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Religion for Division or for Unity? (June 3, 2018)

Mark 2:23—3:6

One sabbath [Jesus] was going through the grainfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. 24 The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” 25 And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? 26 He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.” 27 Then he said to them, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; 28 so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”
3:1 Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. 2 They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. 3 And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.” 4 Then he said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. 5 He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. 6 The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.

A number of years ago I was visiting my mom and went to church with her. She belonged to a different branch of Christianity and the doctrines around communion were rather strict. Knowing this, I had planned to not participate until the pastor, who knew what I do for a living, looked me square in the eye during the sermon and said, “Holy Communion is for the entire body of Christ.” I figured he was telling me it was OK to come to communion.

So I did.

Apparently, I had misunderstood what he was saying in the sermon. Because when I got to the front, he simply stood there. No bread, no blessing, he just stood still, quietly looking at the floor.

I felt I needed to add to the awkwardness of the moment too, so I chose to stand there and wait also.

There were two lines coming forward for communion, and the other line kept moving. My line was now stopped and the pastor and I shared this moment together. Finally, he said to me, “Uhmm, we don’t normally do this.” So I continued on my way, making my way past the wine chalice back around to the pew where my mom had long since returned. She was aghast. I was simply embarrassed.

After the service, the pastor was waiting for me. He had run into his office and retrieved the documentation that prohibited him from giving me communion. He showed me the section—he even underlined it—that said I, by virtue of being of a different Christian tradition, wasn’t to be included.

The pastor correctly followed his tradition’s doctrine. But his use of that doctrine itself wasn’t good discipleship. It segregated people and ranked them. There became insiders and outsiders. It was religion at its worst.

Religion can be the worst thing we do or it can be the best. It can be used for separation, judgment, and division or it can be used for compassion, forgiveness, and unity. Division happens when our religions become an end unto themselves. When we are led by ideologies and doctrines instead of the Spirit of God.

Unity happens when our religions point us toward the Divine. When we

are opened to the loving nature and character of God that come to us and make us new.

We can look to our religious preferences and doctrines to justify ourselves, or we can use our religious traditions and practices as ways to open us to the presence of God.

Both happen in this text in Mark today. There seems to be a disagreement between Jesus and the Pharisees and Herodians about keeping Sabbath laws. And it’s quite a disagreement! Except the thing is the Pharisees and Herodians (who rarely agreed with each other) didn’t really disagree with Jesus’ interpretation of Sabbath law here. All three would agree that compassion takes precedence over Sabbath. That was long understood and accepted.

What’s at stake here isn’t the doctrine itself, but the role of their religion. The Pharisees and Herodians are using the Sabbath laws to determine who’s in and who’s out, who’s righteous and who’s unrighteous. And, surprise, surprise, using their argument they come out better than everyone else. The Jewish doctrine around Sabbath became for them an end unto itself. It took on a life of its own. The Pharisees and Herodians correctly followed their tradition’s doctrine. But their use of that doctrine itself wasn’t good discipleship. It segregated people and ranked them. There became insiders and outsiders. It was religion at its worst.

Jesus, on the other hand, understood Sabbath laws as means to emphasize God’s compassion. Sabbath is about restoring, about giving life. More than just “not working,” but all people being refreshed and restored.

Of course you restore a man on the Sabbath! Now not only is his hand fixed, but he can go back to work and take care of his family. His dignity and his position within the community are restored. For Jesus, the Sabbath is about restoring life for everyone, not righteousness for yourself. For Jesus, the Sabbath is for everyone. It is a chance for all things to be restored and renewed. The doctrine of Sabbath points to God’s desire to restore everyone, God’s desire for life for everyone. Sabbath law is a way to make sure all can be renewed. For Jesus it cannot be a way to rank or divide or exclude. For Jesus, Sabbath law was religion at its best.

Hearing that your religion doesn’t make you more righteous than anyone else can be hard to listen to. Hearing that the dividing line that separates us from them, good from bad, orthodox from heretical is not what religion is about can make a person angry. That’s what got the Pharisees and Herodians plotting against Jesus. Religion at its worst destroys life.

But hearing through your religion that even at your worst times, even at your lowest, even at your weakest and most vulnerable places, you matter to God as much as the best, highest, and strongest can be liberating—exhilarating! Inclusivity and unconditional love are the nature—the essence—of God. Religion that opens us up to this nature of God gives life. That is religion at its best.

