The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
I would imagine that some of you listening to this gospel would have preferred if the deacon had stopped reading at the middle of verse 18. At this point, Jesus has said that God loved the world, sending his Son not to condemn it, but to save it, so that all who believe in him would have eternal life. The good news.
But then it goes on…those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. The bad news.
There are, of course, Christians who are perfectly comfortable with the second part, insisting that all non-Christians lie outside the grace of God. I’m not one of those.
The way I see the Bible and the teachings of the church is that they were written by divinely-inspired but also very human authors, who were doing their best to express something that is ultimately inexpressible. They wrote poetry about a mystery. And like all poets, sometimes they got carried away.
The author of John’s gospel and St. Paul both had this overflowing enthusiasm for the power of the risen Christ. They knew from their own experience that those who placed their trust in Jesus would enjoy a life-changing relationship with him. They would enter into a new state of being, which they called zoe, “eternal life.”
And sometimes their enthusiasm took them over the edge. They became like the man in love who begins by saying “I’m in love with the most wonderful woman in the world. She has changed my life.” But then he goes on to say “In fact, all other women are rubbish, and those who love them have no idea what true happiness really is.”
I think that the good news really is good, and not bad news. A relationship with the risen Christ is life-giving. Period. We needn’t then go on to say that those who don’t have it are condemned and living in darkness. And I don’t mind saying that I think that the author of John, Paul, and some of our theologians have overreached in doing so.
So let’s stick with the good news. Those who believe in Christ will enter into a new state of being, into eternal life. But what do we mean by “believe?” Some think that belief is agreeing with things like the Nicene Creed – being able to say “Yes, those things are true.”
But everything in the gospels, everything in the life of the saints, everything in our own experience tells us that belief is something far deeper than agreeing that something is true.
In John’s gospel, Jesus said that those who live in him will become one with God, that if we eat his body we will live forever, that we must be born from above, that when he lives in us he will be for us light, bread, living water, a gate.
This is not about agreeing that he is the second person of the Trinity. It is an experience that comes from placing our trust in him and letting him live through us.
On the Sunday I returned from India I spoke about my experience in the historic St. Francis church in Fort Cochin, India. (By the way, you generously gave $2,800 that day to help fund their program that assists 10 of their poorest families. That was a big, spontaneous response, and they are very grateful.)
At any rate, St. Francis’ Vicar, Fr. Jacob, was talking to me about the tourists who wander in and out of the building every day. He said “By looking into their eyes I can tell those who believe – no, those who trust in God.” He knew the difference between intellectual belief and a living faith. When he said that I wondered “What is it that makes possible this living faith?”
This conversation came at a time when I was reading about Hinduism, visiting their temples, and learning how for them, a living faith is deepened through devotion.
A person who chants the name of Krishna with a sincere and humble heart takes on something of Krishna’s character. One who pours their devotion towards the Divine Mother becomes like her. The subject and object become one. This practice of devotion is called bhakti yoga. In the Bhagavad-Gita, which is perhaps their most sacred scripture, it says:
Not through sacred lore,
penances, charity or sacrificial rites
can I be seen…
By devotion alone can I, as I really am
be known and seen
and entered into…
(Bhagavad-Gita, Ch. 11 vs. 52-53)
The object of this devotion is to various forms of God, but it can also be to an avatar. An avatar is a human incarnation of God who appears on the earth in different times and places, just when they are needed. They consider Jesus, the Buddha, Rama, Krishna, Zoroaster, and many others to have been avatars. Again, the Bhagavad-Gita:
Whenever sacred duty decays
and chaos prevails,
then, I create myself…
I appear in age after age.
(Bhagavad-Gita, Ch. 4 vs. 7, 8b)
So Hindus consider Jesus to be for Christians our avatar, and all our practices of devotion to Christ our form of bhakti yoga. By uniting ourselves to him in love, we take on some of his qualities. The subject and the object become one.
We do this in so many ways. Some repeat Jesus’ sacred name while gazing at a crucifix or an icon of him, and he seems to be looking right into their souls. Others meditate on his words in the gospels, and the teachings come alive in their hearts. Some sing What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear…He walks with me and he talks with me, and he tells me I am his own. Here in this place, during the vulnerability of worship, we open our hearts, we take in his body and blood, and we become one with him.
Or as Jesus himself prayed in the gospel of John, Father, I pray that I may be in them and they in me, that the glory you have given me may be in them…and as St. Paul said It is no longer I who live but Christ in me.
Over the years I’ve learned a tiny bit about Buddhism, about psychology, quantum physics, neurology, and now Hinduism. All of these insights have served to broaden and deepen my central Christian core.
One of the many things I took away from India is the certainty of how deeply Christian I am. Jesus is imbedded way down in my soul. He walks with me, and I am his own. We’ve been through a lot together, and I’ve placed my trust in him again and again.
This is the path of devotion, our bhakti yoga. By giving our hearts to the object of our devotion, we blend. Through devotion, all that Jesus lived and taught becomes internalized in us.
Because if we have spent the time softening our heart, exposing our sins and our suffering and our most passionate hopes, directing them towards our friend Jesus, if we given ourselves to him in worship and tried to understand who he is and what he asks of us, then he will live in us, and we become a little like him.
Like him, we see with compassion those who suffer, feeling their situation with them.
Like him, we are more likely to stand up against wrong and speak out for the ways of God. Like him, we learn to forgive our enemies, to love simply because people need love and God’s love is coming out of us, not because they’ve earned it. Like him, we gain more trust in Abba, our Father in heaven, and know that in God’s time, according to God’s purposes, all shall be well.
This is what it means to believe in Jesus Christ. There is no bad news lurking in the shadow, no hidden threat. If we place our trust in him, he will come to us and set us free. This is the good news we return to in this holy season.