Preached March 22, 2009 at Garden of Grace United Church of Christ, Columbia, SC
Readings: John 3:14-21 Psalm 107:1-15
This morning’s song comes from folk singer David Wilcox. The singer/songwriter is a native of Ohio, but now lives in Asheville, North Carolina. This song is called “To Love” and comes from his fourth CD called “Airstream.”
The righteous and the infidels, just outside the gates of hell
Waiting for their judgment to fall
They looked around from face to face so different in their faith and race How could heaven ever welcome them all?
Each one certain he had made the grade
Judging all the others with a holy rage
There’s one crime that all of them are guilty of
The commandment of one God to love Everybody fighting over one God to love
At the risk of repeating myself, I’m going to start with an old joke this morning. It’s been told many times so if you’ve heard it before, bear with me. If you haven’t, there’s a reason it’s a classic. Here goes: A Unitarian dies and goes to heaven (see, it’s already a funny joke!) St. Peter meets him at the gate and offers to give him a tour of heaven.
They start down one of the gold-paved streets, and the man sees a huge cathedral with people going in an out.
“Who are they?” he asks.
“Those are the Catholics,” Peter says. “They love ritual and impressive sermons and flashy architecture.”
They continue a while, and the man sees a long table filled with people eating and arguing.
“Who are they?” he asks.
“Those are the Hebrews,” Peter answers. “They love two things best: Eating well and arguing.”
Next they see a huge picnic with people dancing.
“The Episcopalians,” says Peter. “They never stop partying.”
They continue a bit further and come across a big building completely sealed up, with no windows or doors and no way in or out.
“Wow,” says the man. “Who’s in there?”
“That’s the Baptists,” says Peter. “They think they’re the only ones here.” Now, as a recovering Southern Baptist I can quote Homer Simpson about that joke: “It’s funny because it’s true!” I was taught from birth that only certain people who call themselves Christian would go to heaven – never mind those people who professed another form of religion. They were worse than misguided Christians. They had completely missed the boat because they hadn’t been saved – they hadn’t accepted Jesus as their personal savior. As a kid I felt very justified telling anyone who wasn’t Christian, or who wasn’t my brand of Christian, that they were going to hell. It’s what I had been taught. I was certain that it was only going to be Southern Baptists in heaven. Sounds a little like hell to me now, though! One of the verses most quoted to justify this feeling was 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.
That’s the good news: Jesus came to save us, to give us eternal life, and anyone who believed that was safe – their ticket to heaven had been stamped and they were on their way. People have so internalized this verse and that meaning of this verse that they use it as their number one tool for evangelizing. At football games and baseball games, it’s not unusual to see “John 3:16” painted on a banner and waved throughout the game. Those who do this think they’re doing the right thing – spreading the good news of the gospel. For those, however, who were raised in different faith traditions – this verse doesn’t sound like such good news. Instead, these are words of condemnation – words that guarantee their ticket to eternal damnation. They don’t believe in Jesus – or they don’t believe the right way – so, Jesus becomes like Seinfeld’s soup Nazi, “No heaven for you!” What’s odd is that such a literal reading of John 3:16 goes against the entire book of John. The fourth gospel, written some 100 years after Jesus’ crucifixion, is the least literal of the gospels. This book is chock full of metaphor and simile. Jesus compares himself to bread, to vines, to a shepherd, and to light. To take any of it at literal face value is to miss the deeper point the gospel writer is trying to convey. If this is the case, then let’s take a closer look at John 3:16 and see what we find there when we dig a little deeper beyond the surface meanings we’ve been taught over the years. First off, this verse tells us