March 14th, Again and Again: God Loves First with Rev. Morgan Schmidt
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March 14th, Again and Again: God Loves First with Rev. Morgan Schmidt
Good morning, friends. My name is Morgan and I’m one of the pastors here at First Presbyterian. You would think that preaching on God’s Love and John 3-16 would be a cakewalk and a dream come true for any preacher: “For God so loved the world that God gave God’s one and only son so that whoever believes in him would not perish, but have eternal life,” arguably the most well-known verse ever. You’ve probably memorized it if you’ve been anywhere near a church from childhood on.
It’s used a lot, you see it all over the place in American Christianity. If you’ve been to in and out lately, you might see it in tiny print on the bottom of their soda cups, or, on the bottom of a Forever 21 shopping bag. We see it a lot of times on signs at protests and at sporting events. And the true crime junkie and me actually found out through researching this sermon that the guy who made that popular, the holding up a big sign at sporting event that says John 3-16 or Jesus Saves, was popularized by a guy who called himself the Rainbow Man because he would wear like a big rainbow wig when he went to sporting events so that he would get on TV, he wanted to be famous that way.
Turns out that he didn’t quite take the meaning to heart per say, and is currently serving three life sentences in a California jail because he literally took a lady hostage and threatened to shoot at planes at LAX airports in exchange for being able to share his apocalyptic beliefs and preachings. So sometimes we don’t quite get the meaning of even the most common, most famous Bible texts. And I’m not suggesting any of us here are going to take it to that level.
But it’s just interesting to see how when we talk about using God’s word, using scripture, things can really go awry. And so this morning, we’re going to maybe just turn, John 3-16 in a different way, see it in a different light, and and maybe it’ll take on some new meaning for us. How it’s been read, how I was taught to read it is something like this, and this is my paraphrase of kind of the the meaning that I was always given for this verse.
And I think that the popular way that we tend to read it and read into it: God loved the world so, so very much that God sent Jesus. And if anyone chooses to believe that Jesus died for their sins, they’ll be forgiven and get to go to heaven, not hell, when they die. Does that resonate? Is that how you were taught that’s kind of the meaning that I have always kind of been shown in this verse, and it becomes a way of gatekeeping.
When we use something, especially scripture, when we use anything, it’s really hard to love something. I always kind of cringe when there’s songs or teachers who say, you know, I just want God to use me, God, please use me. I’m like, no, no, no, we don’t we don’t use what we love. We don’t use the people we love. We don’t use the things we love in that sense.
We don’t objectify them in that way. And so to even use scripture in a way that maybe says that some people are in God’s love and some people are outside God’s love is just so harmful. One website, when I you know, I just try straight up googling, not because I don’t have ideas, but because I’m curious what the world thinks. So you can Google John 3-16, and one of the first websites that popped up identified it as a, quote, “fighter verse” like this is one of the verses you can use to fight for the faith, to fight for God.
And I’m just not sure that we need to worry so much about who’s in and who’s out and fighting for God, I think God is going to be just fine. And I think what God really cares about is us loving us and helping us to love one another, so rather than this, who’s being about that? Let’s take another look at it, I’m actually going to break it down, I know we don’t always do this with scripture at First Presbyterian, but I thought it would be a fun way to approach it.
For God, so loved the world. Interesting that the Greek word there for so actually very rarely conveys a degree. It’s not actually a way of saying so much or very, very it’s actually a way of saying how, this is how God loved the world.
This is the way in which God loved the world. You’re about to hear the game plan for how God loves the world. Not to say that God doesn’t love all of us and the world beyond what we can even imagine, because that’s at the heart of good news. That’s at the heart of the gospel, that’s at the heart of God. But in this verse, it’s not just God so, so, so much. You’re about to hear what God’s plan is for that, how God is going to love the world.
