You used to see them with some regularity in sports stadiums around the country, especially in the area between the goal posts, about halfway up the seats. Anytime one team or the other set up to kick a field goal or an extra point, a guy would hold up a poster emblazoned with phrase “John 3:16.” I often wondered how they got the cash for those seats, if it was just one person or if there was a gang of them. If they coordinated together so that there weren’t two signs in close proximity. The message, of course, is the most famous of Bible references, a verse I bet many of you learned by heart back in your Sunday School days.
A Lenten sermon on John 3:14-21.
I memorized it myself in the King James version when I was 8 or 9. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” What the sign guy hoped to accomplish involved people watching the event at home opening a Bible, reading the verse, and then believing in Jesus in order to get to heaven. Because that’s how this verse was explained to me back then. God loved the world so much, that God sent Jesus to die for our sins. And if we believe in him, then we gain entrance into heaven after we die. So belief in Jesus became in part the Golden Ticket to eternal life in the hereafter.
Included with that were some rather stark beliefs based on the verses that follow. “Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already because they have not believed in the the name of the only Son of God.” And then those bits about the people loving darkness more than the light because of their evil deeds and receiving that darkness as judgment. This came after our gospel writer had written that God didn’t send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but Jesus was sent in order to bring salvation to the world.
So which is it? Is it God loved the world so much that he sent Jesus not to condemn the world but so that the world might be saved through him? Or is it that the ones who don’t believe in Jesus are already condemned since they love darkness more than the light because their deeds are evil, and evermore they shall be?
Author and pastor Rob Bell describes an art exhibition at his church that grew out of a sermon series on being peacemakers in the world. One woman included a quotation from Mahatma Gandhi as part of her work. Many people attending the exhibit commented on the power of her piece. However, another person didn’t care for it at all and attached a piece of paper with the words, “Reality check: [Gandhi’s] in hell.” Bell writes, “Really? Gandhi’s in hell? He is? We have confirmation of this? Somebody knows this? Without a doubt? And that somebody decided to take on the responsibility of letting the rest of us know?” Of course the note writer, whoever he might be, made the jump from Gandhi being a Hindu so therefore he did not believe in Jesus as the Son of God, ergo he missed out on eternal life and ended up in hell when he died.
“For God so loved the world,” John declares to us in powerful and profound words. And Pastor Paul Shupe writes in response, “It is possible to read the whole of Scripture, from the creation to the eschaton, as God’s love story for the world.” Shupe then goes on to detail the many places we can see God’s love on display in the whole of scripture, from the Exodus and the commands to care for the needy and eradicating inequality, to the poetry of the psalms written in adoration of God and used in worship at the temple in Jerusalem. God’s love raised up prophets to point out the injustice in Israel and declare God’s desire for compassion—especially to those who were marginalized or seen as outsiders. And then Pastor Shupe details this same movement in the story of the Early Church when the love of God moved beyond Jesus’ first followers who were almost entirely Jewish to the inclusion of Gentiles—non-Jews—and to those “whose very existence was troubling” including the lame, the blind, and the eunuchs. God’s love for the world led God again and again to express that love in surprising and profound ways.
As a priest I need to own that the Church has, since its inception, deemed some worthy to be recipients of God’s love and others not worthy. (Notably but unsurprisingly, the ones making such declarations always included themselves on the inside track with God.) Early on in the church the question revolved around whether a follower of Jesus needed to circumcised, of they needed to follow thee whole of the Jewish law to be a believer. No, was the answer after a significant debate at a church council. (See Acts 15). Even though Jesus himself was a devout Jew, some proclaim today that only Christians—and sometimes only particular types of Christians—will earn eternal life, while the rest of the world will be punished forever. (While growing up I heard that all Roman Catholics were doomed for eternal damnation save maybe Pope John Paul II and Mother Theresa). These days in addition to right belief in Jesus, some make determinations of eligibility based on things like sexual orientation, telling queer people that they are not loved by God simply because of who they are. It seems that we like making up the rules determining who is and who is not included in that love of God; who it is that has chosen the light or found themselves condemned in the darkness.
For God so loved the world. The world. Last I checked, all people are included in that designation no matter who they are, so clearly they are all beloved by God.
The longer I serve and follow Jesus, the more I experience that deep and unconditional love of God, not just for me, but for everyone. For my Muslim friends who worship God faithfully in a different way from me. For the transgendered teen who is discovering who she has been created to be by God. For the one racked by guilt because of choices made in his past. For the person who has dealt with more pain than you could ever imagine and wonders what they’ve done to make God so mad. For the lonely divorcee, and the one with the drinking problem. For the Central American at our southern border, and the politician who votes so very different from me. For God so loved the world. Period. Period.
In my head I hear the voices of people from my upbringing asking me the question, “So then, what’s the point? If God loves everyone and gives eternal life to everyone, why bother following Jesus? If you’re a priest and you say this, if you believe this, then you’re just plain wrong. You don’t really know God.” Put another way, I imagine them drawing the line of who’s in and who’s out and putting me on the far side.
Perhaps they’re right; maybe I don’t know the God they worship anymore, who narrows down the love offered to the world to only those who get it right, for those who have found their way into God’s good graces while the rest of us are ignored by God. Yet what I’ve uncovered is a God so much more expansive than I could have ever imagined. A God whose love for the world means just what it says. That God doesn’t give up on anyone who walks the face of this planet, but keeps on loving them, leaving 99 behind in order to find that one whose lost their way. I see how Jesus opened his arms to the needy and the forgotten, the despised and the sinful. He brought healing and hope, he empowered women, gave a place of honor for children, and ministered to foreigners and outcasts. The ones he was hardest on were the ones who thought they had God all figured out, especially when it came to who was and wasn’t in when it came to matters of faith. He confronted those looked down on the sick and despised the poor. And Jesus continued to hold out his hands to them as well, inviting them to a better way themselves. For God so loved the world.
For God so loved you.
Could we take our gospeler’s more prophetic words and hold them up to the ones that follow? Can we believe that God’s love for the world does not have any of the limits we might place on it, and that even those we deem are living in darkness, God can meet and love them there too? Can we, as Pastor Shupe puts it, become a community of faith that believes God’s love isn’t in “short supply, open only to those who have seen and confessed Jesus as the Christ, but rather [God’s love is] poured out upon the entire world?” That’s what I’m going to keep on doing myself. To believe in God’s desire for the entire world to know and experience God’s deep and redemptive and life-changing love.
I’d like to ask you to do something right now. Take just a moment to be silent and still and imagine Jesus gazing into your eyes with love. Right now, go ahead and do that, imagine Jesus looking directly at you with care and love.
When I asked our Lenten book group to do that this week and then give voice to what they were feeling, they expressed a deep sense of peace and acceptance. Of Jesus giving them an unconditional, and overwhelming sense of love.
That’s the God I serve, and will continue to serve for the rest of my days. Jesus came in order to show us God’s love, and to bring us eternal life now in this age, in this lifetime, in this world and in the age to come. There are those who live in the darkness not because God doesn’t want to bring them light, but because they have never experienced it. Because they have believed what others have said about them that they are not worthy of the light of God’s love, that they will always be outside it. And it is our job, our call, our gift to share that good news with them. “For God so loved the world.” For God so loved you, no matter who you are or where you have been. God loves you and always will. Amen.