"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. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that they world might be saved through him.” (John 3:16-17)
When I was in my late teens, I spent my summers working as a camp counselor at a church camp. It paid a whopping one dollar a day ‒ a paltry sum even for the 70’s, but I made up for it with all the food I ate each day for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Of course, I didn’t become a counselor for the money – I did it because I loved the outdoors life, sleeping in rustic cabins, swimming each day in the lake, campfires each evening. And I did it for wonderful fellowship I shared with the friends I made there – many of which I count as friends still today. And I did it because somehow in the liturgy of each day I came to experience the presence of God there. (Who knew that God liked camping?) In fact, church camping is one of the reasons that I am an ordained minister today.
Believe it or not, one of the favorite times of the day at camp was bedtime. Bedtime was one of the longest sessions of each day – it could take a couple of hours to get everyone bunked down and asleep. And it was during that time between lights out and sleep that we enjoyed some of the best conversations. It usually started out as schoolboy banter but eventually someone would ask a probing question: “Why did God create mosquitoes?” “Hey, do you think there are aliens in outer space, and did God make them too?” “How old is God anyway?”
Eventually the question would get even deeper and more serious:
“What happens to grandparents when they die?” “Is heaven real?” “What’s it like there?” “Can the people there hear us down here?”
So, at the end of each camp day we spent time peering into the mystery of God and God’s universe. We didn’t come up with all the answers – it’s hard to know the fullness of God, but our conversation certainly engaged our sense of awe and wonder about God! We don’t do that sort of thing enough, I don’t think... plumb the depths of God.
Well, John’s Gospel invites us to engage in such an activity today as we overhear the conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus. There are a number of deep conversations recorded throughout John’s gospel – the Samaritan woman at the well, the final discourse of Jesus with his disciples, and this conversation with a Nicodemus, a Pharisee. Commentators have noted that this conversation is really a dialogue between the synagogue and the church... it’s used by the church to defend its beliefs before Judaism. That may be one function of it, but it seems it’s also offered as an opportunity to peer deeper into the mystery of God.
Nicodemus says, “We know you are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” His words suggest both a hunger to know and an ambivalence – just who are you Jesus in relation to God? Are you a prophet, the Messiah? The Son of God? Jesus responds, “Unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Who could say such words unless they claimed an equal authority with God? Then he goes on to say that unless one is born of water and the Spirit they cannot enter the kingdom of God. This is the first mention of the Spirit in John’s gospel. So, when Nicodemus comes seeking more knowledge about the fullness of God, Jesus points him in the direction of the trinity – it’s essential to know that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit... creator, redeemer and sustainer. It’s all one God of course, but we need all three to speak about the fullness of God. To know God the father is to know God is transcendent – a mystery beyond us. To know God the Son is to know God is incarnate – comes in the flesh to establish a deep lasting relationship with God. To know the Spirit is to know God is present – within us, as close as our next breath. So, we have God beyond us, among us and within us. But it’s all the same God. Three in one but one in three.
“How can this be?” asks Nicodemus. It’s confounding, and so it should be! We can point to the mystery of God, but our minds can never adequately grasp the fullness of the divine One. God is forever beyond our mental reach, our complete understanding. But Jesus instructs us anyway, because there are things we must know in order to be faithful followers. And this brings us to John 3:16, which Luther calls the gospel in miniature:
“For God so loved the world, that he gave is only Son, so that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
The one supreme characteristic of God is love. God sent the Son into the world out of love. God loved us so much he was willing to send the Son to save us. And the Son loved us so much that he was willing to give up his life, to die on the cross for our sake. But before he died Jesus promised that he would not leave us orphaned – he would send Spirit of love to guide us, to sustain us, to endow us with gifts for the life of faith.
So, Jesus claims in verse 16 that even a basic understanding of God must begin with this knowledge: God is love. In the 1st epistle of John, the writer explores this theme even further when he says: “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God, everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.” (1 Jn. 4:7) We can’t claim to know God if we don’t love. We can’t claim to follow God if we don’t share love. We can’t be called children of God without owning love ourselves... because God is love. Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one (united) by love. And here’s the real kicker – so are we! When we love one another, we are united as one people and we are united with God.
So, if we expect to know God and to follow God we must learn the art of love. But what is love? The word gets used liberally nowadays – so much so that it may not be entirely clear just what constitutes love. 1 John seems to predict this and offers this as clarification: “In this is love: not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1 Jn. 4:9-10) So, love is giving sacrificially to others... Jesus lived his life sacrificially – gave of himself daily for the benefit of others, even to the point of dying for us.
Bishop Michael Curry delivered the message at the wedding of Harry and Meghan last weekend and spoke about the power of love to change the world. He pointed to the sacrificial love of Jesus and he said that this sort of love is redemptive and changes lives. “... unselfish, sacrificial, redemptive love changes lives and it can change this world.” He invited us to imagine a world where this sort of love reigned supreme. No child would go to bed hungry ever again, poverty would become history, the earth would become a sanctuary, and there would be plenty good room for everyone. “When love is the way we will lay down our swords and shields and study war no more.”
It was a wonderful sermon because it placed the possibility of a new world, one that we all long for, within our reach... we just have to love others as Christ loves us.
Rev. Dr. Eileen Lidner was the pastor of a church in New Jersey back in 2001 when the Trade Towers came down in 911. When all the chaos was over and the dead were all accounted for, her church had lost four members. Four men from her congregation who worked at the World Trade Center did not come home.
She spoke to us in 2009 at a conference in San Antonio that I attended, and she characterized the situation that the church in America is living in today this way. She said: “We are on uncharted territory in the season of Kairos (critical time). with opportunities to find again what it means to confess Christ and to live a life of faith.” I was hoping she’d give us clear directions to take to find our way through this time, but she did not. She did quote her mentor Dr. William Sloan Coffin who said, “The world is now too small and too dangerous for anything but love.”
She also offered the following story about one of the families that lost a parent in 911. This family had three boys and the eldest (Roger) went to the pastor (who was someone new now, not Eileen) and said “I’m a senior in high school this year and when we have the memorial (for 911) I would like to speak to the congregation. I’m going to write it out, if I falter, please don’t say anything kind, just get up and read from where I left off.” Well, the day came for the 911 service and Roger got up to speak. He said:
“I’m 17 now, I was 11 on that day when my father died, the oldest of three boys in my family. I won’t be here next year because I’ll be in college next year when we observe this anniversary. I wanted to thank you for all you have done because I’ve never had the opportunity. That first year, the pastors came to our house and I remember still they told me that my father was now beyond pain and that he was not afraid and that he was with God. And some of you made casseroles, and we were too young so some of you came and raked leaves, and that winter you shoveled the snow. And when I went to the soccer championship, Mr. Johnson there went to see my game, and when I got my Eagle Scout award, Mr. Cooper said, ‘Your dad would be proud.’ And when I confirmed my faith, Mrs. Lester came to me and said, ‘You know, your father is proud of you today.’
And I appreciate all that but that’s not the only thing I want to thank you for tonight. I want to thank you because I am seventeen, and I don’t hate anybody, and I’m going to go to college and I’m going to have a good life... because you taught me not to be afraid and you taught me to love.”
Look what love can do... love healed the broken heart of a 11-year boy, steady doses of love from a devoted caring congregation. What else can love to do? Let’s imagine.