My Sermon from Feb. 17

When I told a friend that I was preaching this Sunday on the Gospel passage that includes John 3:16, they laughed and asked if the church was trying to lob me a softball or something!

This verse is, after all, the Bible verse--the one that guys in clown wigs hold up on signs at baseball games, and the one that every young evangelical knows by heart: "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

As a young Christian, this was in fact one of my favorite passages from Scripture (as was, actually, the reading from Romans today on justification by faith). It's the Good News--God loves us so much that he was willing to die for us. God has offered us salvation, and death isn't the end of things! Who doesn't like that message? It’s so powerful: I mean, during Lent, it's essentially the message that makes us willing to give up chocolate and TV for 40 days! On a Sunday in Lent—each of which is supposed to be a “mini-Easter”—this is just the sort of message that we should be reflecting on and celebrating.

My biggest curse in life though is an annoying tendency to try to view both sides of things, and Lent is a time for reflection on both the light and dark sides of life. Because of that, I have to point out that this passage also has some other, more challenging, connotations.

Essentially, that's because this isn't just one of the most well-known, and hopeful, passages in Christian scripture, it's also one of the easiest to interpret in a rigid, formulaic and judgmental manner. You know the thought process: crudely put: "What you have to do to be saved is believe that Jesus is the Christ—if you do, you’ll go to heaven and if you don't, you're going to Hell." Taken on its own, that is what John 3:1-17 can seem to suggest, (and I think that’s what the guys with the signs are usually trying to point out).

I’m particularly aware of this polarizing aspect of this Gospel passage because that’s where I’ve come from: my early religious training was in a church that was explicit about the belief that Christians are “saved” and non-Christians aren’t. For a time, I was gung ho about that idea myself: I ruined at least two of my teenage friendships by indelicately insisting that my friends were going to hell unless they became Christians. In one case I actually tried to convert some friends to this belief via email. That’s a really stupid idea, by the way. Their response was predictable—one was hurt and angry and the other stopped talking to me. Through a long and very Anglican process of engagement with Scripture, Tradition and Reason that’s not where I am anymore, but it’s still an important part of my personal history.

Whether or not this particular mode of belief is part of your theological past or present, it is important that we’re engaging with this side of the Christian message as we reflect on the significance of Easter. It’s obviously a message that many people view as essential to Christian belief, but it’s also an aspect of our tradition that we levelheaded, moderate Episcopalians often don’t like to confront. At some point we have to decide what the significance of the Easter story is—for ourselves and our neighbors, and for the world community as a whole.

In my opinion, that significance is actually stated succinctly in the verse after John 3:16, which suggests that “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him”. That verse doesn’t usually make it onto the billboards (not enough space, I guess?), and unfortunately doesn’t always bear itself out in Christian attitudes either.

I can’t define your belief for you, but theologically, in the light of reason and this verse and others like it, I tend to lean towards the camp that suggests that Christians should believe—or at very least hope—that God will figure out a way to redeem all of us. Maybe more importantly though, from a pragmatic perspective it seems that in a world of political and religious conflict Christians should be seen more often working to “save” the world than voicing our “condemnations”: we should be more about acting for redemption and less about whining about other peoples’ problems.

It’s actually a pretty exciting time in the Church, because you do see a lot of places where we are moving in that direction: Christians of all persuasions are beginning to get on board en masse, for instance, in the efforts to protect the environment and end poverty. The “emerging church” movement—which you should look up if you haven’t heard of it—is in large part an attempt to live in a redemptive way in our culture and world. As I’m sure you know though, we’ve still got some work to do. Maybe we should start printing up some John 3:17 signs before the Mariners season?

In any case, as we prepare to celebrate Easter, I am personally trying to bear in mind the fact that the Gospel—the “Good News—can easily be turned into a message about condemnation, manifesting itself in an “I’m in/you’re out” kind of mentality. That in itself deserves a significant amount of penance and fasting. On the flip side, I’m also trying to remember, and I hope you will too, that the “Good News” of Christ is probably much better and all encompassing than I tend to assume. Despite our own petty prejudices and uninformed opinions, once again “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him”.


jeremy said…
I don't know if you count me in on the 2 ruined friendships, but I don't see it that way. Hurt and angry at the time - yes. Now? not at all.

