John 3:16 "For God so loved the world that he sent his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life." I have to be honest...every time I read or hear this scripture, I get an image of rednecks at professional wrestling matches holding up homemade signs that say "John 3:16" or men in full body paint at football games holding up similar signs. And it turns me off. It makes me uncomfortable to claim my Christian identity. And it makes it so that when I realized that this was Sunday's scripture, I was frustrated...how would I preach this text that has been co-opted by rednecks and football fans? How could I preach on a text that I felt had become a pity statement of Christian faith?
About ten years ago, I made my first confession. Confession has a bit of an ambiguous place in the Episcopal Church. Private confession isn’t required, but it is offered for those who request it. Corporate confession, or confession as the gathered community, is about confessing our sins against God and our neighbor, and it’s something we do every week. But private confession, I have to tell you, takes guts. So as I was saying, about ten years ago I made my first private confession. I was so nervous that I thought I would laugh through the whole thing, even though it was very serious and not to be taken lightly. And during the confession, as I started to really get to the heart of my concerns, I began to cry. How could I be forgiven for such behavior? I had done so many things wrong, I had been so “bad” that I found myself really wrestling with the idea that God could forgive me. And while the priest offered some spiritual practices for me as I learned to forgive myself and reconnect with God, what he said in that moment was more important than anything else…and something that I have since said to others who have come to me for their private confessions…God’s love and forgiveness is bigger than we can imagine.
And it is with that idea in mind that I can work with John 3:16. What does this one verse tell us about God? It tells us that God’s love is extravagant, that it is for the whole world, and that it is abundant. For God’s love to be extravagant means that it is without bounds, lavish, and unrestrained. It is a love that we cannot fully comprehend. It is a love that is sacrificial in nature. It is this love that created the world—the plants, the animals, and us—and calls us to be good stewards of the whole world. The fact that God’s love is for the whole world reminds us that it’s not just for us, here in Hood River, Oregon, USA, but it’s for everyone everywhere. God’s love is therefore bigger than us. And it is abundant, which means that there is more than enough to go around. It is rich and plentiful.
But this passage also tells us about ourselves. We can choose to not be open to God’s gift of abundant love. We can choose to disregard the beautiful world around us. We can choose to turn a blind eye to those in need around us. We can choose not to be faithful stewards of the gifts and talents that God has given us. We can choose to exclude those we call “others”. This is what it means to live in darkness.
To live in the light is about accepting God’s love. God’s love for us is what brought Jesus into the world. It is that same love that Jesus taught about…the love that calls us to love our neighbors as ourselves, to reach out to the marginalized, the outcast and the poor. It is a love that calls for justice.
So how do we reclaim John 3:16 from the wrestling matches and football games? How do we save it from being a tired cliché? I think we have to live into it. We have to see this passage as a way of inviting others to experience the abundant love of God. It means we welcome all, not just those who look, and act and think like us. It means we learn to forgive as we have been forgiven.
Lent is an opportunity for us to reflect on the times we have chosen not to accept God’s abundant love. It is a time to acknowledge when we have wandered away. And it is a time to examine our hearts, knowing that God’s love is waiting for us.
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.