107:1-3, 17-22; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21
Rev. Catherine E. Schuyler
Duluth Congregational Church; March 15, 2015
There's a video on YouTube which shows you the relative size of things in our universe, from the proton of a hydrogen atom to the Large Magellanic Cloud. This continuous, but measured, display is extensive. Hydrogen proton to hydrogen atom to glucose molecule to rhino virus to red blood cell to grain of salt to grasshopper to human to elephant to blue whale and T-rex. Then to the Statue of Liberty then the Eiffel Tower to Mount Rushmore then Mount Everest to the state of Rhode Island and then small countries. Texas is surprisingly close in size to the ex-planet Pluto, then we move to our Moon and then Mercury and the Earth and Neptune and Jupiter and then the stars begin. Our sun, gives way to other bigger stars, then to Canis Majoris, the largest known star; nebulae and galaxies and superclusters of galaxies follow, with names and numbersI don't retain very well, then on to the known universe and then what scientists name as the potentially observable universe – which is pretty amazingly big. Seven and a half minutes of bigger and bigger things. Then the video goes backwards, back to the smallest thing, back through all the other things, very quickly, in thirty seconds. It's a powerful vision of all that we are and all that we're part of. There's a non-video version as well, that you can adjust and read slowly. It's called Magnifying the Universe, and it's a pretty amazing collection of pictures and facts.
The author of John didn't quite have the technology we have to know the outer limits of the extent of this world we live in, but he certainly knew it was immense. The stars have always been far away, even before we could measure them precisely, and the grasshopper has always been tiny. Yet all of that known world, all of the world we know and try to comprehend, is included in the word John uses in the sixteenth verse of the third chapter of his gospel. God so loved the world. The Greek word he uses is cosmos. Not just the Jews, not just people, not just the rocky desert of ancient Palestine, not just the earth itself, nor just the stuff and beings here. Cosmos. It also means not just individuals but gatherings of people and the structures in which we live. God loves the clubs and the churches, school teams and governments, not because they are good or bad, but because they involve people and because they affect people's lives. Because, you see, at the other end of that video spectrum that John sets up, quite quickly actually, by the end of the sentence, is us. Human beings, individuals with names and faces and hearts and lives. Whoever believes, whoever trusts, will have this gift of amazing life that doesn't end. There is a huge wideness to God's mercy and love. God so loves the world, the whole world, with all its glories and its imperfections, with all its beauty and utter ugliness and so much in between. God loves it all. God made it, God cares about it, and God watches it and how it affects us. We know love. We know that we can love things and people and organizations even when they are not perfect, even when we don't approve of all that they do. We watch friends do stupid things; we watch grandchildren make unwise decisions; we ourselves say things we wish we hadn't said, things which hurt someone we love. But we don't stop loving those friends or grandchildren or even ourselves. Love is not approval. Love is bigger than that. So when John declares that God loves the world, we needn't hear that God thinks that all is just and all is right. It isn't. We know that, and we can trust that God knows that as well. We count on God's love to hold us even when we haven't done justice or loved mercy. God so loved the world, and God so loved and loves us, each of us, all of us. This is the heart of the good news.
The breadth of God's love, for the whole world, pushes us to embrace the truth that the whole world is our concern. We are part of a proud tradition of churches who hear God's call to look outside our walls, to share food with the hungry, to offer education for young people that they might live better, more fulfilled lives. Like John Wesley, the world is our parish because God loves the world, the whole world.
But this passage also points to the truth that God's love for each of us is important. Whoever believes in God will have life. There are many Christians in the world who insist that it is this belief that is utterly foundational to our faith. Their focus in ministry is making sure everyone has and builds a personal relationship to Jesus Christ, because whoever believes, whoever trusts in him will have eternal life. That's the heart of their good news. And there is truth and good news in that promise. I don't use that kind of language much – I think there are too many people here who are turned off by it. We have known people who insist that they have a personal relationship with Jesus who don't treat others with much love, and who insist that there is only one way to know Jesus and therefore to be a Christian. Our Congregational tradition focuses our relationship with Jesus as one marked by covenant, which itself is based on trust, but we want our faith to have room for doubt and questions. Nowhere in the text is there denial of doubt, but in practice, there are many Christians who are not comfortable with its presence. And there are far too many who forget that the God who loves each of us also loves the rest of us. John 3:16 pushes us to embrace all sides of faith – to love God, to love ourselves and one another, and to love the world, because God loves all of these.
This isn't new news. John 3:16 isn't a new verse. So what's the point of the wideness and the specificity of God's love? I know it; you know it. Now what? Now we let it set us free. Because we are loved, we can face the world without fear or nastiness. God loves the world. We can face the world – systems, people, neighborhoods, churches, businesses, friends, enemies, governments – all of the world – with the same love that God offers. If there is love in our hearts for our next-door neighbors then we can deal with them as children of God, even when they let their leaves blow into our yard. We can deal with politicians as people loved by God, even if we disagree with them on most of what they say. We can function in this world with a foundation of love and light and truth, because we needn't be afraid or cynical. That's what Jesus talks about when he offers us freedom – the truth will indeed make us free because the truth is that the world is suffused with love. It is not perfect. It is far from perfect. It is loved, just as we are. And because it is loved, there is hope. Hope that we will let the love spread, hope that we will find ways of peace. God so loved the world that he decided to come and hang out with us, to be with us, Emmanuel, God with us, the Word become flesh, incarnation.
God so loved the world, the whole world, from hydrogen proton to the observable universe and all that is between, that he gave his only Son – Jesus, Emmanuel, the Word made flesh, come to be with us, to love us, to save us – that whoever believes in him, whoever trusts him, whoever would cast their lot with this Lord of the universe, would join in on this amazing life of love, now and forever. That is the heart of the good news we share and the good news we live. Amen.
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
for his steadfast love endures forever.
Let the redeemed of the Lord say so,
those he redeemed from trouble
and gathered in from the lands,
from the east and from the west,
from the north and from the south.
Some were sick through their sinful ways,
and because of their iniquities endured affliction;
they loathed any kind of food,
and they drew near to the gates of death.
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he saved them from their distress;
he sent out his word and healed them,
and delivered them from destruction.
Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love,
for his wonderful works to humankind.
And let them offer thanksgiving sacrifices,
and tell of his deeds with songs of joy.
2You were dead through the trespasses and sins 2in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. 3All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else.
4But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us 5even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.
14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 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. 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. 18Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”