A Complex Faith

Below is my sermon from March 11, 2018. It’s focused on our reading from John 3:14-21. Can you quote John 3:16 from memory? What about John 3:17-18? The sermon takes a look at what happens when verses are taken out of their context–it often simplifies things. Sometimes simple can be good, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t embrace the complexities that our scriptures and our faith present us.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Have you noticed lately that news articles are getting shorter and shorter? At least, it seems that way. Some scientists believe that technology, smartphones, the internet, the constant availability of new information, has decreased our attention spans. So if you’re going to try to get people to hear you, you better say something quickly.

Even as I learned preaching, my professors told us that the average sermon length should be ten to fifteen minutes nowadays. It used to be more like 20-30. We prefer soundbites to whole speeches, slogans and catchphrases to content. A hundred and eighty character tweets to real news.

We have a couple of those soundbites in today’s readings. There’s the famous phrase from Ephesians, “for by grace you have been saved through faith.” Saved by grace through faith: the catchphrase of the Lutheran Reformation. And then we have possibly the most famous Bible verse of all. John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only son, so that whoever believes in him may not perish, but have eternal life.” It’s plastered on billboards, on greeting cards. Tim Tebow used to wear the verse numbers on his eye black. It works. It suits our desire for quick and easy. For uncomplicated.

There’s a moment in the TV show the West Wing that speaks to this. The president is in the midst of a campaign for a second term, gearing up for a debate. One of the skills of his rival is his ability to boil down messaging into simple and easy to understand answers. Soundbites that play to the press. The president and his staff have been trying for days to come up with ten-word answers of their own. But finally, during the debate, the president has had enough of soundbites.

“There it is,” he says, “that’s the ten word answer my staff’s been looking for for two weeks. Ten-word answers can kill you in political campaigns. They’re the tip of the sword. Here’s my question: What are the next ten words of your answer? Give me the next ten words. Every once in a while, there’s a day with an absolute right and an absolute wrong, but other than that there aren’t very many unnuanced moments in leading a country that’s way too big for ten words.”

What are the next ten words? These quoted, soundbite verses continue, and I doubt we know the next ten words as well. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only son, so that whoever believes in him may not perish, but 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. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already.”

Those next ten words (or 42 in this case) make things a little more complicated. John 3:16, by itself, has often been called the Gospel in a nutshell. The theologian Karl Barth, though, once called it, “the gospel at gunpoint.” There is a looming threat of punishment and death if you do not believe.

Verse seventeen seems to contradict this: God did not send Jesus into the world to condemn the world, but in order to bring life. So, no judgment. But then verse eighteen says that those who do not believe are already condemned. So, what are we to do with these verses? Did Jesus come to save or to condemn? Or both? Adding more words, moving past catch-phrase Christianity makes things so much more complicated. But that’s not a bad thing. Complexity is a gift. It is a challenge, certainly, but it is a gift that our faith is not simple. It is meant for difficult situations and for complex people.

For God loved this world – this entire creation of variety and splendor – so amazingly much that God sent Jesus into our living, to show us how God desires us to be in relationship with one another. Jesus modeled for us a compassionate and generous approach to living in a world where there is a respect for uniqueness and everyone is welcomed at the table. He offered new life and hope to those who were on the fringes of society and showed all of us that there was a different, more radical way of living in community.

Judgment, as it turns out, isn’t so much about condemnation, but about telling the truth. The people love darkness rather than light, because they do not want the truth to shine on them. The truth of God’s light, of God’s love, means admitting our need and receiving God’s grace and forgiveness. Like the people of Israel, knowing when we need help, and looking to the cross to live. But the judgment, the truth of this passage is that we do not like to be exposed, we do not like to stand in the light and have our actions and hearts examined.

But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ. A few extra words from that Ephesians reading. God’s love doesn’t just come to those who are already living in the light, but also, perhaps most especially, to those who cling to darkness. God’s love comes and calls to those who, Ephesians says, are dead through our trespasses, who are following the ways of this world and not the ways of God.

For God so loved the world that God desired a different way of being for us. A way marked by compassion instead of competition, by grace instead of scorekeeping, by love instead of jealousy and hate. God sends God’s son into the world, to us people of the world, not that we might be condemned, but so that we might be saved through him. It’s not salvation in some future time, after we die. Or at least, it’s not just that. God sent Jesus into the world so that our lives might be changed right now. So that we will be free to live as God’s people, beholden to each other instead of only to our own desires.

Gavin Spencer will be baptized (in just a few minutes/later this morning) and that baptism makes personal what John says is for all creation. For God so loved the world…for God so loved Gavin that Jesus came to earth to save him from the harmful ways of the world so that he might live in Christ. We could put any one of our names in that blank. For God so loved the world, that God wants us too to live by love. To live by truth. To live by openness. And God stopped at nothing, including the Son Jesus Christ to see it done.

It’s not simple. It’s doesn’t fit in a tweet. In fact, it’s on the longer end of my sermons. But thank God for the complexity. Amen.