Faith as a verb: A sermon on John 3:16

by the Rev. Anna Doherty

John 3:16 is one of the most famous verses in Scripture:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

We see it on bumperstickers, T-shirts, tattoos, posters…

We hear it in music and songs, both religious and secular…

John 3:16 is, in many respects, a beautifully succinct and wonderful way of describing the Good News of Jesus Christ.

And yet, at the same time, this passage that can help to clarify and deepen the life of faith, has also been used to exclude or judge people in their faith.

That somehow, if you don’t believe in the right things, you won’t be saved.

Or that those who don’t believe will perish and be denied the eternal life,

that is given only to those who properly have faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God.

It appears as though there’s not a lot of room for doubt or questions in John 3:16, and it seems as though there is no room at all for nonbelievers.

It’s important to remember, that Nicodemus, in coming to Jesus, approaches Jesus with both questions and reserve.

Nicodemus, as a Pharisee, is one of the well-respected and learned interpreters of Hebrew Scripture.

Nicodemus knows the scripture,the law of Moses, he knows what to believe and how to act according to the religious standards of his day.

To even come to Jesus with questions, suggests that Nicodemus might be struggling in his faith, not sure quite what to believe.

Which calls into question Nicodemus own identity, who he is and what he does, a Pharisee.

And, to be fair, coming to Jesus in the middle of the night suggests also that Nicodemus doesn’t really want to be seen.

Nicodemus doesn’t want his conversation and questions with Jesus to be open and public…

Maybe Nicodemus fears being censured for talking to this Jesus who is so far outside the religious establishment.

Or maybe Nicodemus doesn’t want to be seen asking questions at all;

that somehow, to have doubts or uncertainties in his faith would undermine his status as a leader.

And, let’s be honest, even when Nicodemus asks Jesus his questions, Nicodemus completely misunderstands what Jesus is talking about.

Jesus talks about the gift of the Spirit, and Nicodemus thinks Jesus is talking about literal rebirth…

…I would venture to say that Nicodemus leaves his conversation with Jesus with more questions than answers.

From beginning to end, Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus is framed in terms of Nicodemus’ questions, doubts, and fears…

And it is in this context that John 3:16 is uttered.

Knowing that, I suspect that Jesus says this wonderful encapsulation of the Gospel to Nicodemus,

not as a way of condemning Nicodemus’ doubt and fear,

but instead as a way of calling Nicodemus into deeper relationship with God and the world.

Nicodemus, for all that he doubts and questions who Jesus is, goes on to be depicted as a man of deep faith.

Sixteen chapters later in John’s gospel, Nicodemus helps to prepare the body of the crucified Jesus for burial…

…giving Jesus’s body the respect reserved for true leaders and teachers of God’s people.

We can see, in the context of the story, that Nicodemus is a man of faith, even with his doubts and fears.

And this is an important realization.

Doubting, questioning, being afraid, not being sure, none of that changes who we are as people of faith.

Jesus words in John 3:16 aren’t meant to qualify people based on how deep their belief is…

Jesus simply invites people into a deeper relationship with God.

Just look at the Greek.

The word that is translated as “believe” in today’s gospel is the Greek word Pistuoh.

Pistuoh is the verb form of  the noun pistos, which means faith.

In other words, in Greek, the word pistuoh is faith in action.

It’s a doing, rather than simply a thing.

One of the limitations of the English language is that we don’t have a verb form of faith.

“Faith”, in English, can only be used as a noun.

So, instead we say things like, “to have faith”, but still, it makes it sound as though faith is an object that we possess or we act upon;

we either have it or we don’t.

In an attempt to fix this limitation, the English translates Pistuoh in today’s gospel as “believe”,

a word, in English, that can be both a noun: “belief”, and a verb, “believe”.

But it’s still not quite the same meaning.

A better way, perhaps of translating pistuoh would be to say “trust”, rather than “believe”.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who trusts in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

Thinking of faith in this way, changes the meaning, doesn’t it?

In John’s gospel, the word for faith, or to believe, is always pistouh—it’s always a verb, never a noun.

It’s something we do, not something we have.

Imagine, if you will, if we approached all the other aspects of faith in this way.

Imagine saying the Nicene Creed for example,

as “ We trust in God, the Father, the Almighty…

We trust in one Lord, Jesus Christ…

we trust in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life…”

Faith, rather than being dogmatic or dualistic, something we either have or we don’t have, black or white,

Faith instead becomes something we live out, a process, a journey, a path…

Which is really, I believe, how Jesus means for his followers to live it.

I know, in my own life of faith, that those moments when I doubt God, or when I am angry at God, or deeply uncertain about God’s promises…

Those are the moments when I actually engage most deeply with God.

Doubts, fears, uncertainty, they are faith.

They are the moments when we are called to trust, to pistuoh, to live our faith, in a way that just being absolutely certain would never allow us to be.

It doesn’t make those moments of doubts, fear or uncertainty any easier, perhaps, but it does still make us people of faith.

Perhaps all the more so, because in those doubtful and uncertain times of our lives, faith isn’t taken for granted or assumed to be easy.

It’s an ongoing, constant, embodied living out in the world.

We often forget, when we read or hear John 3:16, about the line right after it, John 3:17:

“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

If we understand faith as an action that is ongoing and lived out, not merely as a catalogue of beliefs that we subscribe to…

then all of a sudden, John 3:17 makes more sense.

We are saved, the world is saved through Jesus, not simply because we believe the right things all of the time…

…but because we are in an ongoing loving relationship of faith with God and the world,

and that relationship is lived out in the world.

God’s love is seen, felt, and experienced every day by people in the world, living their lives, living their faith…

Faith becomes embodied, it becomes real, simply by us living it.

It’s not solely about what we believe.

It is also about how we live.

Faith, pistouh, is both.

For God so loved the world that this is the kind of faith that Jesus calls us to, as those who trust in him.