THAT YOU MAY BELIEVE . . . . AND HAVE LIFE
A sermon by Rev. Richard Miller, Minister at Trinity United Church, Montreal, Quebec. April 27, 2003. John 20:19-31.
But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name. (John 20:31)
"That you may have life in his name." Now whatever is that supposed to mean? Don’t we already have life? Aren’t we already alive – not only physically, but spiritually too? After all, we are Christians, aren't we? We are people of faith, aren't we? We are people who have received the light and the life of Jesus Christ. We already have life. It is other people who need life. That's why we provide a church, isn’t it – so they can come and receive life too?
And so, you and I may be reluctant to admit that we need “life in his name.” And yet – and yet, we have this bothersome little feeling that things are not quite right. We have this sense that our own life is not quite what it could be and should be. And so when we read this scripture text – or when we hear it read, we may find that our eyes light up and we feel a fullness in our chest. Because, when we are honest with our inner selves, we know that we need this life that the gospel-writer St. John is talking about. We know that we need it more than anything else in the whole world.
Don't we? Listen again:
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name. (John. 20:30-31)
Now I could stop here and give you a lesson in Bible scholarship, and tell you what different scholars think about this passage and the portions of it. In fact, I can get so enamoured with what the scholars say that I forget what the gospel itself is all about. Can you believe that? Well, it’s true. It is possible to become so engrossed in the puzzles and problems of the scriptures that we lose sight of what the Bible is for in the first place. And what did we say were the closing words of Chapter 20 of John’s Gospel? “These [words] are written so that you may believe . . . and have life.”
One thing that I find interesting is that in John’s Gospel these words come directly after the resurrection of Jesus and his appearance to the disciples. You see, the experience of the resurrection is something that can completely overwhelm us. And when we experience it, we may be like Peter was at the Transfiguration. Do you remember how that went? Peter just wanted to stay there in the presence of Jesus and Moses and Elijah, didn’t he? Sometimes we too may just want to stay in that wonderful place – to pitch our tent and dwell there in the glow of the resurrection. But today's scripture makes it clear that this is not an option. When we have experienced the resurrection, we are not to set up camp and live there, neither are we to hide somewhere behind locked doors. The resurrection is not something for us to clutch on to. No the resurrection is so that we may believe and have life. That we may believe and have life.
I think of a gospel song which I learned when I was younger: "Sing them over again to me, wonderful words of life." That's what the words of the gospel are: they are wonderful words of life. The words of today’s reading are wonderful words of life. The words of Jesus – as well as all the actions of Jesus – are wonderful words of life. They are there for us – for you and for me. They are there so that we may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing we may have life in his name. You see, this gospel was written for Christians whose life needs to be restored and renewed and regrounded in faith in Jesus Christ. Whatever else we may think this gospel is, let us be clear about one thing: It is for you and me to believe – and have life.
We may forget that, you know. We may assume that it is just a story about the life of Jesus. Or that it is some kind of religious tract like to ones that people hand out on the street. Or that it simply tells us how to follow Jesus. And all of these things are true at one level. But they are not the primary thing that the Gospel is about. According to John, the purpose of the gospel is that we may believe, and that believing – and that believing, we may have life in his name. So, believing or having faith is not an end in itself; rather it is through our faith that we come to be in Christ. Faith is the door by which we enter into the new life that came into the world in Jesus Christ. Our faith brings to us have the new life of the resurrection.
Today we have witnessed to that faith and that new life as Eric and Sharon have affirmed their own faith, and not only for themselves, but also for baby Sarah as they brought her for baptism. Baptism is many things, of course, and it evokes many images of faith and of life. And in all those things, baptism affirms the covenant of God with us. When we baptize, we are claiming the promise God has made from the beginning.
Think for a moment of the ways that water is a symbol of both death and life. We cannot live without water; but if we get a few drops of it in the wrong place in our body, we cannot live at all. Think of the water of the womb which sustains the embryo before birth. Think of the effort we make to water plants and flowers to keep the alive. Think of the water that came from the rock during the Exodus, and sustained the people in the midst of the desert. And think of how Jesus once described himself as “living water” – or life-giving water. When we come to the font, that is what we come for, isn’t it? We come for the life-giving water of God.
Like Holy Communion, the sacrament of Baptism is a source of the life we need, it is a means of the grace of Christ, and it is a channel though which you and I receive these things. And it is also our response to Jesus Christ. You see, when we come for baptism – either for ourselves or our children, we are not just passively receiving a means of grace. We are also believing and responding – responding to the grace of God and manifesting the faith that Christ has given us. And we are embracing life in his name – the resurrection life that is for all of us.
I began by saying that we may not like to admit that we need this faith and life. I think of times when I become sort of lifeless. You know. When I become inert. Depressed. Weighed down. I refer to myself, but I have known lots of people who have such times. Maybe we all do in one way or another. Well, this happens to our faith as well. The candle has not quite gone out, but it isn't burning brightly either. The flame is flickering and barely visible. One hymn-writer has said, "In times like these, we need a saviour. In times like these, we need an anchor. Be very sure your anchor holds and grips the solid rock." And our gospel-writer has said, "These [words] are written so that you may come to believe....and that through believing you may have life" – life in his name.
Think of the times when life has gotten you down. Think of the times when you didn't know if you could keep going or not. For these are the times to hear what the St. John is saying, and then to harken to his words: "believe....and have life. . ." Amen.