We’re so familiar with John 3:16 that I wonder if we even hear it? Or do we read it like a hallmark card – nice sentiment – and toss it aside. Such beautiful words and we dismiss them so easily.
A preacher far better than me said this about our gospel from John. “Our text tells us two things about the acts of God. We learn that God’s immediate and ultimate relationship to the world is one not of power or of indifference but of affection: For God so loved the world. God’s power is subordinate to his love. The world is subordinate to God’s love. The world is a place that is beloved of God. Like creation it is good, although terrible things happen in it for it is not perfect, it is not without pain, and the price of our freedom is to learn to cope with a world of ambiguity and danger, pain, joy, and opportunity. Through all of that God relates to us out of his love for us. The action of God, the act that counts is love.
The second thing we learn is that God love us so much that the ultimate expression of his love is to send us himself in the form of his son. God’s love is a participating love such that he engages with us on our behalf in the work and labour of the world. This is no God content simply to intimidate or ignore; this action of God dignifies the whole creation by becoming a part of it so that we might participate with him in the making of a new creation. The God who acts in Jesus Christ does so in such a way as to stir us up to action wherever we can and with whatever we have, so that the love of God can be translated into human form and human effort.
That God should show his love, that God should take his ultimate action in the form of a creature, a man, means that all creation, and all men and women, have somehow been elevated to participate in that ultimate act of God, and that the character of that action, both divine and human, must be out of love and compassion and not out of prudence or power.
God’s love is God’s ultimate action and it is given human form in Jesus Christ, and if God can invest himself and his love in the unlikely form of a man born of a woman, who suffered as we suffer and died as we shall die, dare we invest less in humanity than God? Dare we invest less in ourselves and in our world than God? Ought we not to take the sign of God’s love for us in Christ as a sign that we are loveable and the world is worth loving? If that is so, can there be any possible limit to what we can attempt as God’s representatives in the world?
I do not believe that God moves in thunderstorms or speaks in the accents of natural disasters. I do not believe that God interferes in the often tragic course of the world’s activity; I do not believe that God is a great puppeteer who somehow pulls the strings of life for good or for bad, depending upon his temper or ours.
I do believe that God has made the world and loves it so much that he has given himself into our hands and thus made his work our opportunity. God has chosen not to act in the form of phenomena; he has chosen now to act in the form of children, women, and men who know him, love him and serve him. By God’s love for us in Jesus Christ we are, in our own persons, in our daily life and work acts of God, evidence, living proof that the God who acted in the lives of the prophets, the martyrs, and the saints, the God who acted on Easter morning, still acts in the likes and lives of people like us.
You see we are more than simply the objects of a benevolent, a wrathful, or an indifferent God, we are more than items to be arranged on the coffee table. By God’s love we are called to be the action, the activity of God in the world, because it is through us, and our patience, our labour, and our love in a world easily content without God, that God will be known and served; indeed, the Acts of God become the actions of the men and women who know him and love him, and who seek to serve him. John 3:16 is God’s pledge of these truths.
And there is a form and a trajectory of that love, made flesh first in Jesus of Nazareth; it was the thing that consumed St. Paul about Jesus, foolishness to some, the very core of life to Paul and to others.
Paul paid a dear price for his convictions about the cross. When he went to Corinth, the folks he addressed in today’s text, he said, “ I arrived among you shaking, scared, and feeling very weak.” He has just come from Athens, the cultural centre of the world – beautiful Athens, Greece, a monument to the nobility of the human mind and spirit. In Athens, sculpture, art, music, poetry, philosophy, all unsurpassed. Paul stood on a hill there and preached about Jesus, and his listeners treated him in the worst way any preacher ever could be treated: they just laughed. But Paul preached the cross, he said, “ I have to tell of the cross. I have to preach the cross, even though the culture regards the message of the cross as foolish, as something that makes no sense.”
Jesus did all his good works and he taught and healed, preached some beautiful words, but then he went to Jerusalem. His followers ran like crazy, but he stayed there in Jerusalem. How foolish can you get? Didn’t he know the danger? Didn’t someone tell him of the threats? Did he not know what was going to happen to him? Why didn’t he run back home to Nazareth?
On the face of it Jesus’ death makes no sense. We’d be better not to talk about it. That’s what the guru’s of Church growth say, ‘Any church or preacher who keeps preaching on the cross is not going to grow. The preacher will not be a success and the church will not grow, because in our culture what we are interested in is success, and not sacrifice.” If you talk about sacrifice at your church, they are going to sit there with your little huddle of people while other churches will be blooming all around and promising that if you give God a nickel, then God will give you back a dime. Those churches say that the way to health and wealth and happiness is to come through Jesus.
And to all that kind of thinking Paul says, “I have to preach the cross.” Why does he say that – I don’t know, no one really knows why Paul said that. But here is a pretty good guess at why – The cross is a reminder – and it’s a real shame that we need such a reminder – of the cruelty and violence and sin in the world that affects people who had nothing to do with it. Think of all those beautiful starving faces we see on our TV screens whose only sin it seems is to have been born in the wrong part of the world and the wrong time in history. And in our day and age we know that even in high places, proper places, white collar respectable places, there is a lot of ugly, cruel, evil power that crushes and hurts the innocent.
And our task isn’t so much to point all that out and condemn it, but to love those caught up in it. When The Sisterhood of St. John the Divine celebrated their 125th anniversary a few years ago one of those who came to celebrate was Andrea Scott. In 2005 she was homeless and wishing to escape, even for a few hours, the hustle and bustle of the streets, Ms. Scott had been referred by an Anglican Priest to the convent of the Sisters. “ Its been a place of sanctuary and support for me ever since,” said Ms. Scott. “ When I needed a quiet space while I was living in a shelter, I would come here for prayer, support and counselling.” Andrea recalled how she was received the first time she showed up at the convent. “ I was in so much anguish I couldn’t even speak – I just cried for half and hour and a sister stayed with me. There was no judgement, she was just there.”
Seems the nun knew this mornings readings, remembered the message of the cross and the words of John’s Gospel: ‘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.
Kind of makes you blush when you think about all the times that we’ve forgotten to Love, when we’ve presumed to make judgements about other folks worth, when we’ve embraced the culture of the world over the foolishness of the Gospel. Good news is, it’s not all about us, God takes us imperfections and all – and through the likes of you and me God still intends to change the world through love. And the Cross stands as a reminder to us all that God’s love is no hallmark card, no cheap sentiment easily tossed aside. God’s love is real and earthy, particular, and strong. And it needs to be in order to save the likes of you and me. And all God asks in return is that we extend the same unconditional love to all of God’s children.