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OMG! We’ve Got to Quit Using John 3:16 as a Threat! (March 11, 2018)

Here’s my goal in this sermon. I want you to dislike John 3:16. You may have it memorized, or are familiar with it. Chances are good you’ve at least heard it, “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.”

I’m not trying to get you to dislike it because I’m just mean (not too much anyway). But I want you to dislike it because the way that it is normally used is not only contrary to the message of John’s gospel, but to the entirety of the scriptural witness in Jesus. Far too often this text is used as a threat or a weapon (believe, or else!). John uses it as part of a call to action!

So really, my goal is not to make you dislike the verse, but dislike how it’s been used to convey a message that counters God’s mission in the world, counters the role of Jesus, and counters the call of the church.

Let’s take a step back and consider the gospel of John as a whole. The author was part of a small Jewish believers-in-Jesus that had been expelled from their local synagogue. They were being harassed and persecuted by their neighbors for continuing to push Jesus-as-Messiah. Regardless of how much they try to convince the majority group that Jesus is the one chosen by God, they continue to be harassed over it.

And, perhaps, some of that persecution is beginning to work. This gospel was written first of all to a small minority group of Jewish believers in order to encourage them to continue Jesus’ mission even though they are being persecuted for it. Their life witness of self-giving sacrifice is the way they reveal Jesus as Messiah, bringing light into a dark world. Following in the way of Jesus of Nazareth is their purpose as a group.

Like pretty much any verse, if we look at John 3:16 as an isolated verse, separated from the rest of John’s gospel, we’re gonna lose something, miss something, read something into it. And that’s exactly what has happened. We been taught in recent decades to put the emphasis on “everyone who believes” part. Meaning that if you, personally, believe that God sent Jesus to die on the cross as a sacrifice to atone for your sins, you’ve got yourself a bona fide ticket to heaven when you die. That is the last thing the author of this gospel ever intended. That thought never occurred to him.

He and his little community are facing all kinds of pressure to give up on following Jesus. In the midst of the daily persecution they are facing, they need encouragement to keep going if they are going to continue Jesus’ mission of being light in the darkness.

For this community, the author is saying, Jesus is lifted up, like the bronze serpent in the first reading, for healing. Not as a punishment for sin or anything else, but as a sign which provides healing and life. Jesus was given by God as a sign of God’s love for the world. Look on him and be renewed. See on the cross how far God’s love for the world actually goes. Let that love encourage you. See? God won’t give up. Keep trusting God whose loves for the whole world extends that far. That love is light in the darkness. The light has come into the world, and Jesus is the one chosen by God to shine that light.

If people understand the light of God’s love in the world, they will be drawn to Jesus. They will follow him and attempt to shine that same loving light. If they believe that light exposes darkness, that love drives out hate, that giving one’s self away defeats evil, they will come to the light that is Jesus.

But, the author writes, there are some who continue to believe that darkness doesn’t matter, or that it can’t be overcome, or maybe even that darkness is better. Those who believe that what hides in the darkness is tolerable won’t be drawn to the light of God’s love in Jesus. It’s not that they’re going to hell, it’s just that their opposition to you as disciples comes from a place of darkness, not light; a place that is hidden, not revealed; a place that won’t recognize Jesus as a sign of God’s loving light. Their persecution and opposition do not come from God’s love and therefore can’t rid the world of evil. Only love can do that. Jesus is the ultimate sign of that love. Keep believing that. Keep living that. Keep shining that light. Let the world see your acts of love.

John 3:16 is but one verse of a much larger piece that is a radical call to action. Believing in Jesus means trusting in God’s love as the response to evil. Believing in Jesus means trusting God’s love revealed in him so much that you are willing to follow the biggest sign of its presence—Jesus himself. “Everyone who believes in him” includes all those who will not hide in the darkness, but will give of themselves in love for the world.

That call to radical, loving action is still given in John. There are still those who love the darkness and hate the light. There are still those who do evil and keep their deeds hidden. But that is not the way of God. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son—not to condemn the world, but to save it. And you who recognize that, who believe that only love casts out evil, you will be the ones to overcome the evil of the world by loving the world. Jesus shows us the way. Jesus shines that light. Keep believing that. Keep loving with God’s far-reaching love. Keep on doing it in the face of persecution and harassment. Keep showing the world Jesus, who shows us what God’s love looks like. Because that’s where life is to be found.