So for God love the world in this way. That God gave God’s only son. And when I hear that, I know that that that gave word often becomes a way of talking about atonement, right? Like the substitutionary atonement idea that God sacrificed God’s only son. So that, right? And I just wonder if it has to mean that I think we have read a lot of our own theology, a lot of our own upbringing, a lot of people’s translations over time and interpretations over time into this meaning.
And I just wonder. What if this simply means that God gave us the presence of Jesus, God gave us the love of Jesus, God chose in a mysterious way to embody God’s self as a human being, and gave Jesus to us in a sense of Jesus presence and life, not necessarily gave us Jesus death. You don’t have to read it that way. It doesn’t have to say that God gave us Jesus so that he would die. It is possible that God gave us Jesus presence in the world to show us how to live.
And I know it says in their only son, I think that word has been used to be really exclusionary to say that the only way to the heart of love, the only way to experience God is through this lens of Jesus. And I just am not sure that’s what John has in mind. I think John is describing like the unique relationship between God and Jesus that we have in our understanding. But I don’t know that it’s exclusive, like for me when I’m when I’m talking with people about my faith, I say Jesus is the lens through which I see the world.
It’s how I make sense of things, it’s how I learn how to live.But it’s not the Jesus isn’t the only way. I often experience God through people, I experience God through nature, I experience God through art and creativity, and sometimes just buddy the dog. And I experience God in the mundane. And not everything has to be labeled Christian or Jesus for me to see God. And, Jesus does provide for me kind of that framework in that filter that shows me how I want to embody God in the world, it gives me an example to follow.
And then it goes on to say, so we’re at for God so loved the world that God gave God’s only son, so that everyone who believes in Jesus, in him. Belief is a weird thing in our world, right? I think a lot of times in the church, belief means just an intellectual assent to certain facts, right? Or certain doctrines, or the right words, or the right Bible translation sometimes, so that everyone who believes in Jesus, the the original intent there, even in the Greek, is a different word that it can mean intellectual assent, but more often it means like a deeper inner personal sense of trust, like so that everyone who trusts in this Jesus person.
That everyone who trusts in him, so to trust in Jesus becomes a much more relational dynamic where for me and I think John’s intention here is when you trust in Jesus, it means that you are faithful to all that Jesus revealed about God and how God relates to the world and primarily that’s through a lens of love. And so if you are if you are someone who believes in Jesus, who trusts in Jesus, then you are someone who is following in the way of Jesus when Jesus was first interacting with the disciples, really that’s what it meant to follow Jesus or to call on Jesus name was to walk in Jesus path.
The first disciples, even after Jesus death, would would confess the name Jesus. But they weren’t they weren’t just signing a creed or professing a certain doctrine. They were saying that they trust in the way of God, in the way of Jesus, and that they were turning away from trust in the empire or the emperor who at the time in Rome claimed to be, quote, the son of God.
Their faithfulness belonged to the values of God’s kingdom, not the values of the empire. And the very first value of the kingdom of God is love. So it’s never been about doctrine, it’s always been about following in the way of Jesus. When I say I believe in God, I believe in Jesus. And when we hear it in this verse, it’s a deep trust, not just signing on the dotted line. We even have stories of Jesus himself being asked by a young lawyer, what’s the greatest commandment Jesus?
And he didn’t say, well, you’ve got to think all the right things about God, we got to go down the list, you got to get it all right. He said, love God, love your neighbor as yourself. That’s what that’s what the greatest commandment is. And then another young lawyer asks him, what do I have to do to inherit eternal life? And Jesus doesn’t just say, hey, you’ve got to believe this and this and this.
You’ve got to have all your doctrines right. You’ve got to have all your creeds and your prayers just right. Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus responds over and over to people wondering how to follow in the way of God, how to live a life that has contact with eternity. He continuously oriented around dignity and humanity and love that is tangible and meaningful and happening right here right now, not just a set of ideas that get you into a club someday when you die.
