A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr B ~ Lent 3 ~ John 3:16-21
I am a sinner and so are you.
I know that’s not your typical United Church kind of statement, and I know that I’ve just risked a number of you instantly tuning me out, but I hope you’ll stay with me and hear me out. I’m probably not saying what you might think I’m saying. And the reason for that is we have inherited a theological set of understandings that are sometimes not very helpful – and a lot of the talk about sin belongs in that category.
But it’s a really important theological concept – and if we don’t wrestle with the idea of sin and understand it well, then today’s scripture reading – including arguably the most famous and beloved verse in the New Testament – tends to get interpreted far too superficially.
So we’re gonna wrestle! It is Lent, after all!
I talk about sin from time to time and when I do I explain that the literal meaning of the word is “to miss the mark” or “to fall short of the goal”. The clearest imagery comes from archery – or throwing a ball a long distance. In both cases you have to kind of aim higher than your goal in order to reach it – and if you don’t aim high enough you fall short or miss the mark (and you sometimes still miss even when you do aim high).
I also don’t think it’s very helpful to talk about “sins” as in individual actions. Instead, it’s better to talk about sin as a state of being or an orientation in which our repeated and habitual missing of the mark makes us feel separated from God. Why? Because we understand that God sets the mark – which is holiness – and we know we’re not there enough of the time, and so we feel separated.
It’s not true, of course. We’re never separated from God’s presence – no matter what we may do or not do – but it feels like we are when we miss the mark.
Now, we know that we’re essentially good people. And we know that we all try our best most of the time to hit the mark. That’s great!
But no one is perfect.
Like it says in Romans 3:23 “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
All have fallen short. All.
Raise your hand if you’ve never fallen short?
Jesus said something similar in John 8:7 “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Nobody threw a stone. All have fallen short.
And that’s why it’s so bizarre that Christianity has seemed to make throwing stones its most prominent pastime. Or at least its most vocal. Despite the clear, unambiguous, and frequent teaching of Jesus far too many Christians spend far too much time pointing their fingers at someone else’s supposed sinfulness.
“They” are living contrary to God’s will. “They” are not following scripture. “They”, “them”, “those people”.
Not me, them.
Perhaps you’ll remember Jesus saying in Matthew 7:3 “Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” And two verses later he uses the ugly word hypocrite.
Indeed, these are the biggest accusations levelled against Christianity – that it’s full of hypocrites and judgmental people. Of course, we love to point our fingers at all those “other” types of Christians who do this, at those “other” churches – but we don’t!
But that’s just proving the point! We’re looking for their specks and ignoring our logs.
Can you tell we’re in the season of Lent?!
Having said all that, while our tradition may usually studiously avoid any talk of sin there’s another wing of Christianity that focuses intently on sinfulness and seems to revel in the notion that we are all vile worms deserving of eternal damnation.
So it seems like you can’t win. Either you’re pointing at yourself for judgment or you’re pointing at someone else for judgment, and either way it’s not very helpful. One choice is to abandon any talk of sin at all and only ever focus on our blessedness. But that’s kind of like throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Instead, in fine United Church tradition I’m going to strive to find some middle ground!
So now we’re ready to engage today’s scripture reading, which begins with what I suggested is the most famous and beloved verse in the New Testament – John 3:16 – 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.
Here’s an alternate translation of John 3:16 that says the same thing but in different ways:
God loved the world in this way – that God nurtured the profoundly unique person of Jesus and owing to that everyone who ‘got’ what Jesus taught would not flounder in life but flourish.
It’s no wonder we latch onto John 3:16. It makes us feel great: “Look how much God loves me! I get eternal life. I get to flourish. I get all the benefits! Yay me!”
I’m not saying that’s bad in any way. It’s the most popular verse for a reason. It’s great.
But it really needs to be accompanied by verse 17 – the next verse. This is the verse about sin – even though it doesn’t use that word. Instead it uses the word condemn.
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.
The Message translation says it great:
God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending the Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again.
So let’s put verses 16 and 17 together. If you “get” (understand, affirm, embody, live out) what Jesus teaches you don’t flounder you flourish. And Jesus didn’t come to condemn or point fingers but to save and put things right.
In other words, what did Jesus teach? Don’t judge, or condemn.
So what do Christians do? Judge and condemn!
Which means that John 3:16 is the favoured verse by a whole lot of Christians who may be working against it by their actions.
Which means that many of the folks who think they’re claiming eternal flourishing may actually be floundering. Yikes!
Like I said, if we just take the blessings part we interpret it too superficially.
Humans are conflicted, inconsistent, complicated beings.
Every one of us.
All have fallen short.
Today we do great and tomorrow we’ll screw it all up.
It’s not a black and white world where we’re on God’s side and it’s easy to see who isn’t. As soon as we start pointing fingers we’re on the wrong side again.
That’s the problem with what might be called “ticket to heaven” theology. This isn’t about getting a magic check-mark. It’s about a lifetime (that’s what eternal means) of constantly striving to stay open to God’s presence, and love, and way. What we have is a challenge of receptivity. We know that God’s light is constant – but our ability to receive and reflect that light is pathetically changeable.
I think Jesus is trying to teach us something really important here. He’s saying that his purpose isn’t judgment, it’s to help people receive light. Our default position tends to be dividing people into “us and them”.
But if Jesus isn’t condemning people then what makes us think we should?
There is no us and them. We are them.
And all of us together are desperately desiring to receive the light Jesus shows us.
All of us together are yearning to enhance our receptivity. All of us together.
I don’t get to choose who’s in or out, and neither do you.
I don’t get to judge who’s holy or not, and neither do you.
I don’t get to point my finger at anyone and find them lacking somehow because my vision is pretty blurred and compromised.
That’s why we come here.
That’s why we invite anyone and everyone to come here.
Because all have fallen short – both “them” and us – and all of us together need one another to help one another work on our receptivity.
In a few minutes we’re going to have our vote to decide if we should embrace the idea of being an Affirming church. I’ve spoken at length for over a year now about how we have always been open, inclusive, and welcoming of anyone and everyone who wanted to journey ever deeper in faith – and the difference in being Affirming is that we don’t just keep that secret to ourselves, we work hard and intentionally tell people out there that all really are welcome and that this is a safe space to grow their Spirit.
And the main groups who need to hear that kind of welcome are people who historically have been on the receiving end of a massive amount of rejection and judgmentalism from churches.
Even though we’re all sinners – and so are they, because all have fallen short – for some reason churches decided that some people could be excluded.
Friends, if we only let people without sin through those doors this room would be empty!
Remember, God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending the Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again.
And that, for me, is what this vote is about. To put away the church’s historic pointing, accusing finger, and instead to help put things right again. And even though we don’t think we’re the ones doing the pointing, there are folks out there who see the word church or Christian and instantly believe they are being judged by us.
That’s a big stigma to overcome. But that’s our calling.
And we do it because: God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not flounder in life but flourish.
Everyone invited to enhance their receptivity of God’s love.
Everyone with the opportunity to flourish in faith.
I affirm that.