RCL Year B
June 3, 2012
Psalm 29 or Canticle 13
Romans 8: 12-17
John 3: 1-17
There’s a rumor going around. It’s been floating for over 2000 years. Every 30 years or so it’s melted down and remolded to fit into whatever the fears and paranoias of the day are.
Actually, if the rumor were true, it would make life a lot simpler. Everyone would know who the winners are, who was supposed to be at the top of the ladder, who the rulers of the world were supposed to be. Who was right and who was wrong; who would live eternally and who would die in darkness or fire.
But that’s the fallacy of this rumor: it’s too simple. The problem is, simplicity is a great attraction to a great many people in every age. Judging makes things easy and final.
The rumor is vicious. It does make judgments. And its implications have deadly effects. This rumor has its roots in some of the best loved words of John’s Gospel:
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. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
It sounds pretty innocent, doesn’t it? There’s some truth there. It’s one of the most well known pieces of Scripture; it’s quoted, rather casually, all the time. But what this passage doesn’t say speaks more loudly than its familiar words. And the rumor is born and grows.
Everyone who believes in God’s only Son, Jesus, will not die but will have eternal life. Believe in Jesus. What does that mean? That Jesus was the Son of God, that Jesus was the perfect image of God, that Jesus went about teaching, preaching and healing, that Jesus died so we might be saved. The name of Jesus becomes the password into salvation.
That’s the usual explanation. Really, it has nothing to do with us. All we have to do is to believe certain things; we’re not asked to change or to live in any way. It’s not who we are or how we live our lives, but who we believe in. No conversion from self serving ways; be baptized and be saved. That’s it, pure and simple. Jesus died on the cross, and all who believe are saved.
If you’re like me, you see a gaping disconnect. Really, it makes no sense. But honestly, that’s what is preached today in some places and has been preached for 2000 years. And it gets worse.
What if you don’t believe Jesus is the Son of God? What is you’re a Jew? Or a Muslim? A Hindu or a Buddhist? A Native American or an African? What if you just don’t swallow the fundamentalist preaching that Jesus is the only way to eternal life? John’s Gospel goes on:
Those who believe in Jesus are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. That’s scary.
Terrible things have been done through the ages by people who read these words and took them literally. Jews have been ostracized and tortured and killed. The holocaust is only the most vivid distortion of the teaching because it’s so concentrated and located in time so near to our own lives. Muslims have been slaughtered in the name of Jesus, and not just as long ago as the Crusades of the Middle Ages. Ethnic cleansing in Eastern Europe is a crusade of the twentieth century. Indigenous peoples in many places have been coerced into baptism with no understanding of what they’re doing.
The name Christian has been distorted to the point of shame and embarrassment for Christians who look below the surface and question the meaning of Scripture’s words. Indeed, a superficial faith has given ethnic and racial and social and sexual discrimination and even murder a thin cover, adequate only to the people who use it to justify their prejudices.
What are we to do? This is Holy Scripture, the Word of God. It’s here; we read it in church and at home; there must be some truth in it, somewhere.
Let’s go back to the beginning of the passage. And first, we have to say that these probably are not Jesus’ words at all. They were written some 60 or 70 years after Jesus lived and walked the earth. John had his own agenda when he wrote, and it’s well known that much of his Gospel is anti-Semitic. So what did Jesus really say? We can’t know. But if we look at the whole of Jesus’ teaching, we can glean what his emphasis might have been.
The passage begins: For God so loved the world…. God so loved…. God so loved…. That part gets lost in the judging words that follow. Love gets swallowed up in judgment. God’s love for the whole world gets lost in God’s implicit willingness to save only a few. Are we surprised? I doubt Jesus ever said that anyone who didn’t believe in him would die. Believe in him? What would that mean?
Jesus’ teaching and Jesus’ life were about love, the unconditional love of God for the world, the saving love of God for each part of Creation, the forgiving love of God for each person. We might say, God so loves the world that God wants all the world to have life in all its fullness. Heaven knows, I wear a cross every day and have taken a vocation that puts my beliefs right out in front. These are but a thin cover for my sinful thoughts, my moods, my hurtful words, my sins of omission and of being compliant with injustice. If God were to judge me on my inner life or my thin cover of symbols, I would never deserve eternal life. I believe that God loves me so much that God works with me and forgives me and encourages me. That God does not want me to die in the darkness of judging and being judged.
So what might Jesus have said? I think he might have said something like: God so loves the world that God wants all of Creation to know that love and to live in that love. To know that in all our failings to honor God’s love we are treasured and forgiven and offered eternal life. All we have to do is accept God’s unconditional love, and it will break our hearts of stone and make new people of us. People who will share that love as unconditionally as we are able to give it and teach God’s way of love to the world so all people will know the way of life.
That’s what it means to believe in Jesus. To follow the way Jesus showed us, the way of respect and acceptance, the way of inclusion and equality. Because each of us is made in the image of God, and each of us is beloved of God. How can we not strive to love and understand one another?
Let’s restate John’s statement:
For God so loved the world that God led Jesus, the true image of God, to show the world the way to life. Everyone who believes that life is found in love of God and the self sacrificing love of one’s neighbor has found life in all its fullness, life that is eternal. God loves the world and so God does not condemn the world. No, the world’s brokenness is healed along the way of love and acceptance and respect. And Jesus showed us that way.
There are many ways to know and live in love for the world; for us, the way is the self giving life and love of Jesus. But love is universal, and limiting salvation to an elite few closes doors and turns people away. To believe in Jesus is not to say his name or to wear a cross or to worship him as God’s Son – these are outward and visible signs only, and to have merit they must signify an inward and spiritual grace, a conversion. To believe in Jesus is to follow the way he showed us, the way that leads to life in all its fullness, life free of judging others, life free of the burden of guilt. This is life that is eternal.
The world in every age cries out for words of peace to counter words of competition and condemnation. For people to lay down weapons of war and meet each other on common ground. For us to listen, really listen to one another and reject using words that judge and condemn. On a cosmic level and in our every day actions and words and thoughts.
I read something last week that said Christians need to reclaim our name, Christian. I can’t see us standing up every place we go and trying to do that, preaching against the lie of the deadly rumor. I think we refute the rumor in the way we live. We reach out and seek to understand people who are not just like ourselves, people of other faiths. We speak out against injustices in order to keep our baptismal promise to respect the dignity of every human being. We go into those places where we’re not quite comfortable and look for the image of God in the other person. We practice forgiving, and we ask to be forgiven. And we ask Jesus to walk with us and lead us more and more into life that is eternal.
God so loved the world…. That’s where the emphasis lies. God so loves the world and each person God has created….
The Rev. Mary B. Richard