Sunday, March 12, 2017

Lent 2A

John 3:1–17

 

FOR GOD SO LOVED THE WORLD

 

Beloved people of God, grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. AMEN.

 

In over thirty years as a pastor I have never seen so many people as unsettled as they now seem to be. We have witnessed traumatic events: the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger on January 28, 1986; the devastating terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001; and the financial crisis of 2008, the worst economic disaster in the United States since the Great Depression. But there is something different about what is going on now. Many are experiencing a pervasive fear and anxiety. It is as if the ground is moving under our feet. We are experiencing the foreshock of what could become a major cultural seismic event. We could get so caught up in what is wrong with our society and our world that we could end up mired in cynicism and despair.

 

God does not want followers of Jesus to live in cynicism and despair. Followers of Jesus are not naïve. They take seriously the presence of sin in the world, both in its individual and corporate forms. They are very aware of the destructive forces of evil at work in our world. They know that they themselves are not immune from sin and evil. As Paul writes, “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”

 

Nonetheless, for followers of Jesus the starting point in living our lives is not what is wrong with the world, but what is right with the world at the deepest level. The most famous verse in the Bible is John 3:16, included in our gospel reading for today: “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.” While watching major sporting events on TV, the viewer will often see someone in the stands hold up John 3:16 during the broadcast. This verse has often been used— or perhaps we need to say misused— to separate believers from non-believers, the saved from the damned, those inside the household of faith from those outside, the followers of Jesus from the enemies of Jesus. Such a misuse can obscure the deepest truth affirmed by Jesus in this verse: GOD’S LOVE FOR THE WORLD.

 

In a number of places in the Johannine writings “world” seems to refer to all that exists that is hostile to God. Readers are exposed to a very negative view of the world. It is as if the world is inherently evil. Some have wondered how God could love such an evil world. Martin Luther once said, “If I were as our Lord God, and these vile people were as disobedient as they now be, I would knock the world to pieces.”[1] Luther viewed it as a miracle that God did not do just that. He referred to John 3:16 as the “gospel in miniature.” Despite the pervasive presence of sin and evil in the world, God loves the world anyway. As David Lose writes, “one might capture the force and scope of God’s unfathomable love by translating this verse, `For God so loved the God-hating world . . . !” Lose adds that some may find God’s love “not only unfathomable but also somewhat offensive.”[2]

 

German Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote his Ethics in the early years of World War II. Hitler and the Nazis were at the zenith of power, and they were implementing the holocaust with a vengeance. To be blunt, it looked like the world was going to hell. Bonhoeffer himself, deeply involved in the conspiracy against Hitler, feared that at any time he would hear the knock at the door and be arrested. Nonetheless, he still affirmed in his Ethics that “the central message of the New Testament is that in Christ God has loved the world and reconciled it with himself.” It is not some ideal world that God loves. It is precisely the lost and condemned world. “Acceptance of the lost and condemned world,” asserted Bonhoeffer, “is a miracle of divine mercy.” He added, “There is no part of the world, no matter how lost, no matter how godless, that has not been accepted by God in Jesus Christ and reconciled to God.”[3]

 

In John 3:16 the Greek word cosmos, translated as “world,” refers to everything created by God— what we would call the universe. As I shared with the children, there is no person, no animal, and no plant in any country anywhere in the world that is not loved by God. The whole cosmos has been shattered by sin, stands under God’s judgment, and has been reconciled to God through God’s Son Jesus. The truth of God’s love for the world cuts across all national, ethnic, racial, cultural, and religious boundaries. From God’s point of view, there are no second class citizens or illegal aliens in the world. God even loves the “bad dudes.” That does not mean, of course, that God loves the evil and injustice perpetrated by the bad dudes. Indeed, God’s heart grieves the suffering of the world and all its inhabitants, so much of which we humans bring upon ourselves and our fellow creatures. Followers of Jesus are called to share in God’s grief and to resist evil and injustice and all destructive forces.

