FOR GOD SO LOVED THE WORLD

                              A Sermon by Dean Scotty McLennan
                                  Stanford Memorial Church
                                       March 22, 2009

       In my Presbyterian Sunday school, there was one Bible passage that all children had to

memorize and never forget: "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son,

that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life." John 3:16. We were told

that all of the Bible was summed up in that verse: God's love, Jesus's mission in the world, the

importance of belief in him, and the assurance of eternal life if we did believe. But I couldn't

quiet my theologically precocious mind. This passage raised too many questions for me. Why

would a loving father knowingly give up his only son to a horrifying, torturous death? What

about all the people who didn't believe in Jesus; would a loving God deprive them of eternity

even if they tried really hard their whole lives to be the best people they could be? Was eternal

life a realistic concept in the first place? And wasn't Jesus primarily about how we should live

in this world?

       Christian Century magazine has a section reflecting on each week's gospel reading in the

lectionary, and the one for today explains why the author has always thought that it's "a mistake

to hand the fourth Gospel over to 'baby Christians.'" He's seen the book of John as dangerous for

people first coming to Christ, because it presents Jesus as superhuman, endorses arrogant

dualisms, and is full of invectives. It portrays the world as divided between the children of light

and the children of darkness, between those who have the truth and those who don't. i Notice

some of the language in today's gospel lesson from John:ii "Those who do not believe [in Jesus]

are condemned." "This is the judgment" for "people who loved darkness rather than light" -- for

those who "have not believed in the name of the only Son of God."

       The Christian Century author, John Stendahl, who's pastor of a Lutheran church in

Massachusetts, has always advised starting one's Bible studies with one of the other three gospels

-- Matthew, Mark or Luke. The gospel of John for Stendahl is a graduate-level course, a

theological elaboration and re-presentation of Jesus as seen in the other three gospels. Therefore,

their perspective needs to be heard first. Only then can John's majestic Christ be understood,

along with all of John's glorious poetic language, which seems to create absolute distinctions.

For Jesus in the other gospels does not inhabit a universe of such "stark and dangerous dualities."

Instead, Jesus imparts "gentler counsels" of "humility, forbearance and reconciliation."iii

       I've found the work of Catholic nun Joan Chittister very helpful in re-framing Jesus from

a darkness-or-light, truth-or-falsehood, heaven-or-hell figure to the open, tolerant, forgiving,

loving teacher and exemplar whom the Bible presents most of the time, or as its majority view.

One of Chittister's books is entitled "In Search of Belief," where she works through the Apostle's

Creed, line by line in a 215-page book and dynamically reinvigorates what's been a dry recitation

at best for me. For the line, "I believe in Jesus Christ," she reminds me that I don't need to turn

to the ancient church councils of Nicaea or Antioch or Alexandria and arguments about whether

Jesus was human or divine or both, or to whether he atoned for my sins with his own life.

Instead, I believe in Jesus Christ because he figured out how to get five thousand people fed all

at once -- most of whom probably didn't believe in him -- simply because they were hungry. I

believe in Jesus because he encouraged the rich to share with the poor, he cured people of their

afflictions even if it meant working on the Sabbath, he broke through the bigotry of his time

against lepers and women and foreigners like Samaritans and Romans, who weren't of his own

religious background.iv

       I don't believe in a supernatural, miracle-working Jesus, but in a very human one, albeit

filled with the Spirit of God. I believe in the Jesus who modeled, for all, unconditional love,

nonviolent resistance to evil, and unassailable hope. I want to learn how to walk in Jesus's

footsteps, to gain even a fraction of a heart like his, to develop an ounce of his strength and

fortitude, to become more filled with the Spirit of God myself through his example and teaching.

In the words of the Gospel of John, I want to love the light that comes in and through Jesus; I

want to do deeds in God, not in the darkness.v

       But it's when John seems to be delivering a religiously exclusivist message that it feels to

me that he's leaving the true Jesus. He's not honoring so much of what Jesus did and stood for.

Joan Chittister describes what her second grade teacher in parochial school, a nun, told her class

one day in an exclusivist vein. Joan came home from school to tell her mother that "Sister said

that only Catholics go to heaven." Joan had been brought up by her Catholic mother and

Presbyterian stepfather, whom she loved very much and knew to be a very good man. Joan's

mother responded carefully, "Oh really? And what do you think about that, Joan?" Joan took a

deep breath and answered, "I think Sister's wrong." Her mother pressed her: "And why do you

think Sister would say a thing that's wrong?" Joan slowly whispered, "Because Sister doesn't

know Daddy." Her mother stood there, just smiling at her. (Now I'm quoting what Joan has

written in her book). "To this day, I can still see her look, still feel the grain of her apron against

my face. She shook the suds off her hands, pulled me up close against her warm, hard stomach,

and said, 'That's right, darling. That's right.'" We can be sure that Joan's mother would have said

the same thing if Joan's Daddy had been a Jew, a Muslim, a Hindu, a Buddhist, or an agnostic

Humanist. As Chittister writes, "Sister clearly did not know what I knew. Sister had not seen

what God saw."vi

       So, again, what's the great appeal of John 3:16 -- "For God so loved the world that He

gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal

life." Is it really about Christian exclusivism: We'll get eternal life by believing in Jesus but

everyone else will perish? Lutheran pastor John Stendahl, after many years of ministry, came to

see a completely different dimension of this classic passage. For many people, it throws them a

lifeline when they are sinking, when they are drowning in the tumult and chaos of life. A

parishioner had told him how her life had been saved, metaphorically and perhaps literally, by

choosing light over darkness in a Christian fellowship at a critical time in young adulthood, in

fact probably by choosing life over death in the warm embrace of fellow Christians who took her

in, cared for her, and worried her back into health and wholeness and holiness by helping her

walk in the footsteps of Jesus. The message was simple and black and white and powerful.