(if I'm not one of the two, Yipee!)
Unknown said…
Well, you were the hurt and angry one. Not necessarily the ruined friendship one--though I would say damaged, at least at the time. It's good that you were gracious enough to not cut things off when you would have been well justified--not because I think I was acting out of anything but concern, but because my religion was too nutty to expect a reasonable person to have to deal with. ahh religion...i can't live with it, can't live without it.
jeremy said…
Yeah, in my opinion, it's good to be rid of the nutty Tim. I like the liberal/philosophical/rational version that doesn't automatically condemn me to hell a lot better. (or maybe you do ...)

We should start on that wiki again and possibly get others on it. It's been a long time since I've read books or discussed anything on religion/philosophy/science so it'd be good to get back into it. Let me know if you have the time & desire to do that again.
Unknown said…
The thing is, I think I've always had that liberal/philosophical/rational streak in me, in that I've always tried to act on what I thought was morally right, and I've always tried to act on what I thought was true. It was just that I'd been trained up in a system that was rational in terms of internal coherence, but was ultimately balderdash. It was also deeply morally concerned, but just shortsighted and essentially exclusivist. Because it had those elements, that system worked for me for a while, until the basic principles I was pursuing--goodness, truth, etc.--forced me to move outside of it. Now I'm really for the first time consciously questioning whether I need to go even further, or whether this sort of liberal Christian thing will continue to work. I want to think it will, b/c I've put so much into it, and b/c it's been a source of hope for a while, but I'm not sure that it can contain truth or goodness in a satisfactory manner. Am I identifying in myself the source of the philosophical breakdown of organized religion in the Western world?

I'll join in your wiki. I can't make any guarantees about frequency of posting. We don't have a tv, so I write quite a bit, but most of that's worked out on this blog. Give me a web address...
Anonymous said…
I dont know if you ever studied much greek, but that verse, overused as it is, is actually fairly interesting--especially when combined with the next verse.

The "...shall not perish..." part is actually a middle voiced verb, and it reads more like "...shall not destroy themselves..."

Just something to think on...
Unknown said…
I'm a minister, of course I've never studied much Greek!

But seriously folks, I do like the "shall not destroy themselves" angle, and think you could go in an interesting direction with it, but I go back and forth on the Greek thing, the true meaning of scripture, etc. I generally tend to argue about what the Bible means today, rather than what it meant when it was written--two different things of course even if they are related. However, it is quite neglectful of me to disregard original intent, which I admit is easy to do when you aren't interested in ancient languages. (Read: I find that it's too much work to get it right). The question is, don't we have the same problem when interpreting the Greek as we do when interpreting the English? That is, the Bible is big and confusing enough that we can make it say whatever we want, whenever we want? If I were to use that "shall not destroy themselves" angle, it would only be because it fits what I already think. It would lend my opinion an air of esoteric authority, I must admit.
Anonymous said…
Yeah, you're partially right. Language is confusing and can be twisted easily. And it does take too much work. You just have to be very smart and/or dishonest to twist greek. For seminarians and ministers, greek is difficult to interpret; for classicists who've studied the culture and history as well as the language, not so much. When people ask me if i have any special insight on scripture (and of course i do) i casually set to rest any insecurities they may have with this example: english is fuzzy black and white tv...greek is true color hi-def. You get the picture both ways, one just has more detail (pretty and ugly detail). So nothing of real value is lost, in my opinion. Unless you're quite fond of details and Jesus making smart-ass wise-cracks that dont come through in english.

Most seminarians know enough greek to be wrong 95% of the time, so it doesnt surprise me that you would brush it aside as a non-essential. Most of your fellow ministers, regardless of denomination, do the same. I'm highly suspicious of any mention from the pulpit that 'suchandsuch' ancient word really means '-----'. So, congrats, you know how to use a lexicon. I have a special place in my diagram of hell for ministers who didnt do their greek homework and pretend to know what they're talking about.

I think you're being dishonest with yourself saying that you're not generally concerned with original intent. The text quite literally wasnt written for today, at least not most of the epistles. They were written very specifically as letters and not as general advice or principals for modern, cultural outsiders, as conservative evangelicals would have us believe. To derive principals for today, one must uncover them from the past. Not in order to tell women to not wear short hair and to be silent (as great as that sounds), but so we can figure out why those things were said so that we can derive something of practical modern value (if any of value is to be found... whatsoever) or to dispel the silly traditional myths that plague christian denominations. If anyone, I would think you're all for this sort of thing in religion--myth busting and practicality, that is.