Fifth Sunday in Lent – 18 March 2018
I really like questions, especially good questions.
But that I like good questions does not mean that I will always have an answer, or a quick one, or the right one. But I will try to answer questions to the best of my ability.
Last Sunday I made reference to the Malaysian Restaurant on Number 3 Road that has incorporated John 3:16 into its name. I can guess why. Because John 3:16 “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” says something about the nature of God. Besides, I imagine Malaysian Christians perhaps having a greater need to speak of the love of God for the simple reasons that Christians are a minority in Malaysia. But that that would be the reason for the name of the restaurant is only a guess.
When I was growing up, in my Lutheran home congregation ‒ with a distinct Evangelical flavour ‒ we learned that we could replace “world” with our name, so that the verse would read, “For God so loved Christoph that he gave his only Son, so that Christoph who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
We did that but I must confess that I knew that God loved me even without engaging in that exercise. The exercise felt a bit a bit strange, for three reasons,
a) Why would I want to remove ‘the world’ from God’s love? If God loves the world and I follow Jesus, should I not also love the world? If God only loved individuals, then those individuals wouln’t have to care about the world (that God loves).
b) To substitute my name or your name for ‘the world’ removes a sense of community between us and between us and the world. If God’s love is for individuals, why do I need the community of the church? If God’s love is for individuals then how do we relate to all of creation that God fashioned out of love?
c) When I substitute my name or your name for ‘the world’ then the verse begins to sound conditional, at least to me. Which is how this verse has often been understood. Those who believe in Jesus will be saved. If you believe in Jesus. That makes us wonder about those who do not believe in Jesus.
And that is the question I was asked. How about the covenant God made with Israel? Did the new covenant render the old covenant null and void?
Which is why we need to remember that verse 16 is followed by verse 17: “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.”
God’s will is to save, not to condemn.
It is true that John three does talk about those who believe in Jesus being saved and those who do not believe in him being condemned but if we read these verses carefully we will see that the condemnation that Jesus speaks of is not a condemnation that God enacts but a condemnation we enact when we exclude ourselves from the grace of God. In verse 19 the Johanine theme of light and darkness returns: Those who love darkness more than light exclude themselves.
To me this makes sense in the context of John three but it also makes sense in the context of who God is. In the First letter of John we learn that God is love, In Ezekiel 33 we hear God say, “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live.”
There is a side note I need to address in the context of John three. Belief in Jesus has become the Protestant work by which we attain righteousness. Protestants have replaced the doing of good deeds with saying the right words. It’s almost like an incantation. If we just say the right words, we shall be saved. That can be the right theology. That can be the right prayer. That can be confessing Jesus as my personal Lord and Saviour.
However, belief is synonymous with trust. Belief is not the right words or the right theology but trusting in God so that God may take my life and change it and redirect it, as we sing in one of our offertory pieces,
Take, oh, take me as I am;
summon out what I shall be;
set your seal upon my heart
and live in me.
That God take me and you as we are, in our imperfection and with our limited understanding, means that God will have communion with us, God will shape us to desire what God desires, and that will involve the world God loves. That God take us as we are and summon out what we shall be will make us participants in God’s work of salvation, no matter how small our part may seem.
Now, I know, the text from John 3 was last week’s reading. This weeks reading is from John 12. Yet when I read John 12 it took me back to John 3, or at least to an exclusionary (mis)understanding of John 3. Here in John 12, Jesus speaks of the cross and says, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” The evangelist’s comment on this verse is, “He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.”
Now, in John’s Gospel crucifixion and resurrection are the same, they both serve the same end, they both glorify Jesus and the Father. However, you may have noticed the clear, universal tone of Jesus’ announcement, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” The cross is the act in which our salvation is accomplished and our salvation is the world’s salvation, it is for everyone.
Other than through the cross, neither Jesus nor John tell us how this will be accomplished, especially in a world that does not recognize Jesus. Paul wrestled with this question in Romans regarding his own people Israel, and Paul comes to the conclusion that “all Israel will be saved; as it is written, ‘Out of Zion will come the Deliverer; he will banish ungodliness from Jacob.’ “And this is my covenant with them, when I take away their sins.” (Romans 11) Paul does not say how it will happen but it would be fair to think that it has to do with the fact that God loves the whole world and that God is faithful to his people Israel.
I love our church building. I love the crucifix on the west side, toward the road, and I love the crucifix up here on the chancel. I understand that it wasn’t easy to include a crucifix in a Lutheran Church, because our cross is empty. We know that the cross could not hold Jesus. We know Jesus ascended to the Father. Our Jesus won and we do not need to look at him dying on a cross. Yet his victory was won on the cross.
Some of you were here when all this was being discussed. And I think it was an engaged debate. Engaged debates are good when they are carried out in love for one another. They are like good questions, like the question about who will be saved.
I am glad that we don’t just have an empty cross up here, for it is the Jesus lifted up on the cross who will draw all people to himself. It is Jesus on the cross who reveals the face of God to us. It is Jesus on the cross who shows us the depth of God’s love and the extend to which God will go to bring salvation, precisely not through violence but through suffering.
The cross shows us that neither God’s love, nor God, nor Jesus, nor our salvation are an abstraction, a construct, because God’s love for the whole world is made visible in Jesus and made visible on the cross.
I will admit to you that I am a bit weak on the condemning part, but than I am not God, but we also know that God sent the son not to condemn but that all people would be saved through him. The cross shows us how that saving was accomplished and that is all I know.
That does not mean that I will not preach Jesus, confess Jesus, love Jesus, and follow Jesus, for I believe Jesus is God’s exact image and likeness, only that I will not proclaim or talk about condemnation.
Jesus says to the crowd, “when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”
Perhaps this leaves a question, though I think there may be more than one question. But the one I am referring to now is this: If I am that convinced of the mercy and grace of God, then why would I want to tell the world about Jesus? Is it so we can get more members to help us pay the bills?
We need to keep proclaiming Jesus, because, for one, salvation is God’s call not mine or yours. Even though we trust in God’s grace and mercy, it’s not our call but God’s.
But also for the same reason that the Greeks in today’s Gospel wanted to see Jesus, though of course, we don’t really know why. But they wanted to see him. Jesus reveals himself in the encounter, he speaks of himself as the grain of wheat that must fall in the earth and die, he speaks of what it means to belong to him, and belonging to Jesus is what it is all about.
I believe in God’s future after my death, but I also believe in God’s presence now. How could I not want the whole world to live in God’s redeeming presence?!