Fourth Sunday of Lent
Likely the most well known verse in the entire Bible is John 3:16: For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever should believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life (which is the way I memorized it in the King James version).
In the Texas Baptist life in which I grew up this was the essence of the gospel or as old Luther said a few centuries earlier, it’s the gospel in miniature. Along with the entire story of Nicodemus secretly coming to Jesus during the night and being told earlier in the conversation that he must be born again, this was our canon within the canon and it interpreted everything else. To this day in most Baptist churches in my part of the world I can stand up in the pulpit and say, “For God so loved” and the entire congregation will respond reciting the rest of the verse from memory.
Unfortunately, for most of us so formed by this understanding of the gospel, it has reinforced our Gnosticism. God’s only Son dying on the cross for me, so I might be born again and have eternal life in heaven (“So I might get saved” to put it more colloquially) has been understood in American evangelicalism in individual and spiritual terms.
I was taught that to get saved, to be born again, was to ask Jesus into my heart (all synonymous understandings). It had to do with me as a private individual, it was spiritual (had to do with eternal life in heaven) and it had little or nothing to do with society, with relationships, with living in the world.
Though I never heard the term before I was in college, a young Gnostic was what I was and contrary to Elaine Pagels and followers, Gnosticism did not lose out to Orthodoxy. In the American South it has been the dominating religion since the advent of slavery and the rise of capitalism, what historian Sidney Ahlstrom called the two root systems nourishing American social evils.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “He who does not cry out for the Jew, may not sing Gregorian chants.” Well, in much of American Christianity many of us have sung “Just as I Am” and never cried out for those who are in poverty or for the Earth, we never even notice our racism, we go right along with bigotry, hatred and violence, and we have no place to stand against ruthless corporations or the war-mongering state. Clarence Jordan remembers from his boyhood a man in his Baptist church in Georgia who sang in the choir on Sunday and was a jailer who beat black inmates on Monday and never once saw any incongruity. The man was born again, had eternal life, had Jesus in his heart and likely could quote John 3:16 from memory.
Wendell Berry suggests that a starting place for us to counter such an abstract, disembodying religion (read Gnosticism) might be to remember that important first phrase of our favorite Bible verse: God so loved the world. Jesus did not limit God’s love and say that God so loved our souls, or our minds, or our hearts. He didn’t even say that God so loved people. But God so loved the world – the whole thing.
Salvation is about much more than just me getting saved and going to heaven someday. Biblical salvation is holistic. The whole cosmos is saved and made whole: ecosystems and earthworms, rocks and trees and climates and healing relationships among people black, white, and brown, gay and straight, while those people impoverished will receive justice, and wars will cease and AR-15’s will be turned into gardening tools.
In the midst of all that, we personally will discover ourselves being made whole and reconciled with God, with others, and with the world that God loves. We, like Nicodemus, are invited to be born again and participate in God’s new creation that intruded into this world when Christ was lifted up on the cross.
The other key aspect to our favorite Bible verse is learning to love as God loves. To use Wendell Berry’s term adapted from E. M. Forster’s novel Howard’s End, “It all turns on affection …” Our participation in God’s work of salvation of the world is related to our loving God’s world. If we participate, enter into, or immerse (incarnate?) ourselves in the relationships of God, people and Earth we learn to love them as God loves them and gave himself for them. Loving participation saves us from Gnosticism or disembodied abstraction. When we love as God loves we love with our whole being.
At my ordination some thirty-five years ago the old Baptist preacher who preached the sermon told me that my calling was to “love God, love the Bible, and love God’s people.” When the two of us walked out to the car he told me that my calling also included two other things I needed to be able to do: “You need to learn to say ‘No!’ and ‘Hell no!’”
Being a pastor means nothing less than incarnation, immersing ourselves in the lives of the people, the parish, and now I realize the very earth God calls me to serve and love. I’ve learned that in the initial “Yes” of God also has to do with learning to resist and say “No” to the Powers of Death and all that destroy and diminish. But after the initial “yes” and the “no” there is still yet another “yes.” It is God’s invitation to jump into God’s great world and embrace it and love it.