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Plymouth United Church of Christ
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“For God So Loved the World”
Sermon, Year B, Lent 4, March 15, 2015
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI
© Rev. David J. Huber
Focus Scripture: John 3:14-21

I kept my sermon short today because of my sickness: I’m not sure how much I’m going to cough, and not sure how coherent it is when written while drinking a lot of Nyquil.

This passage from John, this is a very famous one. Especially the John 3:16 verse. You may remember back in the 80s and 90s it seemed like every sports game there was at least one person in the crowd holding a giant sign that said “John 3:16”. It’s a famous passage. But I think it’s also often misunderstood. It says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.”

I think a point of misunderstanding is to take this verse all by itself, which is always problematic when reading the Bible to just take a verse out of context and not talk about how it interacts with the verses around it. I see this one sometimes taken out of context and rewritten, in a sense, so it comes across as saying, “So that those who don’t believe in him will be eternally punished.” That seems to be the flip-side of how this verse is read. I don’t think that it is talking about eternal punishment so much here.

It’s not a heaven and a hell thing that the verse is talking about. For the writer of John’s Gospel, the things that Jesus says are very much in the here and now. They are not future words, about some future rewards or punishment, but something that is right now. And for the writer of John, the way he uses the word “believe” is not simply as an intellectual act, an agreement to a set of propositions. For John, to believe is to obey. Belief is an action. And so for him, the opposite of belief is not unbelief, but inaction or disobeying. To not live the way that Jesus wants us to live. To believe is to live how Jesus would have us live. It is not about agreement to a set of propositions, but a way of life. So for John, the reward and the punishment are in the present moment. Not future, but something that happens right now. So if one believes, that is if one obeys, living the way that Jesus asks us to live, then the reward is right now. The reward is to be living in relationship with God, the way that God would have us live. To disobey is to be condemned already, not to await some future hellish punishment, but to be condemned in the moment simply because it is a life detached and separated from God, which is its own punishment. It is to not live fully into the life that God would like us to enjoy.

To obey Jesus is to live the way of eternal life. Which in John’s Gospel is his way of saying the Kingdom of God, the Realm of God, the Kin-dom of God, some of these words we’ve talked about the past few years. To obey Jesus is to live into eternal life, the way of God’s vision.

When I think of “believing” as a set of propositions, we see it get reduced down to a set of abstract beliefs that must be believed: virgin birth, crucifixion, being raised from the dead, the Trinity. The faith becomes a self-focused way of living in the world. It becomes about whether or not I believe the right things so that I can have my salvation and so that I can go to heaven without any regard to neighbor, other than maybe to get them to believe the same way. But belief has action: to obey Jesus. It is not a self-centered way of living, caring about whether one believes the right doctrine in order to earn salvation, but an outward way of living. About hospitality, love, compassion. To live the way that Jesus lived, on behalf of the other. Belief as action. To obey Jesus is to do what Jesus would have us do.

And to do so in the confidence that, as scripture says, God does not want to condemn the world. God wants to save the world. “God so loved the world.” And therefore loves us. So we can follow in Jesus’ way without worrying about having to be perfect at it, or losing our eternal future if we make a mistake (and especially not if we ‘believe’ the wrong thing, or the right thing the wrong way). We always have God’s grace. God loves us, God picks us up when we fail. Especially if we are failing on the side of love and generosity, on the side of grace.

I had a meeting with some UCC clergy on Friday, part of our Communities of Practice for UCC ministers. We got to talking about this idea of making mistakes and building theological fences to “protect” ourselves, and we thought, if God is going to be upset with us for making mistakes, let it be because we showed too much hospitality, were too generous, erred too much on the side of love, and not the other way. Not that God would condemn for being too loving, but I think you see the point.

To live the way that Jesus would have us live, and trust in God’s grace. Don’t worry about our future salvation, but to offer salvation in the here and now to ourselves and to those who are around us. To live Jesus’ way of love. To go into the brokenness of the world and not be afraid of it. To go into the dark places. Jesus is the light of the world. So go into the dark, and bring Jesus with us. Not to condemn it, but to lift it up, to bring grace and mercy, love and hope. And do so understanding that we are all broken in one way or another. We have broken pottery on our altar table to remind us that we are all broken in some way, all have cracks and dark places, but are all loved, all part of the community of God. We come here to join with one another in that brokenness and help relive some of the suffering from it. Not to judge it or condemn it, but simply to embrace it and bring healing.

God’s love, God’s grace is about life. Jesus is the Lord of Life. God’s love, God’s grace is about life in the here and now. We are loved despite our brokenness, despite our mistakes. No, reverse that: because of them. God knows that is who we are, and God sent Jesus to show us and to say “I love you! I know this is who you are, and I love you. Don’t worry about it. Don’t be afraid.”

We are asked only to be obedient, not to be perfect. To live the way that Jesus would have us live. So the rest of this Lenten season, I ask that you trust in that grace. Trust in God’s grace as we all strive to be obedient and to live in accordance with the way that Jesus would have us live.


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Plymouth United Church of Christ
2010 Moholt Drive
Eau Claire, Wisconsin, 54703

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