God loves the world. Jesus shows how great that love is. Trust that. Believe that. Follow that. And shine that in the world. That is life in Jesus. That is life in God’s love. And that love never ends.

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Posted by on March 12, 2018 in Sermon

 

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“We have seen the Lord” April 3, 2016

John 20:19-31

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin ), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” 26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” 30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

The night of his resurrection, Jesus appears to the disciples, breathes the Holy Spirit into them, and sends them out to forgive sins. Thomas wasn’t there so he didn’t believe them. The other disciples kept saying to Thomas, “We have seen the Lord,” but Thomas wanted evidence. He asked to have evidence presented before his mind could be changed.

But that’s not what happened. Instead of evidence to change his mind, he saw the risen Christ, which changed his heart. As the other disciples kept saying, now Thomas, too, saw the Lord.

Many years ago, I saw the Lord.

There are not many things about my past that embarrass me, but the following is one of them: I had written a piece as to why homosexuality was a sin. I need evidence, I wrote, in order to change my mind. Show me in the Bible, quote me chapter and verse, where God ever says homosexuality is OK. I will not believe until I see with my own eyes the evidence.

The evidence had always been there, but as if often the case, evidence rarely changes minds. But that didn’t matter until I saw the Lord. I saw the risen Christ in the grace and love of a gay man who had been receiving death threats because of his sexual identity, yet who continued to boldly love anyway.

I saw the risen Christ in the kindness and gentleness of a transgender woman, who insisted on loving those who hated her.

I saw the risen Christ in the open statements of welcome I read in other congregations’ publications, “All are welcome. Black, white, Hispanic, Asian, native, or anything else; Muslim, Buddhist, agnostic, Lutheran, or anything else; straight, lesbian, gay, transgender, bisexual, or anything else. You are a child of God and you are welcomed here.” I saw the Lord.

I had asked for evidence. But instead of evidence to change my mind, I saw the risen Christ, which changed my heart.

And I’ve seen the Lord a lot.

We live in a culture that demands evidence for everything. Our default position is that we have our minds made up, we have our opinions, and it’s up to someone else to change ours mind with hard evidence. Until then, we’re staying put.

That’s true with faith—people demand evidence before they will believe in God. It’s true in politics—people demand evidence that the other candidate isn’t a lying, cheating, sniveling, puppy-killer. It’s really true with almost anything in our culture, including our own biases. Until there’s hard evidence, we rarely change our minds. Even in the face of evidence, we usually don’t.

The disciples were huddled together in a locked room for fear of the Jews, the text says. That’s what we do too. We lock ourselves behind whatever helps us keep our same views. Because from behind locked doors we can demand evidence that will change our minds. When it doesn’t, we can assume that our own views are OK as they are. So our perspective on the world, the church, our neighbors, our government, whatever is safe. We demand evidence. But we stay behind locked doors just in case.

Just like in this text, though, instead of evidence to change our minds, Jesus comes and stands among us anyway. When we see the Lord, it changes our hearts.

I see the Lord when a child, though shaking in her shoes, stands up to a bully for her friend. That changes my heart.

I see the Lord when our council struggles to make decisions that are consistent with Jesus’ call to follow, even though they know some decisions aren’t always well liked. That changes my heart

I see the Lord when the HEART Ministry goes out of their way to acknowledge and thank the quiet work of someone in this congregation. That changes my heart.

I see the Lord in the faces of the homeless on the 16th Street Mall, even when they are ignored or laughed at. That changes my heart.

I see the Lord when we, as a congregation band together to serve our neighbors at The Action Center or the Animal Shelter. That changes my heart.

I see the Lord when someone gives me a hug and says, “Don’t worry, I’ve got your back.” That changes my heart.

Being sent by Jesus really doesn’t have anything to do with changing anyone’s mind. Following Jesus doesn’t mean offering evidence for what we believe or don’t believe. What it seems to mean is showing people the risen Christ: loving them anyway, forgiving them anyway, making peace with them anyway. We show them the Lord by being the church that, when we enter into people’s lives, they can say, “We have seen the Lord,” and their hearts are changed.

People are asking for evidence, but that’s not what we offer. Instead of evidence to change their minds, we offer them Jesus, which changes their hearts.

 
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Posted by on April 4, 2016 in Sermon

 

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Believing and Disbelieving: It’s the Norm (11 Pent B)

11th Sunday After Pentecost (B)

1 Kings 19:4-8; Ephesians 4:25—5:2; John 6:35,41-51

 I’m going to be completely honest here—I think I’m with the crowd on this one. At least I am today. It changes. But today, I really wish John had recorded Jesus phrasing this a little bit differently. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. . . . and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.

