Monday, March 13, 2017

John 3:16: The Verse Everyone Knows. But Do We?

John 3:16
Chatfield UMC
2nd Lent, 2017
Rev. Debra Jene Collum

John 3:16. The verse everyone knows.

We see this verse John 3:16 draped in some of the most strangest of places: on the risers at sporting events. On T-shirts, Tattoos, and of course on Rainbow Man.
It is the one biblical reference people know.
If a person is suddenly asked by someone: what is your favorite bible verse, usually they will spout off the only one they know: John 3:16
At least we don’t look too biblically illiterate.
Unfortunately, people don’t often know what it means. Or its importance. Or its purpose.

This is very clear when it is used as a banner for proselytizing. For trying to get someone to say they believe in Jesus. To pray the Jesus prayer. Or to commit their lives to Jesus.

We are talking together this lent about finding the sacred in the stranger, the neighbor. Our neighbors. Who don’t’ always believe the same things we do.
Who aren’t always of the same religion we are.
Who use a different name for God than we do.
Names like: Great Spirit, Allah, the Lakota of our area would have said: “Wakan Tanka” Sacred Spirit.

But, we say, the bible says: whosoever believes in Jesus…Jesus is the way…

So, what do we do? Do we just let them alone to be who they are and hope for the best? Or not care about their souls and their eternal damnation?

And then what do we do with a god who would condemn our neighbor to some kind of hell? Some kind of second class religious status? Because they call God by a different name?

Do we just live with the incongruity of it? Hope it all gets sorted out in the end? And live a ‘well I’m a Christian but I don’t like parts of my religion’ sort of life?

Or do we listen carefully to what it is the Gospel is saying to us, into our culture and lives and neighbor’s lives so that we can live as authentically as possible even with a verse like John 3:16 in our holy scriptures.

Well, this morning I want to help you on that journey to authentic living. And it is hard, what I am going to say this morning is hard. So listen hard, please.
And know that you will have to keep working at this because it challenges most of what we have been taught as American Christians.

This verse: John 3:16 and others like it, that point to an idea that Jesus is the only way to God are in the Gospel of John. Duh. The Gospel of John was written with a particular message about God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit that stands over and against what we have become as American Christians. Which has historical roots in Roman Catholic Christianity, the State Churches of almost all the western European countries, and the way our world has been colonized throughout the generations.
The Gospel of John stands over and against a Christianity that is state based and state endorsed.

The Gospel of John stands over and against Empire. And yes, it could mean THE Empire, as in the Star Wars movies. It is a good analogy. But it also means any empire that is threatening to destroy a just and peaceful existence for all of God’s creatures. Whether that be Rome or ISIL or White Supremacy or the KKK or Wall Street, or even religious institutions.

I was with some dear people this week who have basically given up on the church because of the ways we have thrown our money and influence and power into maintaining our structures and our status and our belief systems at the expense of being the people of God.
And we have used John 3:16 as a basis for building our religious empires. Claiming that Christianity has a corner on the religious market of truth. Claiming that we should do whatever we can to make Christianity strong, wealthy, powerful, exclusive.
We have even gone so far to say our strength in numbers, our power in influence and our institutional wealth is proof that God is blessing us.
Let me say that again:
We have even gone so far to say our strength in numbers, our power in influence and our institutional wealth is proof that God is blessing us.

Which is a radically different god than the god of Jesus. Because… aren’t we followers of the one who said, the first shall be last? There is power in weakness? The meek shall inherit the earth?
You see this is what the Gospel of John is really about, combating the idea that empire building is the way to God’s blessings. That more and bigger and better is proof of God’s love.

God so loved the world that God has shown us a different way of living and thriving in the world.
God so loved the world that God came and lived among us. Showing us how it would be if God were in the world.
God so loved the world that God showed up in Jesus so that we could learn to live alongside each other in mutual respect and understanding and hope.
God so loved the world that God no longer wanted us to live in fear and resentment and within our own little tribes and within our own little understandings of what is success.
God so loved the world that in the midst of a roman occupied era of gods of power and military might and unfair economic policies that kept the poor impoverished and the rich wealthy, God came and showed us how to escape, how to be saved from the empire.

God so loved that world that God came to show us that
Empire building demands structures of power and wealth and weapons and fear. Empire building demands that the weak are a detriment to the system.
Empire building demands that the sick are a burden to the system.
Empire building demands that the poor, the widow, the orphan, the immigrant are a danger to the system.
God so loved the world that God came to save us from ourselves.

I read a quote that is so powerful from Rutilio Grande, a Jesuit martyr from El Salvador
"Very soon the Bible won't be allowed to cross our borders. We'll get only the bindings, because all the pages are subversive." If all the bible was about was saying we love Jesus no one would get killed from it. It wouldn’t be considered radical. People don’t get killed because they agree with the systems of power that make up the church and society. People get killed because what the bible really says is radically against systems of power. Against Empires.

And of course, we don’t know how to break free of Empires. We don’t know how to love people who are perceived as enemy.
We don’t know how to talk with someone who calls God by another name.
We don’t know how to share what we have with our neighbor without fear.
So, we take John 3:16 which is supposed to be about God loving the world and we crucify that God. By setting up barriers to love.
Instead of having abundant everlasting life we have a narrow view of life filled with fear.

And we become enslaved rather than saved.

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