The story goes that Mark Twain was asked if he believed in infant baptism. “Believe in it?” he supposedly replied with mock astonishment, “Hell, I’ve seen it done!”1
The word believe causes all sorts of problems. Too many people treat their belief in God like their belief in free speech: some kind of license to be obnoxious without taking responsibility for the damage they do. Belief isn’t an especially helpful word for preachers, either. Most of you Working Preachers recognize that your job on Sundays is not to convince a skeptical audience that they need to change their minds and believe in—or intellectually consent to—the existence of an unseen Deity. Usually the challenge is to help an audience open themselves up more freely to truths they’ve already been told and say they believe. An effective sermon has to pick a lot of locks over the span of twenty minutes.
Of course, people’s operating theologies always need adjustment, but the best sermons do more than challenge the mind. They urge us to listen again to promises that most of us have heard before. They urge us to stop resisting the claims God makes to us, about us, and around us.
When you pore over John 3:14-21 this week, every time you encounter the verb “believe,” substitute “trust” instead. It’s there five times, each one a form of the verb pisteuō. Jesus is asking his hearers to trust that, in him, God has given a gift of love. Jesus urges them to commit themselves to that reality and all it entails. Trust will change a person. God’s love has consequences.
How does one merely believe in love, anyway? Believing in love is comfortable. Trust is riskier. Trusting in another’s love entails surrender.
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I find it difficult to grasp and open myself up to the kind of love that John’s Gospel celebrates, a love that originates in God, directed toward the whole world. For one thing, the world that Jesus describes in John is so undeserving.
It revels in its own love—not just its preference, but love—for dwelling in shadows and perpetuating evil. Moreover, I’m dumbfounded by what John tells us because it’s so hard to believe—no, it’s hard to trust—that God’s love will be able to make a difference and really draw people out into the warm daylight of Divine embrace.
Locally speaking, the world’s reactions to the pandemic have perfectly reiterated the judgment that Jesus describes in John 3. Here in the U.S.A. we live in a world where people were given the opportunity to make sacrifices to protect vulnerable and exploited populations and they chose personal indulgence instead.
Everyone believes that it’s good to love their neighbor. But we live as though only our closest circles of like-minded friends and ideological mirrors really qualify as neighbors. The rest are strangers who have to fend for themselves.
It’s not as though the love of God was wasted on the world. But the evidence suggests that such love hasn’t really caught on here as something to imitate.
It’s a challenge, Working Preachers, to preach on Divine love as something we should rely on. Love, when we trust in it, fosters courage and encourages self-giving. Congregations want to know if their preachers really believe that God’s love is really all that. Even more, congregations want to know if their preachers really trust in that love.
Of course, that doesn’t come easy. Trust wavers. To keep preaching the love of God through the year we need reminders of its persistence and allure.
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At the college I attended an 85-year-old brick bell tower stood alone in a corner of the main campus. It’s a rich man’s memorial to his deceased partner, and so inscribed near its base are words from the Song of Solomon: “Love is strong as death” (Song 8:6). Every once in a while I’d take a longer route across campus to pass by the tower so I could see those five words and ponder how they could express both disappointment and trust at the same time. I had always assumed death was stronger than love. It has a more extensive and reliable record of accomplishments, as far as I can tell.
My point of view missed some important truths about love, though. Love’s strength does not reside in an ability to render death less fierce. Love doesn’t promise to end suffering. Love, instead, carves out sanctuary amid the distress. The love of God means blessing and belonging, even when the world around us chooses the way of death and self-interest.
More to the point for this week’s preaching: love is magnetic. Its power is desire. It will draw you out, and draw you in, like you’re a curious undergraduate who keeps changing his path to look at the bell tower again.
James K.A. Smith, in a recent column, describes the power of love to fuel desire as he converses with Augustine’s Homilies on the Gospel of John:
[Augustine] pleads, “Give me a lover and he feels what I am saying: give me one who yearns, give me one who hungers … give me one like this, and he knows what I am saying.” God’s revelation, he goes on to say, is not a message in a bottle, like bits of information sent across the abyss to be received by the intellect. Rather, God’s self-revelation is a magnet for desire. “This revelation is what draws. You show a green branch to a sheep and you draw her. Nuts are shown to a boy and he is drawn. And he is drawn by what he runs to, by loving he is drawn, without injury to the body he is drawn, by a chain of the heart he is drawn.”2
Smith refuses to romanticize what it is like to be drawn by love while inhabiting a culture of death and abject selfishness. He urges us in Christian leadership to communicate “not simply [as] a philosopher with ideas to teach but [as] a co-pilgrim alongside my neighbors, all of us wondering if the darkness will overwhelm us.”
As you prepare for preaching this week, take the risk figuring out what it means for you to trust in God’s love. Then share it with others who make this exhilarating journey with you. What a privilege it is to have the opportunity.
- I’ve never seen this story substantiated, but I’ll keep telling it (attaching cautionary footnotes like this one) until someone demonstrates that it’s false.
- James K.A. Smith, “The Intelligence of Love,” The Christian Century 138/5, 10 March 2021; online: https://www.christiancentury.org/article/how-my-mind-has-changed/i-m-philosopher-we-can-t-think-our-way-out-mess