Benediction Online

Sunday, March 22, 2009

For God So Loved the World
March 22, 2009 – the Rev. Donna Ross

John 3:16 is one of the most well-known verses of the Bible:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. (KJV)

We’ve heard this verse again and again throughout our lives, and we also see it posted everywhere. Driving on country roads in Ohio, where our children and grandchildren live, we’ve seen it painted on signs in the front yards of modest homes, and on billboards along the highway.

The phrase is short enough to fit into some very small spaces – did you know that if you buy a soft drink at an In-n-Out-Burger, you’ll find “John 3:16” printed on the inside of the bottom rim?

It can also be written large enough to display to crowds – in the 1970s and 1980s the “Rainbow Man,” wearing a rainbow-colored afro-style wig, was known for holding up signs reading “John 3:16” at games of all sorts – Rainbow Man stood holding his sign near football goal posts, next to Olympic medal stands, and in the crowds at golf tournaments.

(Getting the message out in the sports arena continues today: One football player, Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow of the Florida Gaters, had it printed on his eye black during this years’ BSC championship game.)

Why is this verse such a favorite? And what is the message the verse sends? Here’s what the online dictionary, Wikipedia, says about the verse: “John 3:16 has been called the "Gospel in a nutshell" because it is considered a summary of some of the most central doctrines of traditional Christianity…. John 3:16 summarizes Jesus' lesson to Nicodemus: that belief in Jesus is the only path to eternal life.”

Is that how you would summarize these words of Jesus – that belief in Jesus is the only path to eternal life? Is that what Jesus says?

What Jesus meant

Let’s listen to the gospel again. Jesus is talking to Nicodemus, the prominent rabbi who came to him at night, wanting to learn more about the God that Jesus was announcing, about the new life that he was offering. And Jesus taught Nicodemus about the Spirit, by which he could be born again. Nicodemus, you will remember, had a hard time understanding how the Spirit worked.

To give an example of how God’s grace works, Jesus said,

Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him. For God so loved the world....

Somehow, when God’s abundant love and grace becomes visible in Jesus, people will turn towards him – hungry people, thirsty people, lonely people, desperate people searching for the life that only God can give.

When Nicodemus heard these words, he could not have imagined Jesus ultimately nailed to a Roman cross, lifted high on Golgotha. It was only much later that Jesus’ followers would see the cross as part of the “lifting up” that Jesus was describing. And this “lifting up” that Jesus spoke of was so much more than his dying on a cross – it was also his rising to new life, and his sending of the Holy Spirit to those who trusted him.

Lifting up – salvation and the coming of the Spirit

Over the centuries some theologians have interpreted this passage very narrowly, to mean that only those who believe in Jesus will receive eternal life on heaven. Some have interpreted this passage to mean that those who don’t believe in Jesus – even those who don’t know Jesus’ name – will be lost to hell for eternity.

But others understand the passage more broadly, believing that Jesus is saying that when he is lifted up, he will open a channel for God’s Spirit to flow to everyone on earth – to anyone searching for it, anyone open to receive it.

For me, the sign of God’s Spirit working on earth will not be crowds in sports stadiums, nor multitudes of people in Christian churches, all professing faith in Jesus Christ. Rather, the sign of God’s Spirit working on earth will be love – the love that Jesus showed, the love that Jesus taught, and the love that God demonstrated in Jesus’ resurrection to new life.

How the good news becomes judgment

There have been many theories, many theologies, about why Jesus died. The most widely-known theory seems to be that God needed to punish human sins, but God sacrificed Jesus instead. Thus God’s demand for judgment was honored, and Jesus paid the price.

I believe this theory substantially narrows our understanding of God’s mercy, of the wideness of God’s grace.

Why did Jesus have to die? Mark MacDonald asks (in his book, “Mysteries of Faith” – which is part of the Episcopal Church’s Teaching Series), “Did Jesus have to die to save us? No. It is not God who condemned Jesus to the cross, but humans. Jesus’ teaching of God’s coming kingdom provoked evil into showing what it is – rejection of God and aversion to true life. Violence was unmasked as the projection of human fear and anger onto God. And how does God respond to this violence – with counter-violence? No, God embraces and heals it by swallowing it up in loving. Jesus is not tortured to death by God as just retribution for human offenses against divine justice, or as penalty to satisfy the divine honor... Rather, in Jesus God enters into human suffering and ends our separation from God.”

Why do humans limit God’s mercy?

