Preached at First American Baptist Church of Anchorage, May 27, 2018
This is the first time this Lutheran pastor has preached at a Baptist church — thank you so much for your warm welcome. What a gift to see the ways the Spirit is at work in your midst!
Preachers all over the world are talking today about the reading we just heard, John 3:1-17 (the assigned text from the Revised Common Lectionary) — talking about Nicodemus, about how God so loved the world, and, in many churches, we observe today as Trinity Sunday, so we celebrate the mystery of the Trinity — One God, in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit
Now I’m ordained in the Lutheran church, ELCA, and as I sat with this text, I got a little nervous. What was I taking on, talking about one of the most famous verses in the world, 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.
But let’s talk about that — I think we have often heard this verse as instruction. Believe in Jesus, and have eternal life. And if you don’t, well, you know where you’re going. It is our human nature to look for the rules to guide us
And the Pharisees had that kind of view of religion as well — for good reason. Throughout the Hebrew scriptures, God was clear that the Israelites were to be set apart. There were clear laws they were to follow — this wasn’t a religion of evangelism, but how to live faithfully as God’s chosen people
And now, Jesus comes along, and he does something completely different. He reaches out to ALL kinds of people — unclean people, people who broke the law, people who were outside God’s chosen people — and Jesus makes them chosen.
In our gospel reading today, the Pharisee leader Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, and he and Jesus have a conversation that is clearly unsettling to Nicodemus. Because the teaching Jesus brings isn’t a self-improvement program. It’s not “how to be a better Pharisee.” It’s about becoming a new person. Born of water and spirit. Complete transformation.
In Jesus, and through the Holy Spirit, God is doing something new. And that new thing is about life and love.
I had a preaching professor who told us that if our sermons are only all about what we should do, we’ve failed. More important — and this is a big deal for Lutherans — is who GOD is and what GOD does. In the end, it’s not actually up to us.
And in this text, (and actually all through John), God is about life and love. As I was looking through the Gospel of John, I was struck how often the words love and life came up. So I went to my concordance (1) — in the Gospel of John, the word love shows up 30 times, and that’s not counting the 20 times the word “loved” appears. Compare that to 26 appearances in Matthew, Mark, and Luke combined. For God so loved the world. Love one another. If you love me, you will keep my word (and we remember that in John, Jesus IS the Word).
And the word life — 45 appearances in John’s gospel, compared to 17 in Matthew, 10 in Mark, 17 in Luke — 44 combined. In him was life. I am the bread of life. So that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. I am the resurrection and the life
So, this tells some really important characteristics about God — God is all about love for the world, and the life of the world. And, that God is inherently about relationship. To me, this is one of the most significant things about how we understand the Trinity — God is inherently relational — creating life, the Spirit who is actively and powerfully at work in our lives, redeeming and rescuing life, saving life. God exists for relationship
And I find it interesting that relationship, and connection, are clearly an inherent part of who WE are, made in God’s image. More and more research shows that our ability to be in relationship with others contributes very positively to our life, and the life of the world
– leads to a 50% increased chance of longevity
– strengthens your immune system (research by Steve Cole shows that genes impacted by loneliness also code for immune function and inflammation)
– helps you recover from disease faster
– may even lengthen your life!
People who feel more connected to others have lower levels of anxiety and depression. Moreover, studies show they also have higher self-esteem, greater empathy for others, are more trusting and cooperative and, as a consequence, others are more open to trusting and cooperating with them. In other words, social connectedness generates a positive feedback loop of social, emotional and physical well-being.
And friends, this matters, because Jesus is very clear that we are a people called to love. And that sounds great, but loving, truly loving, is hard. It can mean laying down our lives for others. This Memorial Day Weekend we especially honor those who have laid down their lives in service and in love for our country. We give thanks to our veterans.
Loving is so lifegiving, but it also breaks our hearts. I learn so much about love in my work as a hospital chaplain.
Recently I had a conversation with a nurse at the hospital where I work. I wanted to check on him, because twice in the last few months he’s had patients threaten him and threaten his co-workers. I wanted to see how he was doing, and what he told me was that while it’s not fun to have patients yell at you and threaten you, the thing that’s really hard for him is the kids. When a child comes into the hospital, and you do everything you can, but the child doesn’t survive — we can all imagine how painful that is.
So many of us go into healthcare because we care, because we love — we want to help others, to bring healing, to comfort. And what we find is that while at times that is very rewarding, it can also break our hearts
At the hospital, I witness the love that is evident when family and friends spend hours or days or weeks at a bedside. When we walk with someone who has gotten terrible news, or is nearing the end of their life. Love can inspire us and bring so much joy, but it also can break us open in the way nothing else can
And that’s the thing about love — God knows both the joy and the heartbreak of love. God loves THE WORLD. THE WORLD. USA, Japan, Sudan, Somalia, the Philippines, Syria, Mexico… the “kosmos.
It makes my heart ache to look at all the hatred and violence and division in the world today. School shootings. War and violence. Illness. Unexpected death. Families, young people driven to leave their homes and countries because of the violence that threatens them. It seems to be very hard to get along, when we find so much to separate us.
Republicans and Democrats. Liberals and Conservative. Gay and straight. Old and young. Black and white. Lutheran and Baptist?
But God calls us beyond that. Remember? God calls us to be transformed, new people, to move beyond what divides us — Paul reminds us in Galations 3:28 that in Christ — made new through water and Spirit — that there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or free.
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.
We are are all connected. God loves us all. And that’s a pretty big challenge, to live into that understanding. The naturalist John Muir tells us that “when (you) tug at a single thing in nature, (you) find it attached to the rest of the world.”
And poet philosopher Mark Nepo reminds us that light is found in the broken bottle as well as the diamond.
God so loves the world. Broken bottle and diamond. Outsider and insider. And that is where in the end we find our greatest hope. Because God is at work in us, with so much love that God came into being in the world in Jesus, living human with us, teaching a new way, healing the sick, loving. And, in his death and resurrection, he shows us that death does not have the final word. Love and life will always be stronger than death.
I’d like to close with the words of Episcopalian Bishop Michael Curry (who gained the public eye when he preached at the Royal Wedding last weekend) — He spoke this week at the Festival of Homilectics, and a friend of mine recalls these words he spoke at a candlelight vigil in Washington DC
“Love your neighbor…Love the neighbor you like and love the neighbor you don’t like. Love the neighbor you agree with and the neighbor you don’t agree with. Love your Democrat neighbor, your Republican neighbor. Your black neighbor, and your white neighbor, your Anglo neighbor, your Latino, your LGBTQ neighbor. Love your neighbor. That’s why we’re here.”
For God so loved the world. Thanks be to God.
(1) Kohlenberger, John R III. The NRSV Concordance, Unabridged. Zondervan Publishing House: Grand Rapids, MI, 1991. Pp. 774, 828-829.