“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.”
Martin Luther says that this is the gospel in its entirety packed into one little verse. So maybe we could just go home now. Oh, wait, we’re an Episcopal congregation, so I guess I owe you a little more.
As I’ve mentioned before, I grew up in the Deep South where we learn to recite this verse right after we learn to say “mama”. And as we grow up, we learn to spray paint “John 3:16” on overpasses, and we take the name of this verse to football games and homecoming dances and many of us have this verse tattooed on our bodies somewhere. This idea of liquid grace, flowing purely and clearly for those who believe becomes a part of our very DNA.
As I’ve gotten older and “gotten out” more, I’ve discovered that it’s not just Southern Christians who hang on to this verse for dear life, its lots of folks. Even Seahawks fans have brought the verse in for the cameras at games. I met a Naval officer from New York who kept a scrap of this verse in his flight suit pocket…I suspect to keep this distillation of the Gospel close by should worst come to worst. And I’m sure you all can think of lots of other places where this verse has been espoused or thrust into the spotlight.
“Those who believe in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
This Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, I went with Terry to a gathering or conference of folks who are in the business of bringing forth the kingdom though the church in mostly out-of-the-box kinds of ways, and I found lots of the conversations I had with these brothers and sisters to be helpful as I begin to contemplate my own formal ministry beyond seminary. But the most profound conversations I had with these fellow disciples of Christ were around race and racial discourse (which is simply the way we talk about race).
I heard stories of how in the history of this nation and in the present, people of color have been and are being wounded and held back. I heard stories of individuals tearing down the very person of someone who looked different than them. I learned more about institutional racism or the ways we keep people of color disadvantaged through structures in colleges, in banks, in police departments, and yes, in the church, simply by not challenging or changing the systems. And the sobering part for me is how simply by being in these systems we are all complicit in this institutional racism just by showing up and by not saying anything to challenge or to confront it. Even more sobering is that leaving these systems is not an option. It can’t be done.
As I was sitting through these lectures and workshops and conversations, I was turning over today’s Gospel lesson in the back of my head. “whoever believes in him will not perish but will have eternal life.” And I thought, this distillation of the Gospel, which I have been breathing in since the day I was born, has been used and is being used to keep people of color subjugated, held back, and forced to conform.
If we want to talk about history, and I think that we should, we who are Christians of European descent are historically a bloodthirsty and ruthless lot. We have tortured and murdered and enslaved and removed people of all race and religion and creed because they didn’t think the way we thought they should…or because we had something to gain by getting rid of them…and we did it all in the name of Jesus. And we took and we take this verse and used and continue to use it to shame and to devalue those who look and think differently. And whether we say out loud with our words that we think Muslims or pagans or Native Americans or whoever is “bad” or are “wrong”, our historical action and our refusal to acknowledge the history and our refusal to work to change the current reality says otherwise.
Last week marked the anniversary of Bloody Sunday, the day when non-violent protestors marched across the Edmond Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, to confront our nation with the unethical, immoral, and illegal ways we were treating one another…specifically the ways that black brothers and sisters were still being bullied, tortured, and enslaved by the system even after the end of the Civil War and the theoretical end of slavery in this nation. Last week, I was told that that day isn’t “particularly relevant” out here in the Pacific Northwest.
But 160 years ago, our government extracted an “agreement” from tribal leaders in this place which ceded their ancestral lands and relocated their people onto the Tulalip Federal Reserve where adherence to tribal customs and native traditions were called “devil’s work” by the very Christians who came to “help” them (if you haven’t yet read the history of our neighbors of Tulalip Tribes, I urge you to do so). 
And the reality is, though you and I may not have committed these atrocities…the beatings, the lynchings, the torture, the vote robbing, the land stealing…our very existence in this place keeps Indians on the reservation and blacks subjugated in this country in the systems of our ancestors making. Often in the name of Jesus. “whosoever believes in him.”
Lord, in your mercy…forgive us.
God didn’t go through all the trouble of sending Jesus just to point an accusing finger. I don’t think that God turns away from those who would seek and find God outside the bounds of Christianity. Or those who look different from you or from me. And Jesus doesn’t send us out with the directive to torture, kill, or enslave one another because we have experienced God differently. I don’t think that Christians black, brown, or white have the monopoly on salvation. God became human to show us that God gets it. God understands what it means to be human. To hurt, to heal, to love. God wants to be with us in our pain and suffering and separation and to bind us to God’s self so that the sorrow might be hope-lined and that joy for all people may be full.
Jesus has a different set of instructions for us. Mark 12:31 “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
So I would direct your attention to the verse right after verse 3:16. John 3:17. “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.” See, that salvific grace is simply not something that we Christians have a monopoly on. We aren’t called to judgment. And we certainly aren’t called to condemnation. We are called to love. We are called to love deeply and fully and with the full measure of grace which we receive from God.
We are called to view the differences between us as gift and light and good. Because God is ultimately in charge here. And if we believe that, we must act like it.
We have to speak up when we see that injustice is being done. We have to call systems into accountability when we realize that people in power are benefitting or that the powerless are suffering because of the ways our institutions are structured.
The empire lives on, but we are called to challenge it. Though the world says that “might makes right” we know better through the life and witness of Jesus Christ, and we are called to cry out in ways big and small that that statement is a lie. Wealth and consumption and control are not salvific. Avoiding or exploiting the vulnerable doesn’t keep us “safe”. God is the one who offers salvation. And God calls us to a life of witness and a life of love…and it isn’t always easy.
When you speak out for the weak, voiceless, oppressed, marginalized, and vulnerable, you are aligning yourself with them and making yourself vulnerable. People will use that vulnerability to say you’re wrong or too-sensitive or bad. It’s gonna sting. It’s going to hurt. Do it anyway.
Because if you believe that Jesus came into the world to save, you don’t have to. If you believe that God came into the world to save, you are free to share that Good News…not from a place of being right or a place of force or a place of coercion…but from a place of love and concern for your neighbor. You don’t have to figure out what your neighbor should think or how your neighbor should worship or what your neighbor should look like or who your neighbor should love. You have to bear your neighbor’s burden. You have to speak out so that your neighbor’s burden is lighter. You have to make yourself vulnerable and share your power so that the kingdom of God has yet another entrance point: you.
In the person of Jesus, God comes to help…to make the world right again. And part of that “making it right” involves you and your heart and the ways you love your neighbor.