Christianity, even Lutheranism, isn’t an end unto itself. There are devout Lutherans who use their religion to judge, to divide, and to proclaim their own righteousness. But there are others, some who aren’t even Lutheran(!), who recognize their faith as a way to be open to God’s unconditional love and grace, and who then show that same compassion to all that God loves. We Lutherans have a helpful way of looking at that. But whether Lutheran or not, that is religion at its best.

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Posted by on June 3, 2018 in Sermon

 

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God Loves You. Period. (Sept 17, 2017)

Romans 14:1-12

Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. 2 Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. 3 Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. 4 Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand. 5 Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. 6 Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God. 7 We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. 8 If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. 9 For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living. 10 Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgement seat of God. 11 For it is written, ‘As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.’ 12 So then, each of us will be accountable to God.

Paul is writing to a divided church. At first glance, it doesn’t seem very serious. Some people eat whatever’s in front of them, others are vegetarians. No big deal. Some lift up holy days, others don’t. This is their worst problem? Really?

But it’s much more than those little things. The separation comes from a congregation steeped in judgment. It’s not just that you eat anything, it’s that you are wrong for eating anything. If you aren’t being a Christian the way I am, you are less of a Christian. You are wrong. You are unworthy.

And that was a problem. To sit in judgment of others is, as Paul writes, taking God’s place. Especially when God has already declared them all to be welcomed, included, loved, worthwhile. This judgmental attitude was divisive. It was harmful. It left some people feeling privileged and others feeling shamed.

Good thing the church doesn’t do that anymore, huh?

One of the most pervasively negative attitudes that people who aren’t in the church have toward people in the church is that we are too judgmental. It’s an ongoing issue, this issue of judging others. For the Romans it was eating. . “Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat.”

It’s no longer about what we eat, but about the style of worship—including the music. “Those who like electric guitars and drums must not despise those who prefer pipe organs, and those who prefer pipe organs must not pass judgment on those who like electric guitars and drums.”

Or even less significant things. “Those who think the pastor is totally awesome must not despise those who think the pastor is slightly less than totally awesome . . .”

So if it’s problematic, why do we keep doing it?  We judge others because we’re frightened that others will judge us—and find us unworthy, unlovable, flawed. Which is our deepest fear. We’re deeply afraid we might not be as worthwhile as we pretend to be. So we bolster ourselves, protect ourselves from that terribly vulnerable position of being found “less than.” Less than everyone else, less than good, less than worthy, less than what we project to other people. We judge others to protect ourselves from vulnerability.

Yet vulnerability is a key to humanity. We experience love most profoundly when we are vulnerable.

About 5 ½ years ago, I was the most vulnerable I’ve ever been. I was nominated as a candidate for Bishop of the RMS. As a strong introvert and foundational nerd whose default setting is to shy away from any situation that might open me up to ridicule, this prospect was terrifying at a core level. I desperately wanted out.

I could already hear the taunts and jeers, surprisingly similar to those that haunted me through Junior High School. “Hey, everybody, look at Moss! He actually thinks he’s got a chance at this! Ha! Who does he think he is? What a loser.” And I could already hear the sneers and the laughter echoing from all corners of the four states and part of a fifth that make up this synod. Junior High terror again, only now swelled to a multiple state level.

There was still an out, however. To be considered an actual candidate, biographical information had to be submitted online. Which I hadn’t yet done.

I stewed on this for a couple more weeks. But in the end, for a variety of reasons, I quickly filled out the biographical information form and, with trembling hand and churning stomach, submitted it the evening of the last day it could be accepted. Then I went and threw up.

And there it was. My name, picture, and hastily drafted biographical information were thrust out into uncontrolled internet space where I was certain the mocking and laughter would be unrestrained. My insecurities were flying high. Every molecule of self-doubt and inadequacy had risen up and was demanding attention. There was, from this point on, no place to hide. It was the most vulnerable feeling I could ever imagine.

I didn’t get very far in the election. But it began a process of radical spiritual growth that included the realization that I am worthy of being loved and respected and cared about. Right now, as imperfect and as flawed as I am, I am nonetheless someone God has declared is already enough. Just as I am.

That’s the point Paul makes. Each one of you is worth being loved. Right now. Not because of your achievements or making the travelling soccer team or a promotion or because other people judge you positively. But because of who you are. Because of who God made you to be. Because the authentic, deep-down, real you is already loved. You, at this moment, with all your baggage, all your frailties, all your weaknesses, all your vulnerability—you are welcomed by God. You are enough.

