Rev. Rainey Dankel | Sermon 3.14.21
Key Passages: “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.” (John 3:16)
…whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live. (Numbers 21:9b)
I have always loved libraries. I can remember going with my second-grade class at Ginter Park School for our weekly sessions in the library with Miss Khyme. She would usually read a book to us and then we could choose a book for ourselves from the shelves that lined the room. The library was a place of wonder and joy for me.
When I was serving at Trinity Church in Boston, we had a relationship with one of the middle schools which served many students from public housing, if they had homes at all. We provided counselors who worked with students and teachers to bring principles of restorative justice into the school culture. Classes had regular circles of conversation and when something went wrong, instead of suspending the student, they would circle up and deal with the problems together. When we learned that the school had not had a library in years, we worked with the staff to reopen the locked room, and refresh it with paint, shelves, new books, colorful rugs, and comfortable chairs. We also staffed it with volunteers so that students could use the library during the school day. I will never forget the day we opened the library. A teacher brought a class in to see it. One little boy, wide-eyed, looked at the books and the chairs, and turned to me and said, “Wow, this is great. What did we do to deserve this?”
I think of all the negative messages this little boy must have received in his short life. And I hope that this library can be a place of wonder and joy for him and his classmates, as it was for me all those years ago. I pray that it may also be a window into the Gospel message we heard today. The passage from the Gospel of John contains one of the best-known of Jesus’ sayings: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” For many of us, this is the heart of the Gospel: the good news of God’s overflowing love for all God’s children. We are infinitely valuable in God’s eyes. And God is willing to become part of the messiness of human life to demonstrate unfailing care for us. Jesus is willing to suffer and die and rise again to bring us into the new life that God promises.
And yet there is a bit of tension in this passage from John’s Gospel. We are assured that “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” So we have this inclusive promise: God’s love extends to all the world. And yet we also read, “those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” So, which is it? Is eternal life open to all or are there conditions, namely that we believe in Jesus Christ? This is a fundamental issue in the Gospel of John, where we hear Jesus say, “No one comes to the Father except through me.”
What does it mean to say that faith in Jesus is a precondition of God’s salvation? In theological terms, does God’s grace precede our faith, or does our faith unlock God’s grace to us? I think the testimony of the Scriptures is that God is always making the first move. From the Garden of Eden to the Cross of Calvary, God is reaching towards the children God has created, offering forgiveness and healing despite the ways that we act selfishly and foolishly towards God and each other.
Believing in Christ is not a matter of assenting to some theological propositions. It is about an orientation of life towards the powerful love that we see in Jesus. It is about being self-reflective enough to acknowledge when we are out of harmony with that love, and attentive enough to see God’s love at work in the world. It means being part of a community where this self-examination is modeled and where together we look for ways to be signs of divine love in the world. As Bishop Michael Curry says, it is about living the Way of Love. For me that means following Jesus. And I also affirm that others may find the Way of Love without believing in Jesus.
The promise of the passage from John is that in living into God’s love we will find “eternal life.” We have a tendency to think this phrase refers only to some after-life, to “heaven,” to the infinite extension of life after bodily death. And that is a part of the good news. But it’s important that we see this phrase as pointing to “life fulfilled” in this world as well as in whatever world lies beyond our physical selves. Christianity is not about “pie in the sky bye and bye,” as though God did not care about our lives in the here and now.
The good news of God’s love for us is both comfort and challenge. And that’s where both grace and faith come into the picture. God’s grace—God’s actions—and our response—our living in trust—are both essential. The first reading we heard today may help to make this clear.
In the story from the book of Numbers we are with the Israelites in the wilderness, after their escape from Egypt. It’s one of many scenes in which the unhappy people complain about their present conditions, as though life as slaves in Egypt had been better. In most of these stories the people are angry with Moses, their leader. But here they also turn on God, as the One who has brought this misery on them. When they realize the bad consequences of being out of relationship with God (we call that “sin”), God offers them forgiveness. What is striking is the way this forgiveness is offered. The people are dying of snake bites, so God tells Moses to make a bronze snake and put it on a pole. When someone is bitten, they are to look at the pole, and they will be cured. (Yeah, I know, it’s a pretty bizarre story.)
But here’s the point: It is in facing what is killing us that we experience God’s power to heal us. So there is effort on our part: we reflect on our lives and our relationships and we see what is causing our death. The discipline to pay attention to our brokenness is part of the work of finding God’s power and healing, to “wake up,” to see when we are heading in the wrong direction, to turn around (“repent”) and come into the light of God’s forgiveness and love. In honesty and humility, we find the source of our salvation in God’s undying love for us. That is the window into the full life that God promises us. If we are unable, for whatever reason, to undertake this journey, we may miss the full life that God longs to give us.
Where do you see glimpses of God offering fulfilled life? Is something keeping you from seeing that promise? What demons must you face in order to be healed? What are the demons we face as a community, where poverty and racism send crippling messages to God’s children? How do you pray for God’s gifts to come alive in your own life, in the lives of those you love, and in the world around you? How do we receive the power of God’s forgiving love in our own lives, and how do we share it with a hurting world?
I spoke earlier about restorative justice, a concept that is becoming increasingly popular as we try to find ways to work through the wounds we inflict on each other and move from punishment towards healing. Perhaps you heard a recent episode of Story Corps on public radio when a woman talks about meeting the man who had killed her brother 20 years ago. Tasreen says that meeting Tony enabled her to discover “layers to forgiveness” that she had not known existed. But it took time and effort.
It took Tasreen five years to develop courage to come to the prison to meet Tony, drawing on her spiritual practice as a Sufi Muslim as she worked through her grief and hurt. The first meeting between the two lasted seven hours. They kept in touch, writing letters and calling each other. Tony is now 40 years old, still serving his life sentence. He says that the more his love for the family grows, the more he regrets hurting them. Tasreen responds that the Tony Hicks she knows now is not the 14-year-old gang member who shot her brother. She says that their relationship has “made a lot of room in my heart for light to come in” and she tries to share that light with Tony. And now she shares that light with others, as she and her father have established a foundation to help other victims and prisoners meet for restorative justice. (NPR, March 2021).
Discovering forgiveness and love means that Tony and Tasreen are living into the fullness of life that God desires for us. It’s not about getting into heaven. Richard Rohr says, “We don’t go to heaven; we learn how to live in heaven now. And no one lives in heaven alone. Either we learn how to live in communion with other people and with all that God has created, or, quite simply, we’re not ready for heaven.” Rohr continues, “If we want to live an isolated life, trying to prove that we’re better than everybody else or believing we’re worse than everybody else, we are already in hell. We have been invited—even now, even today, even this moment—to live consciously in the Life of the eternal and eternally Risen Christ. This must be an almost perfect way to describe salvation itself.” (Richard Rohr, “Seeing is not always Recognizing,” homily 2016)
My friends, that is the Way of Love that Jesus offers us. It’s not sentimental feelings, and it’s not complicated theology. It’s a sometimes-tough struggling with the very real hurts and wounds that life throws at us. And discovering the wonder and joy as God’s great love for us grows and blossoms in our lives. Coming to a place of forgiveness and healing is a start on the full life that God longs for us. God so loves the world.