About Wednesday I started praying for snow. My reasons were purely selfish. It had nothing to do with saving a disastrous ski season at Wintergreen. I just did not want to preach this sermon. Dwight e-mailed and dared me to tackle Genesis 12 verse 2. I almost called and asked if he would take the honor, but knew that to be the coward’s way out. Standing before me was perhaps the most beloved verse in the whole bible. I probably memorized John 3:16 before I could read. “For God so loved the world God gave God’s only son. Anyone who believes in him will have eternal life.” Through the years those words have thrilled, inspired, overwhelmed, and challenged me. Karl Barth, the 20th century theologian to which every other 20th century theologian must answer claims John 3:16 is the entire gospel in one verse. So why was I praying for snow?
Let me start from the beginning. The foundation of my belief structure begins with the concept of grace, a blessing I didn’t earn and a gift I don’t deserve. Frederick Buechner compares grace to, “the smell of rain, tears of joy, and a good night’s sleep.” So why have I lost so much sleep this week? Somewhere in my theological journey, as my world view has broadened and I have experienced grace filled folks from every walk of life, I expanded my definition of grace to include a final phrase. Grace is a gift with no strings attached. Unfortunately this puts me on a collision course with John’s famous text.
In John 3 Jesus encounters Nicodemus at night. The timing of this meeting is critical. Of all the gospels, John is the one richest in symbolism. Light and darkness are prevalent in this gospel. Jesus is always represented by light. The Jesus of John’s gospel never hesitates on his way to both the cross and resurrection. In John there are no 40 days in the wilderness. There is no Last Supper with images of the body broken. There is no prayer in Gethsemane with Jesus pleading for another way. John’s gospel has no time for hesitation or temptation. The way is clear and the plan of God must be fulfilled. A central piece of John’s gospel is Jesus before Pilate. The governor, overwhelmed by the presence of Jesus asked, “What is truth?” Jesus answered, “How can you not recognize what is standing right before you?” In the gospel of John, Jesus is, “The way, the truth, the life, the only way to the Father.” Jesus is the light who has come to overcome the darkness.
Nicodemus represents darkness. He is curious, confused, yet grasping for truth. He wants to have a discussion in which he has an equal say. Nicodemus does not realize in John’s gospel there is little room for dialogue.
Nicodemus initiates the conversation. “Who are you? How is it possible for you to do what you do?”
Jesus answered, “You must be born from above.”
All my life I have believed Jesus said, “You must be born again”. But he didn’t. The word John chooses to use has a double meaning in Greek. It can mean “from above” which in this context would mean “born from perfection and light” or it can mean “again”, which would mean “born in sin and darkness.” Nicodemus hears the second definition. “Am I to return to my mother’s womb?” Jesus responded. “To be born from above you cannot return to the flesh. You must be born of the Spirit.”
This is not a conversation that we find in the other gospels. In Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus preaches through parables. In John, Jesus favors discourse. In our Sunday School class this morning our dialogue (will examine) (examined) if 3:16 are the words of Jesus or the theology of John. We (will discuss) (discussed) why this matters. But since sermons are monologues I shall press on.
Jesus said to Nicodemus, “In order for you to be born from above, first I must be lifted up and you must believe in me. This is the reason I came.” Then Jesus, or John, makes three definitive statements.
“God so loved the world.” This is an amazing statement. Despite who we are, God loves us. Last week we looked at the Hebrew story describing how sin came into the world. Remember it? God said, “Eat the fruit from the tree in the middle of the garden and you will die.” They ate. They died spiritually. They lost their innocence. They hid in shame. They even got kicked out of the garden. But they didn’t die. Why not? Why did God have a change of heart? You see, from the beginning God is committed to acts of grace.
Time after time after time in the Old Testament the Hebrew people mess up. God is hurt to the point of anger. But God forgives and God restores Israel. Why? Because God so loved Israel. One of my favorite stories in scriptures is found in the 11th chapter of Hosea. Israel has once again gone astray and clamored after their appetites. God speaks, “Why should I care? Why shouldn’t I let you go your own way? Why shouldn’t I let you stumble and bumble into the certain death that is before you? But how can I? I have lifted you to my breast and fed you. I taught you how to walk. How can I give you up?”