Take the mirror you were given at the beginning of worship. Look in it and let this begin to sink in. You are loved more than anything in all creation because of who you authentically are. The fact that you are worthy of that love is incredibly liberating. It is life-giving. It gives you the courage to face any judgments that deny how worthy of love you are.

Because right now, today, this morning, as you look at yourself, you are loved. Period. Deeply and completely loved. What you have to offer the world matters. You are already more than enough. And love changes everything.

 
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Posted by on September 18, 2017 in Sermon

 

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I’m Chunky and Unrefined — Thanks be to God! (Matthew 5:13-20)

“You are the salt of the earth,” Jesus tells the crowds who are gathered to hear his Sermon on the Mount. “You are the light of the world,” he tells them.

These are just regular people he’s telling this to. These aren’t the super-saints or the supremely-pious. Just the crowds, the people, you and me.

He’s telling us tha we are the salt of the earth. We are the light of the world That’s nice; I like that. He doesn’t tell us we should try to be salt or that if we work hard we can achieve light. No, he says, we already are.

But then he keeps going. A light under a basket isn’t doing any good. Salt that has lost its saltiness is thrown out with the trash and gets run over.

And then I wonder, “Is that us too? Is that me too?”

I don’t know many people who don’t try to shine, or who don’t try to add positive seasoning to the world. And yet, in spite of our attempts to shine and to season, the world can be dark and taste bitter.

  • Children still go to bed hungry.
  • Women are still abused and made to feel it’s their own fault.
  • Our young people still fall victim to the atrocities of war.
  • Our friends still suffer from physical and mental illness.
  • We continue to grieve and cry and wail in the wake of death as it claims those we love.

Within LCM, most of us love this congregation deeply, and shine here and season this ministry, participating in God’s mission. But we have fewer people than we did 10 years ago, and fewer dollars than we did three years ago. That can feel dark and it can taste bitter. Do you ever wonder if we’ve lost our saltiness? If there’s a big basket covering our light?

Even individually, we each know our own personal inadequacies and failings. We know where we’re not good enough, not smart enough, not gifted enough. There’s darkness, there’s bitterness, in the fear that someone’s going to find out how inadequate I really am. Have I lost my saltiness? Have you? Is that what Jesus means?

We have this tendency to compare our saltiness to other people’s. Some people seem to season up a room by walking into it. They have the love of Jesus just oozing out of their pores. They forgive, they show mercy, they shine brightly even when their lives seem dark. Do you know those people? Do you ever feel like they are more salty than you? That compared to them, you’ve lost your saltiness, just like Jesus warns about?

But here’s the thing. Salt is salt. It doesn’t lose its saltiness. So it’s not that we’ve lost our saltiness, it’s just that there are different kinds of salt. Table salt is completely different than Himalayan salt, which is nothing like Kosher salt, which is used in situations different than Smoked salt. Maybe you’re Grey salt, or Sea salt, or Flaked salt. Some of us are really fine grained, refined, ground down to smooth crystals. Others of us are chunky and coarse, with sharp edges and a rough texture.

One isn’t better than another, just different.

When life is hard, when things are tough, when your gifts and abilities aren’t enough, when you’re in over your head, that’s when Jesus reminds you, “You are the salt of the earth.” You don’t have to try to be, you don’t have to pretend your a different kind of salt — salt like someone else. You are, right now, the salt of the earth. “You are the light of the world.”  Not just when you’re feeling particularly shiny, because it’s your God-given nature to shine. Just as you are. Right now.

In the back are several kinds of salt. I invite you to go look at them, feels them, taste them. Maybe one kind of salt will appeal to you. Maybe you will find yourself drawn to one kind of salt over the others.

Take a pinch of some salt with you when you leave. Know that as someone created in God’s image, you are the salt of the earth. Pay attention this week. When you catch yourself seasoning the world, when you find yourself adding God’s flavor in someone’s life, leave your salt there or give it to someone. Recognize that through you, God’s saltiness has added yet more seasoning in the world. Through you, the world is brighter.

 
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Posted by on February 11, 2014 in Sermon

 

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Non Christians, Please Keep Complaining About the Church!

John 21:1-19

Here’s where we pick up the story. Jesus has been raised from the dead, appeared to Mary Magdalene, appeared to the disciples in a locked room, appeared to the disciples again with Thomas there, and now he appears for the last time to them in John’s gospel.

I’m really thinking Peter just isn’t getting this. After hearing Mary tell how she saw Jesus, then after seeing Jesus himself twice—raised from the dead, mind you—now, at the beginning of this text, Peter wants to go fishing. Like this was a normal day. Like nothing out of the ordinary had happened. Some other disciples decide to tag along—again, as if everything was the same.