 

Our 2017 Vision for Ministry was adopted by the Congregational Council in February. The theme, as it has been for a number of years, is “Because God Cares.” God’s care for us is the foundation and motivation for our vision of living out our core care values— God care, Earth care, community care, neighbor care, and self care. Because God cares, we care. In challenging times, when the ground seems to be moving under our feet, it is especially important to be grounded ever more deeply in our core values. “For God so loved the world” is another way of stating the foundation for our vision for ministry. Because God loves the world, we care for God, Earth, community, neighbor, and self— that is, for God and all that God has created— the entire cosmos. As followers of Jesus, we are called to embody God’s love for the cosmos in our daily lives. Living out our core care values is a way of doing just that.

 

In interpreting John 3:16 the tendency has been to assume that “eternal life” refers to life after death. But that is too limited an understanding of what is meant in the gospel of John. “Eternal life” is the extraordinary fullness of a life centered in our relationship to God and to the world loved by God. We hope to share in such a full life after we die. But through faith in Jesus such a full life is available to us here and now. Faith in Jesus is understood not so much as belief in certain creeds or doctrines, but primarily as trust in him. To trust in Jesus is to follow him wherever he may lead. We follow Jesus by loving the world God loves— that is, the real world with all its shortcomings. We follow Jesus by embodying our core care values. We follow Jesus by resisting every attempt to diminish, discriminate against, or degrade any person or creature loved by God.

 

In our Vision for Ministry we identify two core ministry initiatives: worship and Christian education. In worship we seek to “cultivate gospel-centered worship in a variety of forms that glorifies God, communicates God’s unconditional love, and inspires us to care for God, Earth, our communities, our neighbor, and our self.” The purpose of Christian education is to “offer gospel-centered educational opportunities that teach us of God’s gracious unconditional love for us and help us grow in our faith and integrate the five core care values into our life and ministry.”

 

We also adopt five key ministry initiatives each year. For 2017 our key ministry initiatives are:

 

Develop and implement a 3-5 year plan for Sunday School with a good sense of leadership needed and curriculum to be used (Godly Play, liturgy-based Spark Curriculum, etc.).

 

Deepen the “organic” culture of care in our congregation and communities.

 

Observe the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation in 2017 by: Participating in a series of events with brothers and sisters in Christ of Holy Trinity Catholic Church; Engaging in an Eco-Reformation Project as a congregation and encouraging the people of St. Andrew to engage in personal and household Eco-Reformation projects.

 

Address housing/homelessness crises on the Westside.

 

Explore what it entails for St. Andrew to be a sanctuary congregation.

 

In adopting these key ministry initiatives the Council is saying, in effect, these are some specific ways we envision the people of St. Andrew seeking to embody God’s love for the world in 2017. As always these initiatives are open to be adjusted, clarified, or reformulated as we seek to be ever more faithful in embodying and living out God’s love.

 

The final verse of our gospel reading, John 3:17, makes clear that God sent Jesus into the world first and foremost not to condemn the world, but to save it. God desires the fullness of life for the world and all its inhabitants. We can work with God in fulfilling that desire, or we can work against God. John 3:18 states: “Those who believe in Jesus are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already.” To trust in Jesus and follow his ways leads to the fullness of life God intends. Those who do not trust in Jesus and who do not follow his ways— that is, who do not embody God’s love in their daily lives— are not condemned by God— after all God does not stop loving them. But they do, in effect, condemn themselves, because they reject the gift of the fullness of life God offers to all who share in God’s love for the world. Jesus gave his whole life for the sake of that love. We are called to do the same. That love is the firm ground on which followers of Jesus take our stand.

In Jesus’ name, AMEN.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



[1] Quoted by Richard Niell Donovan in https://www.sermonwriter.com/biblical-commentary/john-31-17.

 

[2] https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=903.

 

[3] Ethics, volume 6 of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006), 65–66.