that God so loved the world. The Greek word for world is “kosmos.” That means “the universe, the human family.” It also means “the ungodly multitude, world affairs, all things earthly.” That means God loves all of us – man, woman, gay, straight, bisexual, transgender, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Atheist, left-handed, right-handed, blue-eyed, green-eyed, one-eyed. It doesn’t matter. God loves the whole world – the whole “kosmos.” God doesn’t put labels on it like we do. The Psalmist sings of a God who gathers people from all over “from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south.” Hungry and thirsty, God gathers them all together. Let’s go further. God so loved this whole wide world and all it’s people and worldly affairs that he “gave” or “didomi” – which means “gift” – God gifted us with the presence of Jesus, his child. And whoever – or “pas” in Greek – meaning “each, every, all, any, the whole, everyone, all things, everything,” anyone or anything that believes God has sent us this gift has everlasting life. What is that word “believes”? “Pisteuo” in Greek means “place confidence in, persuaded of, or think to be true.” If we are confident that Jesus has been sent to us as a gift from God then we are on our way to faith. Notice what it doesn’t say. It doesn’t say we believe in what’s been said about Jesus. We’re not being told we have to believe in creeds or dogmas around Jesus. We’re simply told that if we believe that God has given us a great gift in the form of Jesus, then – we have eternal or everlasting life. Now, what is that? Everlasting or “aionios” means “without beginning or end,” life or “zoe” means, “animated, fullness of life, active, vigorous life, genuine, devoted to God.” So, let’s try to put this together then: “Because God loves everyone, without condition, no matter who they are, what faith they subscribe to, or where they are on life’s journey, God gifted the world with his beloved child Jesus. If anyone or anything thinks his message is true and trustworthy, their lives will be full and genuine – devoted to God.” That life, by the way, will be eternal – which in addition to having no end also has no beginning – that means our eternal life doesn’t start somewhere after death. It means we’re already living that eternal life. We’re not to forsake this life for the next – waiting for eternal life to begin. Instead it’s here now. If we understand that then we understand that fullness of life is right now – not in some distant future. But, let’s go a little bit further into John 3:17 which reads:
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.
Let’s look at a few words here. First, the word, “condemn” – when we hear that word we think about the pits of hell. Those who are “condemned” are going to hell. But the Greek word used here means “separate, select, choose, judge or rule.” In other words, Jesus didn’t come here to separate the world. Jesus didn’t come to cause divisions among us along faith lines. That was not his intent. Instead, Jesus came that we might be saved. But, what does that word mean? “Saved” in Greek doesn’t mean “take you to heaven and send everyone else to hell.” No, it means “to keep safe and sound, rescue from danger, to make whole.” Jesus didn’t come to cause divisions, to pit faith against faith and nation against nation. Instead, Jesus comes offering us safety – but most of all, Jesus offers to make us whole – not just as people, but as a “kosmos.” Jesus has come to make the world whole – to bring ultimate peace where lambs lie down with lions and Christians live in peace with Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and even each other – be they Catholic, Episcopalian, UCC, or worshippers of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Our often bitter and violent divisions over faith are not God’s will for our lives. Instead, we are to be reconciled – made a holy whole – with God through Jesus’ message. And what was Jesus’ message? Love – radical love.
All of them were surprised as hell to see the way the judgment fell
‘Cause none of them would see the light above All thinking they could stand apart,
but the same hate was in every heart
There’s little left of a religion without love.