Then there’s Thomas, who made such a big deal out of seeing Jesus, touching the nail prints in his hands, then falling on his face and proclaiming, “My Lord and my God!”

Not to mention that at that time all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and sent out by Jesus on a mission of forgiveness. A new job. Now they’re just heading out fishing. Nothing like the first day of a new job taking a vacation day.

So Jesus stands on the beach while they’re out fishing, but they can’t tell who it is. Now several of these disciples are professional fishermen. Fishing is their life, their livelihood, their skill. But they aren’t catching a thing.

So this guy is standing there on the shore yelling at them. They don’t know it’s Jesus, they don’t recognize him at all. But whoever it is, is giving them fishing advice. Do you know how annoying that must have been?

I remember playing baseball and going several at bats without a hit. Frustrated, I began goofing around with the bat. In the on-deck circle I’m swinging left-handed, changing my grip, anything to kind of break out this slump. I heard one of the moms from the other team—who I’d never seen before—say rather loudly, “Look at the way that kid’s swinging the bat. No wonder he can’t get a hit! Why don’t you hold the bat right, kid!” That was frustrating. I can’t remember what happened, but I most certainly did not appreciate her so-called advice.

I wonder if the disciples felt the same way. Some guy on the beach telling these professionals their nets are on the wrong side of the boat. The last thing they’re wanting to do is listen to advice from someone on the shore.

But these fishermen/disciples did hear. They did listen. They did what the stranger suggested—tossing their nets out of the other side of the boat. I don’t understand why, but they did. And they caught a huge load of fish. If they had known it was Jesus, sure they would have done what he said. But they didn’t know it was him. Just some stranger who, as likely as not, had no business telling them what to do.

Only later did they recognize this stranger as Jesus. Then once they knew it was Jesus they shared a meal; and Peter was given the chance to redeem his previous denial of Jesus. Earlier, while Jesus was on trial, Peter had publicly denied that he knew him three times. Now he publicly affirms his love for Jesus three times.

But for some reason they heard the voice of Jesus in this perceived stranger—enough to follow. They put aside their pride and life-long experience, recognizing that what they were doing wasn’t working, and did what he suggested. Maybe they get this resurrection thing better than I give them credit for.

Here’s where I think this gospel text is hard to hear. This is where these disciples leave me behind. Lots of us, including me, have been Christian for a long time—even Lutheran for a long time. Some of us have never known anything else. We believe we’re pretty good at this Jesus thing, this faith thing, this discipleship thing. So for many of us, it’s easy to disregard the voices of those on the shore, who have left the church or never been part of it. Those who find the church irrelevant, out of touch, judgmental. It’s hard to hear the voice of Jesus in those critiques because, after all, we know Christianity better than they do.

When people outside the church say things like, “I have no problem with Jesus but no use for the church,” it’s easy for us to brush it off as ignorance. When they tell us that they don’t feel welcomed, that we’re out of touch, that when they look at Christians they see no difference from any other person (except more hypocrisy), we just casually disregard it because they just don’t know. They can’t know. We’ve been in the church a lot longer. We are the professionals; they’re just yelling advice from the shore.

But here’s what gives me hope. They keep yelling advice. I can’t help but wonder that if Jesus wasn’t speaking through them, they wouldn’t be yelling at us at all. If it wasn’t Jesus coming to us they would simply ignore us and let us go on our way fishing from the wrong side of the boat. Why should they care?

I wonder if we heard the voices from outside the church, if we listened for the voice of Jesus might be there, we might end up sitting down with Jesus and having a meal with them. We might recognize our new life in the resurrected Christ, and more live it more fully, following him more closely in the world. We might trust that the resurrected Jesus comes to us, even when we’re fishing. Even when we’re not listening. Even in our arrogance. Jesus comes. He’s speaking. Like it or not, he’s bringing life and hope and newness to the world. Even to us. Life is new, because Jesus is raised from the dead.

 
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Posted by on April 15, 2013 in Sermon

 

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A Safe Place to be Vulnerable–Lent 5

5th Lent

Isaiah 43:16-21; John 12:1-8

 So, what do you think of Mary of Bethany in this gospel text? She takes perfume that’s worth almost a full year’s salary, ad pours it on Jesus’ feet—the work of a slave. Then she wipes it with her hair—a scandalous act for a woman. What are one or two words you might use to describe her? Free spirit? Grateful? Overly dramatic? Devoted? Wasteful?