Sounds like the words of any parent who loves a child. But can this love extend beyond the family? In John 3:16 it most certainly does. Suddenly God’s love is extended to the entire world. No one is excluded. Everyone is privy to the unbounded love of God. Nicodemus, a good Jew knows the story of Hosea, knows the stories of Egypt and Babylon, knows God loves Israel but suddenly the ante has been upped. He suspiciously looked at Jesus and asked, “How is this possible? How will God make this happen?” This leads to the second statement.
“God will give God’s only son.” All of the fancy words one has to master in seminary such as Atonement, Incarnation, Reconciliation, are understood through this radical belief that The Word became Flesh and Walked among us. Jesus was sent from God. Jesus was sent to die. Jesus was sent beyond death to life eternal, not for his sake but for ours. This is the truth John brings. But John’s understanding of God’s gift does not end there.
“All who believe this will not die but live eternally.” This is why I was hoping for a snowstorm. John categorically announces the gift of grace is only for those who will accept the Lordship of Christ. Why would such a basic belief cause me to hesitate? This certainly has been accepted by the early Church fathers. The very existence of missionary work is based on the question, “How will people know unless we tell them?” I certainly applaud and I hope practice the idea that folks will know we are Christians by the way we live and love. But does this limit the immenseness of God’s love?
From Abraham forward the Biblical command has been to do what is right in the eyes of the Lord and God will make us great. Do otherwise and we die. Wade through the 39 books of the Old Testament and see how that worked out. Trust me, it wasn’t good. So we who are Christians proclaim that God sent Jesus as a response to our inability to attain perfection. Jesus was a response to our failure. Classic studies on the Atonement claim we have salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Is that gift once again restricted by our choices?
If you study the writing’s attributed to John there is clearly a “them against us mentality” found in the Gospel, the three letters of John, and John’s Revelation. Could it be that John’s “world” only included those in his immediate neighborhood? If this is the case, should our understanding of God’s love be restricted by this one man’s theology? Consider a larger question, “Is God’s grace universal?”
John 15 claims, “Greater love hath no one that he lays down his life for a friend.” But Matthew and Luke take it a step forward. Both have Jesus saying, “It is easy to love a friend. Can you love your enemy?” If Jesus expects me to love folks I don’t really like, isn’t it because my action is an extension of the all encompassing love of God. Did Jesus only die for the select few who will believe or was his death for everyone, regardless?
Now some of you are wishing it had snowed. Bad weather would have insured this sermon a final resting spot deep in my computer files where it would have silently and eternally remained. But it didn’t snow and so I am left to explain why my universal tendencies balk at John’s third conclusion.
I believe God loves us universally and unconditionally.
I believe grace has freed me to be a better human being than I might have been without knowledge of this gift.
Believing this, here comes the hard part. I know that I easily become suspicious of folks who think differently than me. I am quick to place folks into the category of “us” and “them”. I think of myself as a child of the Light and my enemy as an agent of darkness. But if I believe God’s love is universal, I cannot slip into the trap of believing my enemy is God’s enemy. And it is so easy to make that mistake.
“They” reject goodness. “They” reject stability. “They” create chaos therefore “They” must have rejected God. If they are the enemies of God, why must I love them? You see how it is so easy to proclaim God is always on our side.
In fairness to John, perhaps his world was darker than ours. Perhaps John witnessed folks being persecuted for what they believed. Perhaps because of his experience John could not imagine his enemy as a child of God?
I can understand this because we are prone to do the same thing. It is so much easier to hate someone if we believe they have rejected God and therefore God has rejected them. Suddenly our enemy is God’s enemy. Our actions are God’s actions. Our hate is justified by God.
Somehow, that doesn’t sound like Jesus.
Somehow that doesn’t feel like God.
I believe God loves the world.
I believe God gave the world the gift of Christ.
I believe through that gift there is salvation.
I believe that gift was for everyone, regardless.
I choose to tell this story, as flawed as it might seem.
I choose to love this story, as dangerous as it might be.
Because God’s way has always been the hard way. What can possibly be harder than believing someone I really don’t like is a child of God? As baptized people we have been called to build bridges, not destroy them. Perhaps the building begins when we reconsider how magnificent the grace of God really is. Amen.