While I wait for the Rankin home to stir, a thought on the Christmas Day Gospel reading from the Book of Common Prayer:
John 3:36 – “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but must endure God’s wrath.” (NRSV)
It’s always risky to lift a single verse from its context. I’m keeping that caution in mind as I reflect on what catches my attention: belief and obedience are held together in parallel. Believing in the Son means obeying the Son.
Let’s run the thought backwards. Disobeying means disbelieving. Think about that. The Gospel reading for Christmas Day(!) speaks warning. Every year during the Christmas celebration, I feel torn. Who cannot love the Christmas story? A composite of scriptures narrates the Son, who though he existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be held on to. In the incarnation, God the Son, embarks on The Mission. John’s Gospel makes clear that Jesus understands his mission – doing the will of his Father and accomplishing his work. The Son obeys the Father, not slavishly, childishly (just trying to stay out of trouble), but actively embracing and engaging the mission.
We love the “God with us” part of the Christmas story. We love the Prince of Peace. We love the candlelight and the angels singing. I love it. But once we commit to that part of the story, we commit to the rest of it. All of it. A lifetime of obedience. Do we realize what we’re doing when we celebrate Christmas?
Believing in the Son means obeying him. Believing in the Son means walking in the light as he himself is in the light (1 John 1:7). Walking means obeying.
What do I think “obey” means? I don’t think that John envisions the kind of control a parent has over a small child. Anybody who reads the Bible the least bit seriously knows that we must make wise, sound and knowledgeable interpretive decisions to sort out what we think God is telling us to do. We bring agency and initiative, not wooden, plodding rule-keeping, when we obey.
Maybe a helpful analogy for the kind of obedience presented here would be more like a good employee who knows the boss’ mind and consistently takes initiative to stay in line with the boss’ character and vision of how things should go. That employee does not wait around for the boss to issue every command or thoughtlessly follow instructions. That employee understands the boss’ mind, respects the boss and is fully engaged in the boss’s mission.
Sounds like a decent understanding of discipleship.
John 3:36 says also that there is a consequence for not obeying the Son. We won’t see life. We’ll endure God’s wrath. The literal rendering of the Greek word that the NRSV translates “must endure” could be translated “remains.” The one who disobeys remains in God’s wrath. It’s the same word translated as “abide” in other parts of John.
And what about the wrath of God? (Must I really talk about wrath on Christmas day? Well, today’s Gospel reading speaks of it so I feel I must.) I imagine a kind of “leaving in” in God’s wrath, as in a person being left in a particular situation or condition. God leaves us to our own foolish devices. A person who remains, who is stuck in the same pattern of confusion, darkness and sin, endures God’s wrath. I’m sure there’s more to the idea, but this is enough for now.
God forbid that I should try to take edge off anyone’s Christmas celebration today. Let us drink deeply of its joy. Let’s just remember what our celebrating Jesus’ birth commits us to.