In some of the old hymnals, there's a song called "Stepping in the Light" (I've always found the title humorous and have joked, "Well, if I'm going to step in something I'd rather step in light"). My congregation's most senior members love to sing it at our weekly potluck luncheon. Here's the chorus:
Stepping in the light, stepping in the light,
How beautiful to walk in the steps of the Savior,
Led in paths of light.
It has a very light and peppy feel, and I visualize skipping or dancing, something like what Dorothy and friends did as they sang "Follow the Yellow Brick Road."
It's interesting: there are lots of songs and hymns that have as their context a "before and after" picture of finding faith in Christ. Hank Williams' song "I Saw the Light" proclaims, "Now I'm so happy, no sorrow in sight; praise the Lord, I saw the light." Of course, there is the most well-known of all, "Amazing Grace." "I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see."
What happens when we come into God's light, find God's salvation, and open ourselves to God's Spirit? Spiritually speaking, what if it's not so much going from blindness to sight but from unknown blindness to known blindness?
The New Testament lectionary texts for this week include some familiar passages: "For it is by grace you have been saved..." (Ephesians 2:8), and, "For God so loved the world..." (John 3:16). As is usually the case, the most well-known passages are often the most misinterpreted.
For example, the Ephesians passage says that grace is the prerequisite of salvation, and faith is the conduit. Most evangelical preaching gets that backwards.
John 3:16, too, is far too often preached without reference to context. It should be at least notable that the most oft-used verse today for preaching to those outside religious circles was originally spoken to someone very much IN religious circles (Nicodemus). But besides that, the encounter has many other fascinating yet unexplored themes. The lectionary designates 3:14-21, which includes a mention of John's characteristic theme of light.
This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God. (John 3:19-21)
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This is particularly powerful when paired with the imagery of rebirth earlier in the John 3 conversation. Jesus tells Nicodemus, "You must be born again" (John 3:7). I don't think we take this metaphor seriously enough. Think about the condition of a newborn or very young child. Helpless. Unlearned. Trying to move without help. Experimenting with many unfamiliar things. Fascinated with the new.
Yet, some of the most self-assured, authoritative, I-know-the-answers people I have known are those who have adopted the identity of a born-again Christian.
All the imagery in John—birth and light—is describing quite a different experience. Finding God is an experience of being "exposed," of having to lay bare all that which we would prefer to keep hidden. We are "seen plainly" in God's light, and none of us measure up. Coming to faith in Christ is supposed to be an experience of learning to see the world as God sees it—in God's light—and it looks so different from that viewpoint that it's as if we're having to learn how to walk and talk all over again. With our own prejudices and expectations stripped away, we fumble at best. The problem is that, too often, Christianity is presented as merely a confessional belief system instead of a beautiful yet traumatic reordering of our life. As it did with Nicodemus, it should leave us saying, "How can this be?" (John 3:9)
As I considered in a post several years ago, we take too much credit. Am I reduced to humility when I think I have a special revelation from God, or do I flaunt it and revel in new-found self-vindication? We don't see light; light allows us to see.1 We don't know God; God allows us to know.
Later in John's gospel, Jesus heals a blind man. When he is questioned about Jesus, he famously says, "Whether he is a sinner or not, I don’t know. One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!” Able to see he was, but imagine the journey he had ahead of him. He had been born blind. So everything he had ever heard of—every object, every person, every place—had looked a certain way in his mind's eye, but upon "seeing the light," he would have begun the long, arduous journey of having to recontextualize everything.
A journey that surely requires much patience, humility, and stumbling around.
1 I'll give credit to Peter Rollins for this quote. I first heard it from him, but I don't think it's original to him.↩