There are days when I hear John 3:16 and I just cringe. We see it at football games and hockey arenas, we see it on soapboxes and t-shirts, we hear it hollered at us on street corners and on our front doorsteps. We see it on the letters tucked in our front doors that say, ‘neighbors, we are inviting you to come and celebrate the death of Jesus.’ Ick. We hear it preached at funerals when the pastor stands up and says, ‘So and So is sitting at the foot of the throne of Heaven, and you will never see them again unless you have accepted Jesus as your personal savior.’ This scripture has been used and abused. As the United Church’s Song of Faith puts it, “The Spirit judges us critically when we abuse scripture by interpreting it narrow-mindedly, using it as a tool of oppression, exclusion, or hatred.”
When we interpret scripture, when we come together to hear it and wrestle with it and hear it again, we in the United Church do our best to look at scripture in its context rather than an individual verse here or there. How many times have you seen a poster that said John 3:17 on it? Or even John 3:14-21?
Context is important. In this case Jesus is having a late-night debate with a Pharisee named Nicodemus. Nicodemus snuck over to visit Jesus and ended up staying a long time. Just like when we have a visit with a friend or family member that we haven’t seen in a while and before you know it, the clock has struck midnight and it’s time to call it a day. Nicodemus didn’t want to meet publicly with Jesus for fear of what his friends and co-workers might think. He wanted to be anonymous. Jesus told him that people who are afraid, who do things in secret, who hide their actions and their thoughts, well, they might just be following an unhealthy spirit that will get them in trouble. Genuine God followers are brave, and they show up in broad daylight, following the God of Truth and light. The God that sent Jesus, not to condemn the world, but to save it.
The God that wants to make a covenant of love with us, not a covenant of shame, fear and resentment. The God that wants to liberate us into a life of freedom. A life of forgiveness, hope, healing and even, dare I say it, happiness and community. A life of amazing grace.
Too many of us are living lives that are dead, too many of us are the children of rebellion. One translation of Paul’s words says the children of wrath, of anger. How often do we let our anger, our jealousy, our resentment, our frustration and our fear get the best of us? We say things and do things that cannot be undone, that destroy relationships, that hurt and diminish the lives we live and the community we have. We forget to be servants to those who need healing. Too often we live in hiding, afraid to tell the truth of who we are and what we’ve done.
But when we step up to be honest, when we stop hiding, amazing things happen. I was at the Pride conference yesterday at the Seniors Center and talked from my heart about why I believe we need to stop judging our neighbors and start loving them no matter what their body parts are and how they use them. I read some scripture from Isaiah that talked about blessing folks who are not heterosexual, who diverge from what we label as normal. One person came up to me afterward and hugged me so hard that the cherry tomato I was holding got so squished the juices started running down my hand. And afterwards, they were brave enough to give their name to the Advocate reporter who took their picture. Talk about coming into the light and being full of truth.
We are saved not by magical incantations of special words, but by the abundant love, the grace that God showers us constantly, if we are only brave enough to accept it. And this is no namby-pamby love that can teach the world to sing. Oh no! It’s braver than the two ladies who walk down Whyte Avenue holding hands even though they know they will be insulted and whistled at and harassed by the people around them.
It’s braver than the young people who have the hutzpah to ask for a Gay Straight alliance in their schools, and it’s more passionate than the horniest teenager ever to walk the face of the earth! Kahlil Gibran wrote a much more realistic description of God who is Love in these stirring words:
“When love beckons to you follow him, Though his ways are hard and steep. And when his wings enfold you yield to him, Though the sword hidden among his pinions may wound you. And when he speaks to you believe in him, Though his voice may shatter your dreams as the north wind lays waste the garden. For even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you. Even as he is for your growth so is he for your pruning. Even as he ascends to your height and caresses your tenderest branches that quiver in the sun, So shall he descend to your roots and shake them in their clinging to the earth......
But if in your fear you would seek only love's peace and love's pleasure, Then it is better for you that you pass out of love's threshing-floor, Into the seasonless world where you shall laugh, but not all of your laughter, and weep, but not all of your tears. Love gives naught but itself and takes naught but from itself.
But if you love and must needs have desires, let these be your desires: To melt and be like a running brook that sings its melody to the night. To know the pain of too much tenderness. To be wounded by your own understanding of love; And to bleed willingly and joyfully.”
May we have the hutzpah, the courage and the honesty to step into the light and accept the great gift of God’s grace and love.