Mark MacDonald continues, But “our experience of human justice, anger and punishment has distorted our thinking about God by focusing our minds ... on the idea that God should need to punish us. Ironically, this focus obscures our loving rescue by God in Christ that Christ’s death has accomplished.

“Jesus’ loving and trusting relationship with the Father will be vindicated after his death by a loving and life-giving Spirit, which will inhabit and cleanse and heal the disciples’ own hearts and minds, bearing witness to the truth of the Father’s love for Christ and leading the disciples into that love for themselves.”

Here’s a description of the early church after Pentecost, after the Spirit came upon them: And all who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they partook of food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added day by day to the number of those who were being saved. [Acts 2:44-27]

Look at the inclusiveness of that first Christian community! Look at how that little church expanded, day after day, drawing in more and more people, from wider and more diverse social, economic and religious backgrounds. The joy, the love, and the compassion the first Christians experienced through their life in the Spirit not only bound them to one another, it also spilled over the boundaries of their own communities and extended to everyone in need. The loving care, the open arms, the economic sharing practiced by the early Christians, together with their generosity toward the poor, was one of the most evangelistic characteristics of their life. Their experience and demonstration of God’s love draw new people into their community, day by day.

The serpent cast in bronze

In his conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus uses an example from the Hebrew Scriptures, which we heard in our first lesson this morning. In the lesson from Numbers the people of Israel are grumbling again, and they believe God responds to this by sending poisonous snakes. Then the people cry out for help, and admit their grumbling; and Moses constructs a serpent out of bronze – and when the people look at the bronze serpent, they are saved.

What today’s lesson doesn’t tell us is that that bronze serpent eventually became an object of worship – it was even set up in the Temple, where the people made offerings to it. (We learn about this worship practice in the second Book of Kings [2 Kings 18], when King Hezekiah finds the bronze serpent, still standing centuries after the people of Israel reach the promised land.)

Rather than worshiping the expansive God who saved them from Egypt and brought them home, some of God’s people are merely worshiping the serpent, a small sign of grace along the way. Hezekiah orders that the serpent be broken apart, so it can no longer be an object of worship. He calls upon the people to broaden their understanding of God and the salvation God is offering them.

Why we don’t hear the fullness of the good news

But the serpent – the idol, a slogan – appears again and again in human history. We humans have such a hard time believing in the incredible love of God – the love Jesus came to demonstrate, the love that his death and resurrection demonstrate – that we continually cling to partial truths because we cannot grasp the full truth. Because the love of God is so wide, so strong, so unlike human love, it is hard for us to understand – and when we don’t understand the whole picture, we set up a part of it to stand for the whole. And so the bronze serpent becomes the thing that saves the people, rather than the love of the God who guided them through the desert to the promised land.

And so the verse – John 3:16 – only partially understood, can become a slogan that doesn’t point to the full reality of the love of God, that narrows our picture of God’s grace. Rather than describing the wideness of God’s grace, which God wants to extend to all, it excludes people who don’t seem to belong.

Michaela Bruzzese, a Sojourners’ editor, writes of John 3:16, “At times this passage becomes a slogan, an even an idol like the bronze serpent. At its best, the passage is the impetus for the formation of a radically inclusive community to which all are welcome – the lost, the forgotten, the abandoned – bringing healing and new life as God ‘who so loved the world’ did through Jesus. At its worst, however, John 3:16 is used as a weapon to separate the ‘saved’ from the ‘unsaved,’ a vehicle of religious superiority and a means of intimidation for those who do not share (or want to share) the belief in Jesus as Savior.”

A vision of God’s abundant mercy

As I re-read these words of Bruzzese’s, describing the early church: “A radically inclusive community to which all are welcome – the lost, the forgotten, the abandoned – bringing healing and new life as God ‘who so loved the world’ did through Jesus” – I see our dream of what God wants for the church of Jesus Christ, and of what God wants for us here at St. Benedict’s.

For the love of God is broader than the measure of the mind;
and the heart of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind.
If our love were but more faithful, we should take God at his Word;
and our life would be thanksgiving for the goodness of the Lord.
[Hymnal 470, v. 3]

Day by day, and week by week, and year by year, let us practice Jesus’ love with one another; let us share God’s grace with everyone who comes in these doors; and let us, like Jesus, extend our arms beyond these doors to everyone, anyone, who is thirsty for God’s love, for God’s presence in their lives.

Let us break the bronze serpent into pieces and tell the world what Jesus wants everyone to hear:
that God so loves the world.


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