Thursday, March 24, 2011

A Question to Myself
John 3:1-17[1]
It seems to me that most of us are not great risk-takers. We want our lives to be comfortable, and safe, and predictable. And we turn to Christian faith to provide us that comfortable, safe, and predictable life. We want our faith to be something that we can depend on, something we can rely on, something we can count on. So we take faith and make it into certainty in order to fill that need for assurance. At least that has been the traditional approach, which construes the Christian faith as the truth that was “once for all” delivered to the faithful and preserved inviolable throughout the centuries in an infallible text and an infallible church.
Before we point the finger at other Christian traditions as the offenders here, we’d better look to our own roots. The Reformed confessions from the Sixteenth Century depict faith in this very way. The Second Helvetic Confession, from the Swiss branch of the Reformed Church, says that Christian faith is “a most firm trust and a clear and steadfast assent of the mind, and then a most certain apprehension of the truth of God presented in the Scriptures and in the Apostles’ Creed.”[2] That doesn’t leave much room for doubt. [3] And the Westminster Confession, which was the confession of faith of the Presbyterian Church for centuries, hardly even speaks the language of faith—it’s all about knowledge and absolute truth and certainty. It’s easy to understand why we look for this certainty in our faith. It’s comforting and reassuring to have something firm to hang onto in the midst of all that’s changing in our world.
But in our gospel lesson for today, Jesus speaks very differently about faith. In fact, what he had to say about new life was so confusing to one of the “teachers of Israel” named Nicodemus that he misunderstood Jesus meaning completely. Jesus said, “you must be born from above,” but the way he said it could also be understood, “you must be born again.” That’s what led Nicodemus to think Jesus was talking about some kind of bizarre ritual by which an adult physically climbs back into the womb and is born a second time. In fact Jesus was talking about a different kind of birth—a birth that brought new life from the Spirit of God.[4] And I can just picture Nicodemus sitting there, scratching his head.
It’s no wonder. Jesus said what he was talking about was like the wind blowing. He said, “You can hear the wind, but you don't know where it comes from or where it is going” (John 3:8). Now, Jesus wasn’t talking meteorologically. These days all we have to do is turn on the Weather Channel and we can see the precise atmospheric conditions that are generating the wind we hear when we walk outside. But if you don’t have access to any modern technology, and a wind comes upon you suddenly, you’re just as surprised and baffled as if you were living in the First Century. The new life that Jesus points us to is just as much a mystery as the wind can still be.
Because it is so mysterious, there is something inherently uncertain about what God is doing in our world to bring new life. Like a sudden wind that takes us by surprise, the newness that God brings to us is something that overwhelms us. When God’s Spirit blows into our lives, we are out of our element and find ourselves exposed and vulnerable, placed in a situation where all we can do is “sink to our knees in faith and hope and love, praying and weeping like mad.”[5] If that is the case, it seems to me that we have to acknowledge that there must be something inherently uncertain about our faith.[6]
So what in the world makes us think that we can somehow take that mysterious spiritual reality that is beyond our ability to understand or explain, and turn it into absolute knowledge and certainty? What makes us think we can try to make faith into something safe and manageable and predictable?[7] For some, I dare say it’s a matter of keeping faith convenient, seeking to limit our response to God’s new life to “how little can I get by with.”[8] This approach to faith is a little like a teenager preparing for an exam, and trying to get by with a minimum of effort.
I think that for many, this obsession with certainty stems from “a repressed fear that faith is only faith and as such a risk with no guarantee of anything.”[9] But that is precisely what faith is: a risk with no guarantee of anything! No matter how we try to make this life safe and comfortable and predictable, there is something inherent uncertainty about life. That uncertainly applies as much to our faith as it does to any other aspect of life. I think St. Augustine was talking about this uncertainty when he reflected on all he had done and not done, despite his best efforts, and he said: “I have become a question to myself.”[10] One of the greatest Christian thinkers of all time basically admits that, for all his insight into faith, he doesn’t even understand himself!
It seems to me that the only way to take the risk of faith is to acknowledge this “question to myself,” to acknowledge that we don’t even understand ourselves, let alone the new life, or the Spirit of God. If we’re going to take the risk of faith, we have to reckon with the fact that when the wind of God’s Spirit blows new life into our lives, it is not going to be safe and predictable.[11] When God’s Spirit blows into our lives, we will find ourselves exposed and vulnerable. In that moment, we may want to try to hang on to our lives and keep all the pieces manageable and predictable and save. But if we are going to take the risk of faith, we can only respond by opening ourselves to new life God brings. We can only respond by allowing ourselves to be vulnerable and therefore changeable. We can only respond by saying, “Here am I.”[12] I think that’s what the Bible calls faith.

[1] © 2011 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 3/20/11 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] “Second Helvetic Confession,” The Book of Confessions 5.112.
[3] Cf. the similar statement in the “Heidelberg Catechism,” The Book of Confessions 4.026, explanation of “I believe in God the Father Almighty,” says, “I trust in him so completely that I have no doubt that he will provide me with all things necessary for body and soul.”
[4] Cf. Sandra M. Schneiders, “Born Anew,” Theology Today 44 (July 1987): 189-96.
[5] John Caputo, On Religion, 12; cf. also p. 31: “Something grander and larger than us comes along and bowls us over and dispossesses us.” Cf. also Otto Weber, Foundations of Dogmatics, II:255-56, 355-56.
[6] Keith Ward, God: A Guide for the Perplexed, 185, 190, 194-95, 197-98, 204, 209-216; cf. Caputo, On Religion, 8, 7-16, 19, 23-34, 53. Cf. Karl Barth, Romans, 98-99, where he says, “Faith always involves “a leap into the darkness of the unknown.” Cf. also Karl Barth, Word of God and Word of Man, 76, where he says that faith impels us “out and on to the edge of all experience, thought, and action,” and compels us “to attempt to leap off into the air, where obviously no [one] can stand.”
[7] Cf. Caputo, On Religion, 12, where he observes that we want our faith “manageable, cut to size and proportioned to our knowledge, so that we know what to do in the present situation and what to expect in the future.”
[8] Cf. Caputo, On Religion, 28. He warns that those who think they “specify and determine in well-formed formulae what they love when they love their God” must be careful that it does not turn into “an easy irresponsibility and complacency” or “a convenient answer, which substitutes for responding ‘in spirit and in truth’ (John 4:24).”
[9] Cf. Caputo, On Religion, 124; cf. also Caputo, 35-36, where he describes this approach in terms of “closing the circle of faith, to slam shut the doors of faith from the intrusions of other faiths or of un-faith, to keep faith behind closed doors, safe and secure, and thus to suffer the illusion that there is some way to settle the question whose very meaning is to be unsettling.”
[10] Cf. Caputo, On Religion, 18, 27.
[11] Cf. Caputo, On Religion, 12-14; see especially 33-34: “Faith is not safe. … Faith is always—and this is its condition—faith without faith, faith that needs to be sustained from moment to moment, from decision to decision, by the renewal, reinvention, and repetition of faith …. Faith is always inhabited by unfaith, which is why the prayer in the New Testament makes such perfect sense, ‘Lord, I do believe, help my unbelief’ (Mark 9:24). For my faith cannot be insulated from unbelief; it is co-constituted by unbelief, which is why faith is faith and not knowledge.”
[12] Cf. Caputo, On Religion, 28.

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