The word I think I would use is “authentic.” She is being herself in a very unique situation. Her brother, Lazarus, has just been raised from the dead by Jesus and she is responding to that. And she’s doing it in her own, unique, genuine, and authentic way. John writes that her anointing of Jesus’ feet with this expensive perfume is a preview of his being anointed for burial. Of course gospel-writer John would find deep meaning in this act and relate it to the cross. That’s what he does. But I’m not sure in this story that Mary of Bethany had that in mind at all. Her actions are her own, with her own motives of gratitude and devotion. She is being, well, Mary. And she’s not trying to impress Jesus, Judas, or anyone else. She is responding to her brother’s restored life in an authentically “Mary” kind of way: by breaking open an extravagantly expensive jar of perfume and anointing Jesus’ feet with it, then wiping his feet with her hair.

Her response doesn’t meet Judas’ approval—even though many would say that Judas has a point. Judas is one of the twelve insiders whom Jesus picked, but his criticism doesn’t stop her at all. It doesn’t even matter to her. Her response to Jesus compassion isn’t influenced at all by what others think. Not only is that authentic, but it’s courageous. Because by acting in an authentic way, she’s opening herself up for public ridicule. She’s quite vulnerable to that right now.

Jesus, however, loves her response with the perfume. Not because it’s the right one or one that he approves of, but because it’s authentic for her. Her response to Jesus’ compassion comes from the core of her identity. It’s not meant to gain approval, not for anyone else, but just a response that comes from deep within her heart.

And that’s why we usually don’t behave authentically.

When you respond to Jesus (or anyone) in an authentic way, it leaves you vulnerable. Look at the criticism Judas levels at Mary. It’s harsh. He’s not just criticizing her actions, because her actions are coming from the depths of who she is. He’s criticizing her as a person. And if it wasn’t Judas saying it, how many of us would agree with him (because if he says it, it must be wrong)? How many of us would look at each other, roll our eyes, sigh, and whisper to one another, “There she goes again. She is just so strange.” And then we’d avoid her, gravitate toward others who also think she’s strange, and end up excluding her.

Mary is taking a tremendous risk by being authentic. Authenticity makes you vulnerable because it opens us up to pain that is so easily inflicted by those around us.

We live in a culture that doesn’t want us to recognize—much less admit—our vulnerability. To be vulnerable is to be weak. It is considered wimpy. Buck up, we say. Be strong, we say. Tough it out, we say. Our heroes are people of strength and power. They aren’t vulnerable, they never back down, they never give in, they are never weak.

Mary has the courage to be authentic in the face of what others think about her. She does this extravagant thing because she has been touched by Jesus’ compassion and grace. When you are most vulnerable and you are met with compassion; when you are most vulnerable and are met with love, you are given new life.

I think that’s the church at its best. A place where you are met with compassion and love when you are most vulnerable. You see, that’s how Jesus continuously meet us—when we are weakest and most vulnerable, he comes to us in love, compassion, and grace.

At our Lenten devotion time last Wednesday, those at our table were talking about this text. The question we were dealing with had to do with Mary of Bethany’s extravagant gratitude. What were we grateful for, the question was asked? Many said that this congregation was pretty close to the top of the list. Several people shared that when they were living their lives in hard places, this was a safe community for them. They were welcomed, cared for, and held without any expectations or assumptions. They could be authentic in their pain, in their weakness, and in their vulnerability without much fear of reprisal or criticism. A safe place to be vulnerable—a safe place to be authentic.

I have a friend who experienced the death of a family member a while ago. She has spent the last several months being very vulnerable with a group of friends who’ve held her, walked alongside her, prayed with her during her journey of grief. She has cried, anguished, lamented, and shared her journey—trusting that no one would tell her to be strong, or to quit being so tearful, to get on with her life. Her grief is authentic, and her journey through it is just as authentic. Not looking for approval, just a safe place to be vulnerable—a safe place to be authentic.

Can you imagine the freedom that would come with that kind of safety? To know that you can express what truly in your heart, knowing that you will only be loved in return? That’s who we are in Christ. That’s what it looks like when the church is authentic.

I pray you would find this to be an authentic community here at LCM. I pray you would feel free to be authentic here. Jesus has touched us with compassion and love, we are free to respond in an authentic way. We are free to live in an authentic way. We are forgiven; we are loved; we are free. In that, we are given new life.