Each one certain he had made the grade Judging all the others with a holy rage ‘Cause there’s one crime that all of them were guilty of
The commandment of one God to love
Everybody fighting over one God to love
I realize I’m wandering into dangerous territory this morning. As Christians we have a long tradition of believing that we have the hotline to God. It is through a belief in Christ alone that gets us that mansion in heaven. Christ is the only way, we say – and all other religions are wrong and their adherents will go to hell if they don’t convert to Christianity. There are even crusades in our rich Christian history where infidels were put to death by the sword if they didn’t convert. You can see our ancestors are guilty of the crimes we accuse other religions of – judging others with a holy rage and committing the crime of failing to uphold God’s commandment to love. I’m reminded of a friend of mine who used to be an MCC pastor. One morning he gave a sermon similar to this. His premise was simple: if you want to get to my house I have to give you directions and the directions will all be slightly different depending on your starting point. Now, each of those directions will have a lot in common. For instance, if each of you were coming to my house, Interstate 20 would be common in all those directions. If you’re closer to my house, Highway 1 will be common to all of you, but the directions will be different in many places. His point was: all roads lead to God. The directions look different – contained in different faiths – but there is enough similarity in the instructions that we can get to God no matter where we started. This sermon went over like a lead balloon with the congregation. In fact, there was one woman in particular who made it her personal mission to get this pastor removed from the pulpit. She called every member of the church and expressed her outrage at this heretical message. She called the pastor everything but a child of God. She was on a crusade – and anyone who didn’t agree with her was an infidel – worthy of her scorn, if not her sword. The pastor survived this woman’s assault, but there’s a beautiful irony in how the situation turned out. That pastor now teaches school in Southeast Georgia. He lives in a cabin on an idyllic 72 acre farm. That farm is owned by two women – one of whom was the woman who led the revolt against him. She learned the hard lesson that you don’t always have to agree with your pastor. A pastor’s job is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Sermons shouldn’t just affirm your current beliefs, instead they should challenge you, make you think, help you grow, and hopefully lead you to that wholeness that God desires for each of us. These two beautiful people got over their doctrinal differences and instead started:
They stopped fighting over one God to love
The good news is: We don’t have to fight over one God to love. As that pastor pointed out, there are many similarities along the path to God’s house. For instance, each of the world’s major religions has a version of the Golden Rule. As Christians we look to Matthew 7:12:
In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.
For Muslims it is:
No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself.
In Judaism it is:
What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellowman. This is the entire Law; all the rest is commentary.
Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.
Hindus would say:
This is the sum of duty; do naught onto others what you would not have them do unto you.
This is our Interstate 20, our Highway 1 – the common path to God that we all possess, no matter what faith tradition we follow. Each religion commands us to love one another – not to judge one another with a holy rage. Instead, each religion, in its own way, seeks to bring us to wholeness – to give us the tools we need to love ourselves, our neighbors and our God. The Psalmist sings of that wholeness – whether hungry, thirsty, sitting in darkness and misery, rebelling against God – whoever we are, whenever we cry out to God we are saved – made whole, brought out of darkness and gloom – fully restored by God’s steadfast love. Perhaps that’s the reason we have all these different religions. Perhaps God wants to know if we can see past all these man-made differences we cling to – if we can become blind to the tribalism of our societies – and see each other as gifts from God. Can we see each other as God’s beloved children sent to love each other, to bring wholeness to each other and to the world? So, as Christians – those who find their path to God by following the teachings of Jesus the Christ – how are we to live in a world of many religions and one God? First, we need to think differently about a few things. What would it mean then if we stopped thinking about being saved as securing our own personal salvation and instead began to think of being saved as being made whole – for ourselves and for the world? What if our commission on earth is not to “convert” other people to our particular religion but instead, through our relationship with Christ, to seek to make the world and each person in it whole? What if our purpose on this earth is to so perfectly embody Christ’s love in the world that everyone we encounter is led to wholeness by the experience? What if, for just a moment – because of our relationship in and through Christ – we, ourselves, encounter that wholeness? If our goal is to work through Christ to make the world whole – how does that change our behavior? Do we continue to argue over matters of doctrine and dogma? Do we continue to call each other names and denigrate one another’s faith because it may be different than our own? If being made whole means we want for everyone in the world what we want for ourselves, wouldnt we be about outdoing one another in love and service instead of finding new ways and new weapons to destroy one another? If we’re truly following the commandment to love, when would we find time to hate, or kill, or neglect, or marginalize anyone? The bottom line this morning is this: God doesn’t care if you’ve got your doctrines right. God wants to know if you’ve got your love right.
All of them appealed their case and stood before the One Askin’ why would God make different faiths concealed in different tongues Heaven knows the reason all beliefs are not the same
For God to see who loves their enemies, He’s called by different names
Each religion failed the test
By fighting over which faith said it best
And there’s one crime that all of them are guilty of
The commandment from one God – to love
The commandment to love
The founder and Editor Emeritus of Whosoever, Rev. Candace Chellew earned her Masters of Theological studies at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, Ga., and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. Her first book, “Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians”, was published by Jossey-Bass in 2008. She currently serves as the Spiritual Director of Jubilee! Circle in Columbia, S.C.