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Hoosier Musings on the Road to Emmaus

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Second Sunday in Lent

Genesis 12:1-8
Romans 4:1-17
Psalm 33:12-22
John 3:1-17



I love the Gospel of John. Now, you'll likely hear me say that about all the Gospels at one time or another; but today we're reading John, so I was reminded how much I like it. For one thing, it’s pretty easy to spot. John has a different point of view and a very different tone than the other gospels. There’s a lot of overlap in Matthew, Mark and Luke; they contain many stories in that John never mentions. By the same token, there are stories in John (like the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus we hear this morning) that we don’t read anywhere else.

The other thing that I love about John is that he talks about love, a lot. The theme of God’s love is not exclusive to him, of course; but it is predominant, a theme that is emphasized far more by him than by other writers. If you hear a piece of scripture that refers to love, the odds are pretty good that it came from John-- either the Gospel, or one of the letters attributed to him.

The Gospel this morning is a prime example. “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.”

Heard that before? It’s likely one of the most commonly known pieces of scripture. In fact, there's a whole group of people who call themselves the John 3:16 Society. You 've probably seen them at ball games, and concerts, or wherever they believe they can catch the eye of a whole crowds of people and a camera, holding up placards that say, "JOHN 3:16." Their whole purpose it to direct people to this one piece of scripture. It's an interesting approach to evangelism, and very well-intentioned, but I think it's a tad misguided; because like any scripture verse, it was not written in isolation to stand alone, and really should not be read that way. I believe that if we are to truly hear and understand anything in the Word of God, we need to consider more than that.

This time when I read the passage you heard this morning, I particularly noticed the verse that follows, that completes the thought about Jesus’ purpose in the world. Listen again to the two together:

"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. 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."

In other words, God’s ultimate gift to us-- the sacrifice of Jesus, God’s only son-- God’s own self-- did not have anything to do with condemnation or judgment. It was all about a love so powerful, and so profoundly all-encompassing, that its expression left no room for sin, or darkness, or hatred. We are saved by the love of God that leaves no room at all for any of that.

Jesus did indeed condemn sinful behavior - the greed, hypocrisy, and exploitation practiced by the money changers in the temple, for example, caused him to react in a very forceful way-- but he did not ever, ever speak hatefully, or condemn any person as beyond the reach of God's grace.

I found myself thinking of this as I read a newspaper article sent to me this week by a friend of mine. This article, from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (my buddy Mark lives in Pennsylvania) refers to some some groups in the state working to repeal legislation which criminalizes hate crimes. They argue that the law is an infringement of the first amendment right to free speech.

The local director of the one of the groups, the Concerned Women for America, notes that they actually would prefer to eliminate the whole law. She is quoted as saying. "We'd like to take it all out." But because a wholesale demolition of the law is not likely, "we'll do it by bits and pieces."

So, the Concerned Women and another group, the American Family Association, are both backing a bill introduced last week by a Democratic legislator that wouldn't kill the hate crime law entirely, but would eliminate the protections given to homosexuals, as well as to the physically and mentally disabled. The law was amended in late 2002 to specifically include those groups, and the proposed legislation would repeal the amendment.

Now, many of those involved in these groups profess to be motivated by Christian principles. They say that the penalties against hate speech inhibit their ability to speak the teachings of our faith. Here’s the problem with that, brothers and sisters: our faith does not allow us that sort of freedom of speech. Of course we can-- and do-- argue, and dispute, and disagree at the most fundamental level; Christians have done so since the earliest days, and sometimes we have been brought closer to one another, and to God, in the process. But if we are truly striving to live as disciples of Jesus Christ, then we are not free to either speak or act hatefully toward or about anyone.

Instead, we are commanded by God to a greater, harder freedom. We are given The Great Commandment: the freedom not to have to pick and choose whom to love and when, but to love God with all our hearts and minds and souls and strength-- all that we have, and all that we are; and more, to love our neighbors-- all of them-- as ourselves. And that command is not an amendment, but a foundational principle of the Gospel. It does not allow room for hatred or condemnation toward another in action or speech. In fact, it means even more than that: not only are we not to hate, we are not even permitted indifference toward one another.

Loving this way is hard indeed; it seems to be so much easier to spew venom, sometimes. We seem to behave as though, for example, if I am striving to be godly as a straight, white, middle-class, midwestern housewife, then someone who is not those things must by definition be sinful and wrong. Or maybe I am more inclined to simply disregard those who are other, treating them with benign neglect: talking around and about them, but not listening to them as though what they have to say is vital to our common life.

But no; the Gospel says flat out this is not acceptable. We are to love one another, with all we have, where and as we are: Male and female, gay and straight, black, white, asian and hispanic, whole and broken, standing squarely face to face in the middle of all our human confusion and disagreement and misunderstanding. This is the radical imperative to which God commands us, for which Jesus died and rose again, and which (as Nicodemus learned) only the indwelling of the Holy Spirit makes possible. This is the coming of the Kingdom in our midst.

“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, [nor are we sent by Jesus into the world for any other purpose] but in order that the world might be saved through him."

This is hard work to which we are called, my brothers and sisters. So together, let us begin.

3 Comments:

Blogger Dawgdays said...

Nice, sister. Very nice indeed.

February 20, 2005 1:57 PM  

Blogger Beth said...

I was looking forward to reading this one.... I am not disappointed. :)

February 20, 2005 3:43 PM  

Blogger Mark said...

AMEN! I SAY AGAIN, AMEN!

INSERT DOXOLOGY HERE.

Any time you want to preach at my joint, come on over!

February 20, 2005 8:21 PM  

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