 
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Posted by on March 18, 2013 in Sermon

 

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John 3:16 is Not a Weapon! Sermon: 3/18/12 (Lent 4 B)

4th Sunday in Lent (B)

John 3:14-21

 I think I’ve figured out why the gospel of John is sooo not my favorite: there’s so much in it that it’s overwhelming. I prefer gospel writers that take a whole lot of verses to make one point, not take one verse to make a whole lot of points. John is deep, thick, rich, multi-faceted, and operates on several levels at the same time. Sometimes I feel like I’m drowning in this gospel. You just can’t read it quickly or superficially. If you think you understand the gospel of John, take a step back and look again. Because chances are you’re missing multiple layers that God can open up for you.

Which is why I’ve never been impressed by the “John 3:16” craze, which is one of the verses in this text. To take one verse out of John reduce it to a single, shallow, sometimes judgmental rallying cry not only does a tremendous disservice to the complexity of this gospel, but misses almost every layer of what John is conveying here. This isn’t a verse about trying to get people to believe in Jesus; and it’s especially not a verse threatening them if they don’t. It’s a verse that fits into a whole gospel, rich in its own context and overflowing in abundant grace. What was a word of hope and life for John’s little church overrun by Rome can quickly become a word of condemnation in our world where Christianity has long been a dominant institution.

But that’s not the part I’ve been wrestling with. We get so hooked on John 3:16 that we often miss the rest of this section. Verse 18 is the splinter in the bannister for me. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.

“Those who do not believe are condemned already.” Seems harsh, doesn’t it? I think there are assumptions we make here that are simply too shallow for the gospel of John.

We have to understand that John’s little community was insignificant in its neighborhood. So the author making contrasts between those who believed and those who didn’t had very few consequences because it wasn’t a statement of power. But today, Christianity has been the dominant religion for centuries. From that position of power, we have used these words in John to exclude people, judge them, and coerce them.

John was attempting to encourage his overlooked little community to be faithful, to keep at it, to persevere in the face of overwhelming persecution. There is life eternal with Jesus, so hang in there. Don’t allow yourself to fall prey to the darkness. Don’t let yourselves be separated from the community of faith. What was meant as encouragement for those inside the church has in our day become a word of judgment against those outside of it.

Here’s what concerns me about all this today: that we have settled for a superficial interpretation of this verse, and believe our own hype that we are on the inside track in God’s favor because we believe. If that’s not bad enough, I’m afraid those outside the church have only heard our shallow interpretation of this verse, and based on centuries of church power, have further reason to stay away from the church and the light of Jesus.

If we are to live out the gospel, we owe it to the world to dig a little bit deeper in order to be authentic to this text. We can’t afford to a shallow voice of condemnation and judgment. If the gospel message of forgiveness, love, compassion, and generosity is to be lived by us, we can’t let a superficial understanding of one or two verses get in our way.

What John means as inspiration to those inside the church, we cannot use as judgment of those outside the church. You may has a little bit of an image problem around being judgmental.

In the face of a world power that was focused on destroying them, John encourages his tiny little church to hold on to their faith, to continue to trust in the death and resurrection of Jesus, to band together as believers without giving up hope. We can’t be true to this text when we make it nothing more than a benchmark of who’s in and who’s out.

Instead, John’s message of trust and encouragement is still for us. When faced with insurmountable odds, we encourage one another to continue to trust in the One who brings life out of death. I have a friend whose husband just died of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). What astonishes me about her journey through his diagnosis, deterioration, and ultimately his death is that she continued to trust in the promises of the God of life. This isn’t because she’s so much more faithful than I would probably be, but because she, like John’s little church community, banded together with people of faith and clung to them. For her, these verses in John are not a relief that her husband was “inside,” believing in Jesus and therefore not condemned. Rather these verses are an encouragement that even in the face of death, when all else is falling away, the light of Jesus continues to shine brightly. And she can trust that. It is for her; it is for her husband; it is for us.

Our witness isn’t judgment of those outside the church. No, our witness is that no matter what we face, no matter how difficult or painful or shameful, the light of Jesus shines in truth and in life. As we encourage one another with the light of Christ, we are then a witness to the world—not in judgment, but in truth and love.

Don’t settle for judgment and condemnation. Seek the light of Christ, the truth of God’s love. For part of this text also includes 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. That is our witness. That’s what the world needs to hear. That’s what they need to see in us. Because that’s what we trust God has done for us.

 
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Posted by on March 18, 2012 in Sermon

 

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