggest that we do not need to practice our faith because God’s grace is not something we earn. There is nothing we have to do to earn God’s love. Trust me, I totally agree with you. I did not grow up Lutheran but became Lutheran because I was attracted to the theology of the Lutheran church. There is nothing I have to do to earn God’s love? I do not have to know the kings in the Bible in chronological order or have 1,000 Bible passages memorized for God to love me? That was truly a source of comfort to me.
But what does it say in that famous passage found in John 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.” So if we have a love so deep, so unconditional, so strong, I would think we want to respond to that love. I am suggesting that our response to that love is to live out our faith in daily life and we use these faith practices as a guide for how we do that. In fact, to make sure that people do not see these practices as things we must do to earn God’s love, we call them “Five Gifts of Discipleship”, gifts that show us how to grow in our faith.
So I would like to talk about each of these gifts for just a brief moment. The first, to live among God’s faithful people. Sometimes I am asked, “Why do I have to go to church?” I can stay home and watch Joel Osteen on television.” And my response is that there is a lot to be sais for being part of a community where people who believe what you believe come and worship together. What a gift to have a congregation such as this where you can come together and worship and praise God together! Through your interactions here you learn to love, forgive, to offer hope, you share peace and understanding. You pray for each other. In your diversity of age, gender, ethnicity, personality, etc, you join together to make the world a better place through your ministry. You live out this gift by reading and studying God’s word; praying for each other and regular participation in worship.
Next, To hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s Supper. As we read and hear the scriptures, we are both challenged and offered hope. As we take in the bread and wine, we receive the love of Jesus and forgiveness of sin. As we take in that love and forgiveness in the bread and wine, we take that out into the world and share it with others, especially the lonely, the oppressed, the poor, the hungry the imprisoned, the angry and those suffering in mind, body and spirit. We live out this gift by public reading of scripture, listening to the sermon, prayer and taking communion.
The third gift of discipleship is Proclaim the Good news of God in Christ through Word and Deed. This means we tell the story of how our faith has made a difference in our lives. We also strive to show in our deeds that we are followers of Christ, so we share love, peace, hope, joy and forgiveness out in the world. We live out this gift by inviting others to church where Christ is proclaimed, talking about our faith in our homes and community and living prepared to give a reason for the hope within us.
The fourth gift of discipleship is Serve all people following the example of Jesus. This means we get involved in the lives of others. Just as Jesus valued relationships, we should value relationships. So we look for those whom we can accompany as they are in need of assistance as they live out their lives. We live out this gift by visiting the sick and imprisoned, feeding the hungry, giving of our resources.
And the last gift, Strive for justice and peace in all the earth. God calls us to speak out when injustice is evident and chaos abounds. A justice mindset is one way we live out our faith. A mindset and a heart filled with peace is also a way we live out our faith. We live out this gift by praying for peace among nations and peoples, forgiving as we have been forgiven by God; loving all of humanity, respecting everyone and seeing differences as a gift from God. This last statement is so beautiful, but seems so difficult for us to achieve. We have lost civility in our world. We no longer show manners such as holding the door for someone or saying thank you if someone does something for us. We walk into a room and do not greet anyone with a smile and/or a hello. Even animals sniff each other to make sure they are the same species. Justin Timberlake did a song about his bringing sexy back. I want to do a song about bringing manners and respect for others back.
Being a follower of Christ is no easy task. You are called to forgive when you want to hold a grudge. You are called to love, when you want to ignore. You are called to offer hope when there is no hope that you see. But when you get frustrated and wonder if you can really live a life of faith, remember the depth of love that you receive from God and how through your witness of your belief in Christ through, your words and deeds, you are helping to transform this world to be all that God wants it to be.
When I go out to speak I say there should be something different about us as Christians, not perfect , but different. If I see someone with a cross around their neck, I expect them to be a bit more patient, understanding and caring than a non-believer. I am of course wrong at times, but many times I am not. I am amazed at the love some Christians show in this world. So even on those days when you have questions about your faith like Nicodemus, remember, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone, I repeat, everyone, who believes in him, may not perish, but may have eternal life.” And that gift of love is amazing, wonderful and profound. I asked earlier, “What does an active, living, freeing, changing faith look like?” Hopefully it looks like you as you strive to live your faith in daily life, in thankfulness for the amazing grace and love of God. Amen.
Pastor Brenda Smith