Not only is it graphic and kinda gross, but it’s hard to believe. I remember going through First Communion instruction in Mrs. Shaw’s 2nd grade class at St. Joseph’s Grade School. “Don’t chew the wafer,” she taught us. “If you do, you’re gnawing on the bones of Jesus.” Really?

I know Jesus is likely talking about his crucifixion, and giving up his life for the world. And I know it’s an easy jump—and probably appropriate—to use this text to talk about the real presence of Christ in Holy Communion (Jesus, bread, eating). But faced with mystical and rather disgusting doctrine like Jesus is sharing here, I find myself standing with the Jewish crowd. Uhmmm, no thanks, Jesus. Bread of life from heaven? Eat you and live? Your flesh is bread for us? I’m not sure I’m all the way there.

I think I want to take this nauseating speech and make it more comfortable. I think I want to make it acceptable. I think I want to scale it back to a point where I can believe it.

Which is just like the crowd who heard Jesus say it. “Don’t be messing with us, Jesus. We know who you really are: Mary and Joseph’s kid from Nazareth. That’s what we can believe. That’s as far as we’re going to go with this.”

Yes, I’m with the crowd on this one. Jesus sometimes goes too far. Farther than I’m comfortable with. Farther than I’m able to believe.

What about you? Does Jesus ever go too far for you? Does he ever say anything that you just can’t fully buy into?

  • Love your enemies. All of them. Even the guy outside of Milwaukee who went into a house of worship and started shooting. Even the young man who opened fire in a movie theater in Aurora. Even Republicans. And Democrats. Sorry, Jesus, that’s just beyond what I can believe.
  • Forgive everyone who as often as they ask for it.Everyone? The one who destroyed my marriage? The one who took advantage of my good nature? Perhaps I should, but honestly, Jesus, I don’t really believe I have to.
  • Sell everything you have and give the money to the poor. Do you know anyone who actually believes that one?

Those are more extreme examples that many of us have a hard time believing. But who knows what part of Jesus is just beyond someone’s ability to believe?

Some people find themselves unable to believe Jesus is actually God. Others that he truly rose from the dead. Some that he has anything to offer other than pretty good philosophy. In one way or another, in some aspect of Jesus, we all stand with the crowd not really buying what he’s selling. It’s different for each of us, but we all have some difficulty with Jesus. Where we get into trouble is, like the crowd, when we insist that what we believe about Jesus is the only correct thing to believe. If you don’t believe about Jesus what I believe about him, your faith is inferior. Or, if you don’t disbelieve about Jesus what I disbelieve about him, your faith is superficial.

So if we’re going to be completely honest—it’s really a matter of degree as to what any of us believe and what any of us don’t. And it can change day by day. Whether Christian or not. We all believe something about Jesus, and we all find ourselves unable to believe some things about him. We all stand with the crowd at some point.

But here’s where the church becomes so important. As this text shows us, we aren’t the first ones to struggle with something Jesus said. We aren’t the first ones who are simply unable to believe some things about him.

What we have in the church is the experience of thousands upon thousands of people through history who have been touched by Jesus, who’ve struggled with the same things we have, and who have been somehow changed by the reality of Jesus. Some of it believable and some of it not. But changed by him nonetheless. Their collective witness tells us that there’s something to the reality of who Jesus is, believe it or not. They tell us that believing aside, the reality of Jesus is worth trusting.

And what we have in this congregation is a community of people who stand with us in our beliefs and who stand with us in our unbeliefs.

And here’s where our Lutheran tradition really makes a difference. What we have as Lutherans is a particular way of being Christian that boldly names the reality of our experience: at the same time belief/disbelief;  saint/sinner; bread/body; human/divine.

And in the midst of all this is Jesus. Whatever we can believe and whatever we can’t believe about him, we still can place our trust in him. We proclaim him the crucified and risen Lord of all creation. We proclaim him the way, the truth, and the life. We proclaim him the fullest revelation of who God is. We proclaim him the One who comes among us and loves us in our belief and in our unbelief. And sometimes we might even believe it. But whether we believe everything about him or not, he still promises to be present with us in love, forgiveness, and grace. We can place our trust in that. And that’ good enough for today.

 
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Posted by on August 12, 2012 in Sermon

 

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