Sunday, March 15, 2015

Sermon: The Promise of Whosoever

Rev. Mandy Sloan Flemming
Laguna Beach United Methodist Church
Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Promise of Whosoever

John 3:14-21, NRSV
      And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
     ‘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. 18Those who believe in him 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. 19And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.’

            This is one of the best known passages in all of scripture. Almost all of us have heard the famous line, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever liveth and believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” John 3:16 has become a verse that is synonymous with evangelical Christianity, and this guy, in particular:
Rock 'n' Rollen and Rainbow Man, best known for wearing a rainbow-colored wig and, later, holding up signs reading "John 3:16" at stadium sporting events. This verse is the definition of bumper-sticker theology. If you ask just about any Christian what they believe, some version of this one verse will likely arrive as the answer.
            I’ve always had trouble with this verse, because it seemed to me to be the way that people were able to narrowly define what it means to be Christian. “Whosoever lives and believes in him will not perish, but will have eternal life,” seems like the instruction for how we make an appointment with the realtor for one of God’s mansions. It also makes it seem as though eternal life is a prize to be obtained, and that the only way to do it is by living and believing in Jesus.
            But, in order to be fair, we must put John 3:16 back in context with the rest of the pericope. Our text is a conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, a Pharisee who comes to visit him in the dark of night. Nicodemus said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God. How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony…And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,[1] that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
            Jesus makes reference to a very strange event in the Hebrew scriptures here. It is in Numbers 9:21 that we learn the story of when the people spoke against God and against Moses. So, the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.  This manages to get the attention of the Israelites, because they come to Moses and confess that they have sinned by speaking against the Lord, and ask him to intercede on their behalf. God tells Moses to “make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” This is a very strange story for Jesus to recall to Nicodemus, indeed. It’s one that’s not particularly flattering to the Israelites, but it does reveal something interesting about God.
            Regardless of the density of the chosen people of God, and their continued refusal to trust in the steadfast love of their creator and sustainer, God always listens. God continually forgives. God eternally reconciles.
            But Nicodemus can’t hear that. Jesus speaks his language – after all, Nicodemus is a teacher of Israel and the scriptures should be as close to him as his own breathing. Jesus references this strange passage in Numbers, for the sake of its reinterpretation: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” Nicodemus finds this perplexing “because it demands that he let go of all that he has accomplished and understood. Some things are hard to grasp not because they are conceptually subtle, but because they ask so much of us. We don’t want to understand, because if we understand, we are implicated.”[2]
            This was typically how things went between Jesus and the Pharisees. He continually overturns their long-held perceptions of passages and offers new interpretations of the law. He frustrates the Pharisees completely. This conversation is difficult for Nicodemus for the same reason it’s difficult for us, because, so often, we hear John 3:16 as “a threat for those unwilling to accept God’s love. Because rather than heard as an invitation to participate in spreading God’s love it’s a summons to exclude those we think God does not love.”[3] So, who, then, does God love?
            Jesus talks clearly about who is saved and who is condemned. This language is dangerous for us, because it establishes some kind of salvation clique in which some are out and some are in. Jesus says that, the light has come into the world, and “those who loved darkness more than the light are condemned” (v. 19); take just a moment to remember when it was that Nicodemus came to visit Jesus: in the dark of night. John Wesley says that, “This is the condemnation - That is, the cause of it. So God is clear.” If we are to study this passage, we cannot ignore the language around condemnation. But, it seems, also, as though this is the only thing we derive from it. I cannot imagine that Jesus’ words to Nicodemus are intended to be the plum line for us to decide who is worthy of the love of God. John Wesley continues, saying that, “God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world - Although many accuse him of it.”[4] Our core understanding of this text cannot rest in the fear of condemnation.
            So, we return to the question: who, then, does God love? The answer is clear: “God so loved the world,” which, if we’re being honest, is not a particularly loveable entity. The course of human history has not demonstrated the world to be a place where love wins. It is a place filled with anger, jealousy, greed, destruction. And yet, we have this simple assurance that God so loves… the world. And everything and everyone in it.
            If this is so, then “it is possible to read the whole of Scripture, from creation to the eschaton, as God’s love story for the world. It was, after all, divine love stronger than well-deserved judgment, that carried Israel during the time of exile, and it was God’s love that sent Jesus to be God-With-Us, Incarnate in the world, where he taught that love is not merely for those who look and think and believe like us (or the Pharisees), but even for our enemies and those who persecute us.”[5]  
            Many years ago, when I first arrived at Saint Mark, I had the joy of meeting long-time member, Joseph Hackett. Joseph was a man for whom faith was a gift that resonated from him with ease. He was a remarkable theologian, and his pulpit was the hairdresser’s chair behind which he stood. Joseph had always been a church-goer, a faithful follower, a believer. But, when Joseph grew up and began to discover the fullness of who he was, he faced rejection from his church, his family. This led to years of depression and worry, as he perceived the distance between him and God, a chasm which could not be closed. But, when he found Saint Mark, a community that welcomed all, he said that he felt the worry and shame melt away. It was in this community that he realized that, “God has blessed us so abundantly. It was here that I learned that God loves me, thatI was precious to God. It was here that learned that ‘whosoever’ included me– that Jesus died for me.”[6] My friend, Joseph, unlocked this text for me. What once was a passage so commonly used as the narrow lens through which to view Christianity, suddenly became the open door of God’s love for everyone. It is John 3:17 that reveals the core of this text, for me: ‘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.” Does this not tell us the very nature of God’s being in relationship with us? That God sent Christ, not to condemn, but to save? Just as Paul writes, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).
            If you’re wondering why this is so important to me, it’s because my heart for ministry is with those who have been excluded from the fold. My heart is with the broken, the lost, the lonely. This is why, week after week, we make it a point to say that the doors of this church are open. It’s because the promise of God’s love is available to all, and it’s simply our job to invite and welcome people in to the community. It is here that we are privileged to share in the most beautiful parts of life together – baptism, the common meal, sharing our prayers, passing the peace. This is not just a place where we gather to be social, this is the locus of our strength and hope.
            It is here, in this place, where we live into the light and promise of God’s eternal love. It is here, in this place, where we learn to love those who are unloveable. It is here, in this place, that we come to worship the God who first loved us, and not just us, but the whole world. It is here, in this place, that the broken are welcomed, the lonely are comforted, that the meek are empowered. It is here, in this place, that the world is turned on its head and we live into the promise of Whosoever.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Let us pray:

If you wish, close your eyes and imagine this scene:
 The light, just breaking into the darkness of the morning.
It touches everything, shines on the whole world.

The shadows of early morning fade as the sun moves across the sky, and emblazes light onto every surface of the world. 
What in our world,
                                                            The church,
                                                                        Your own life
                                     Is most in need of God’s love today?

Invite God into the place where you hold these thoughts, images and feelings in your heart. Take a moment to remember that God loves the world. The whole world. Everything and everyone in it. Ask how you can share that love, even to the most unloveable.

[1] Numbers 21:7-9, “The people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.’ So Moses prayed for the people. 8And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.’ 9So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.”
[5] Paul C. Shupe, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol 2, Pastoral Perspective, p. 118.
[6] Saint Mark UMC Capital Campaign Video, 2007.

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