Monday, February 1, 2016

Saving the World: A Reflection on John 3:16

“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.”
John 3:16

Several years ago on a Wednesday morning I was planning the worship service with Kim Wertz, our Music Director at the time, and Carol Reale, who was then and is now our Pastor of Christian Education and Family Ministry. 

As we were talking about the sermon, I said something about how the material was pretty heavy going. And Kim said, “Sometimes when you get into what various theologians or scholars think, I feel like I get lost in the footnotes. It’s good to know about Barth and Fosdick, or whomever, but I also want to know what you believe. It’s not that I’m going to believe whatever you believe, but that I want to know where you are in all of this.”

So I wrote this with Kim’s comment in mind. 

I think it’s important to look at where we are in the tradition and where it has taken us over the years. But it’s also important to say that this is what I believe, and this is why I believe it. Before we look more closely at this text, to use a thoroughly non-Methodist manner of speaking, let me put my cards on the table. 

I believe that we come from God and we go to God. I believe that God is the one who gives us life, and in the end, God is the one who calls us home. I believe in what theologians call universal salvation. My guess is that this is really what most United Methodist pastors believe, if you really press them, but most pastors would not say it as directly as I would. 

I believe that no one is ever lost. In the end, we all go home to God.

My friend Kent Moorehead used to say that every preacher has just three sermons. He or she may dress them up in different ways and present them with different illustrations connected to different biblical texts, but it’s still just three basic sermons. 

The truth is that I don’t even have three sermons. I have one sermon. It’s about the grace of God.

In the Bible, there are passages that speak of God’s grace and others that speak of judgment. There is a tension between them. But in the end, we have to decide where we will come down. I believe that the Apostle Paul is right when he says that “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.” I believe that has happened and it is the truth on which everything else rests. I believe that grace is the last word.

“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.” It is a beautiful verse and it is one of the best loved verses in the Bible. But it is also a source of division. 

Unfortunately, it has often been used by Christians to give a message of exclusion. In this judgmental reading of the text, the main point is that those who believe in Jesus have eternal life, and those who do not believe, perish. In this reading, the point is not grace, but judgment. 

It is as if the verse said, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who did not believe in him would go to hell.” We can see immediately that whatever else it might mean, it cannot mean that. It cannot mean that the point of Jesus’ life and teaching was to expose non-believers and condemn them.

For God so loved the world

God loves the world. God loves what God has made, even though that world has in so many ways turned against God and rejected him. Nevertheless, God loves the world. For Greeks and Romans, this was an astonishing thought. Pagan gods and goddesses were distant, aloof, judgmental, capricious and uncaring. The notion of a compassionate God was a foreign concept.

God loves the universe; the cosmos. God loves people and plants and animals, mountains and rivers and streams, oceans and deserts and prairies and forests. God loves the stars and the planets. And it is more than just the natural world. God loves art and music, poetry and drama, great cities and little villages. God loves technology and science and medicine. God loves civilization and culture and society. It is not always good. It is not always what it should be, but it is still loved by God. And God loves the process by which it becomes something new and better, the progress of the ages. God loves culture in the same way that he loves human beings. We are loved as we are, but we are supposed to change and grow.

That he gave his only Son,

God sent Jesus to show us what God is like, and to teach us what God expects from us. This is the gift of God’s presence among us. Sometimes this giving of Jesus is interpreted as God sacrificing Jesus for us. In this crude understanding of the Doctrine of the Atonement, the idea is that God is angry with human sin, and there must be a sacrifice to appease God’s anger. Jesus takes our place, and dies for us, so that his death pays for our sins.

This crude theology is morally suspect. 

It is as if you, as a parent, had four children. Three of them were impossible. They were mean and cruel. But the fourth child was perfect and was exactly the kind of person you wanted him or her to be. And you were so angry that you were ready to kill the three horrible children, but you decided that you would kill the perfect one instead. And somehow, killing the perfect child would get rid of your anger toward the other three. 

You wouldn’t do that. No parent would do that. And I don’t believe God would do that, either.

Jesus did not die because God was angry with humanity. He died because his perfect faithfulness collided with human sin. He was faithful, even to death. He gave up his life rather than deny who he was or to whom he belonged. His faithfulness challenged Herod and Pilate, and collided with the empire. He held out the Kingdom of God, and highlighted the differences between God and Empire. He challenged everything that was wrong with the world, and for that he was killed. In that inevitable collision, as Paul said, “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.” But his death was caused by human sin, not by God’s anger.

So that everyone who believes in him

We speak of believing as if it were the same as thinking or guessing. “Do you believe the Red Sox will get back to the World Series?” That is not a faith question. (Okay, maybe it is a faith question, but you get the idea.) We believe that one candidate would make a better president than another. We believe that we need to get enough sleep and exercise.

But believing, in the biblical sense, is not the same as thinking. And it does not mean agreeing to a set of propositions. It is not giving assent to a doctrine. To believe, in the biblical sense, is to give one’s heart. When we say that we believe in Jesus, we mean that we give our hearts to him. If we live in him, he will live in us.

May not perish but may have eternal life.

Eternal life is the gift which Jesus offers to his followers immediately. They can choose to live the abundant life which God offers today and live, from now on, in the unending presence of God. The alternative is to continue in their old lives. The offer holds within it an element of self-judgment. We have to decide where we stand.

We do not become Christians by osmosis. We do not become Christians by sitting next to other Christians, although it helps. We do not become Christians by going to church or by studying the Bible, or by singing hymns, though all of that helps. We become Christians by asking Jesus to come into our lives and deciding to follow him.

In our choosing, we determine our own experience.

We can choose to live consciously in the unending presence of God from now on. Or not. But our decision does not determine whether or not God loves us, only how we experience that. 

God is saving the world. The whole we world. Because God loves the world.

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