Believe in Jesus and you will be saved:vii "Whoever believes in Him should not perish."

       I affirm there are other forms of saving faith too -- in the teachings of the Buddha, in the

Qur'an, in the law and the prophets of Judaism, in the avatars of Hinduism, in the ethical

teachings of Humanism, in many other wisdom traditions. But for Christians Jesus saves, and

John 3:16 succinctly reminds us of that. As Pastor Stendahl puts it, if you're "drowning and

going down for the third time, you either grab the lifeline or not. You take that drink or not, put

the needle in your arm or not, despair or hope, lie or speak the truth. No shades of

gray...Sometimes that's what it's all about: ...yes or no."viii The primary emphasis must be on the

words "God so loved the world." The love that is available through Jesus Christ is immediate

and palpable. Right here and now people are sinking under the waters and perishing in the

wilderness. You and I must know that rescue is at hand, that there's a promise of abundant life,

and that we can lay of hold of it right now. The dualism of light and darkness can be very

helpful as an empowering imperative for decision-making. It becomes dangerous only when it's

theologized into an unforgiving judgmentalism.

        For Jesus reminded us to "Judge not."ix He asked us to forgive someone who sins not just

seven times, but seventy times seven.x He taught, "Blessed are the merciful."xi He told us that

the true loving neighbor was not the priest of his own religious tradition who passed by a beaten

man on the side of the road, but the heretical foreigner who stopped to help.xii Joan Chittister

points out that Jesus even at the end, even in the midst of a horrifying execution on the cross,

exclaims "Father, forgive them."xiii And he's not asking for eternal mercy for those who believe

in him. To the contrary, he's reaching out with his love and compassion to the pagan Roman

soldiers who are casting lots for his clothing, offering him sour wine, and mocking him, saying,

"If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!"xiv As Chittister puts it, "Jesus -- come to the

fullness of humanity, the end time, the final moment -- goes burned into our mind as a forgiver.

Clearly, to be everything we can become, we must learn to forgive."xv

        This is not to say that the cry for justice of a Martin Luther King is not also part of the

divine message -- "Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing

stream."xvi God of course desires justice. But Jesus' message is not one of vengeance for justice

withheld. It is not one of a shepherd punishing a wayward sheep, but instead one of always

trying to bring it back into the flock, into the fold -- trying to restore it to the beloved

community. It is hell to be separated from the beloved community of justice and goodwill. The

religious response must not be one of condemnation for the unjust but one of compassionate

outreach. Joan Chittister suggests that this prayer found by the side of the dead at a

concentration camp at the end of World War II tells it all:

        O Lord, remember not only the men and women of goodwill,
        But all those of ill will.

       But do not remember all the suffering they have inflicted upon us;
       Remember the fruits we have bought thanks to this suffering --
       Our comradeship, our loyalty, our humility,
       Our courage, our generosity, the greatness of heart
       Which has grown out of all this;
       And when they come to judgment,
       Let all the fruits which we have borne be their forgiveness. Amen.xvii

       So, in the end, this is how I now interpret John 3:16, within the larger context of this

morning's gospel lesson: For God so loved the world, that he sent Jesus as a Spirit-filled

exemplar and teacher (along with others like Moses) to help us have a full understanding of how

to live our lives. Jesus was not one to condemn others for their evil deeds, but instead to attract

them to a new light-filled path of love. People would be saved on this path, in the sense of

finding meaning and purpose in their lives. Or, they could choose to remain in the darkness of

their evil and sinful ways, never experiencing the light of the new day that has now come and the

supportive, compassionate, beloved community that's continually being built in the sun. May all

ultimately find immortal love as their way of life.


May the Love which overcomes all differences,

Which heals all wounds, which puts to flight all fears,

Which reconciles all who are separated,

Be in us and among us, now and always. AMEN.

                                      Frederick E. Gillis


  John Stendahl, "Reflections on the Lectionary," Christian Century (March 10, 2009), p. 21.
    John 3: 14-21.
     Stendahl, "Reflections."
    Joan Chittister, In Search of Belief (Liguori, Missouri: Liguori/Triumph, 2006), pp. 61-68.
    John 3: 19-21.
    Chittister, Belief, p. 12.
     Stendahl, "Reflections."
     Luke 6:37.
    Matthew 18:22.
    Matthew 5:7.
     Luke 10: 25-37.
      Luke 23:34.
      Luke 23: 34-37.
     Chittister, Belief, p. 187.
      Amos 5:24.
      Chittister, Belief, pp. 189-190.


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