That was so far from what Jesus had in mind as he walked with us in life. That’s so far from the dream. And also, it’s a little boring. I just I wonder what’s possible when we start to believe that living in the Christian way, following in the way of Jesus, means taking on a revolutionary lifestyle that revolves around love. And then, of course, the verse wraps up and says, may not perish, but have eternal life so those who believe in Jesus would not perish but have eternal life.
And again, I think the common reading of this part of the verse takes us to kind of that emergency evacuation plan when we die, right? Just one day we got to go to heaven. We’re really worried about it, we don’t want to go to hell. And that’s the Christian dichotomy that we have been given. That’s really, really common. Who’s in, who’s out, who’s going to heaven, who’s not? When in reality, even in that day, in the first century, hearing that language wouldn’t have been referring to some eternal reality that’s like far away years from now when you die,It was actually like a present here and now kind of reality.
John doesn’t even use the future tense. He’s using the present tense here to say like eternal life starts now. Right now, right here, as you following the way of Jesus, you are tapping into and in proximity to what is eternal life. And that eternal life is not just a boring form of peace where nothing ever happens, it’s not just being saved or just avoiding some kind of hell in the afterlife.
But here and in Jesus teachings, we have eternal life, meaning that fullness of life that can start now. Jesus says, I’ve come so they may have life and have it to the fullest. And so it’s not and it’s not just for us, it doesn’t just stop there that God desires for us to know God’s love in such a deep way that we are able to experience, like actual shalom, actual abundance, actual flourishing here and now, but that we also get invited to help create more and more of that here and now.
The Jewish rabbis would call that practice Tikkun Olam, the repair of the world, and that is the work of God’s people as a result of the love that God has shown to us and to the whole world, because we are love. We get to then multiply that love in our lives with the work that we do with the way that we embody God’s care for the world. And actually, nobody ever talks about the very next verse, nobody has John 3-17 memorized, but it goes on to say, indeed, God did not stand the sign in the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Jesus.
For the world to be saved is for the world to be healed of its many wounds and made whole. For the world to be saved is for the world to be liberated from everything that is unjust and oppressive, for the world to be saved is for the world to be reconciled to God and for us to be reconciled to each other and healed of all of our divisions and all of our polarizations. And for the world to be saved is to say again and again, life can come from death.
We can renew the world. Life can come from death. And that’s what the other John 3-16 says, there’s a book called First John, where he just continues kind of this theme of love and says, “We will know love in this way, that Jesus shared his life with us, laid down his life,” some translations say, “sacrificed his life.” And we ought to share our lives, lay down our lives, sacrifice our lives for one another.
There’s this sense that we’re in this together and that we belong to each other and that sacrificial love where we care for our neighbors as much, if not more, than we love ourselves as much as we love God. That’s how the world begins to heal. That’s how the world begins to be renewed. He goes on to say, Beloved, let us love one another because love is from God. And everyone who loves is borne of God and knows God.
Whoever does not love, does not know God, for God is love. God is love and those who abide in love, abide in God, and God abides in them. So what if friends, John 3-16 means something more expansive, something more spacious, something more living and active and exciting, something more invitational. And this is not a smooth interpretation, but what if it means something like this is the way God loves the world?
That God gave us the life, the love, the presence, the example, the sacrifice of his only son. That whoever trusts and follows in the way of Jesus might not perish or live in darkness, but will experience the fullness of life here and now as they love their neighbor and participate in the healing of the world. It’s not as memorable, but it might lead us to more life, it might lead us right into the heart of God. And so friends, may you remember today and every day that you are loved by God with a love that you can only barely imagine, that there is nothing you can do that can ever separate you from it and that God has faithfully sent Jesus.
And now we have the story, the presence of Jesus, the presence of the spirit in our lives to show us not only God’s love, but how we can then show the love of God to the world. Friends, may you walk in love. I mean, you know that you are so dearly loved. And may we all strive to follow in the way of Jesus, which is the repair of the world. Amen