Sunday’s Sermon, March 10, 2024: God’s World, our World

Penelope Bridges

Perhaps this week’s parish email should have started with a trigger warning: John 3:16 will be a feature of Sunday morning’s services. “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” It’s the most familiar, most quoted verse in Scripture. We’ve all seen the bumper stickers; the placards with John 3:16 held up at football games, demonstrations, even on London’s busiest shopping streets during the holiday season. For some who were raised in fundamentalist communities, John 3:16 is a reminder of coercive formation and spiritual abuse: it has somehow come to sound like a threat, rather than the good news of the Gospel. So, if it raises painful memories for you, I apologize for my focus on it in today’s sermon.

This passage of John’s Gospel is so familiar that it’s easy to stop paying attention, both to the context and to the actual words. You may remember that Jesus says these words to Nicodemus, when the community leader comes to Jesus secretly at night to learn more about what he is offering. Nicodemus is drawn to Jesus but lacks the courage to become a disciple: perhaps he has too much to lose. Jesus tells him that he must be reborn, but the metaphor confuses Nicodemus; so Jesus restates his message in the words that we just heard.

God loved the world. That’s the first thing to note. Not, God loved the Church, or God loved the chosen people, but God loved the world. If God loved the world enough to give the beloved only son, perhaps we should try to love the world that much too. And God showed that love by giving something precious: divine love is manifested through sacrificial generosity.

Jesus goes on to say that God did not send the Son in order to condemn the world, but so that the world might be saved through him.

The word our translation renders as “saved” can also mean “healed”: the same word is translated variously throughout the Gospels, depending on the perceived context. What if, instead of saved, we read this verse as “God sent his son, not to condemn the world, but so that the world through him might be healed”? Could it be that we, as the faithful people of God and the living body of Christ, are called to lead the way to the healing of our planet? Healing from toxic politics, human trafficking, war, pollution, the suffering brought about by rising oceans, food waste,  and ever more destructive weather patterns?

At the conference I attended this week, the Rev. Stephanie Spellers, the Presiding Bishop’s canon associate,  offered us this challenge: “This is God’s world. If you love God, you’ve got to start living in God’s world in a different way.”

Take a moment now for conversation. Turn to someone near you, preferably not a family member, and answer this question: what is one new thing you are willing to do as your small part in the healing of God’s world? Take two minutes….

My friendly challenge to you is to remember what your neighbor just told you and to check in with them, let’s say in a month or some time during the Easter season, to see how it’s going.

A moment ago I mentioned the conference I just attended this was the annual Episcopal Parish Network conference, attended by hundreds of clergy and lay leaders from all over the Episcopal Church. The focus this year was on how we lead the church into new and uncharted territory. We all know how much has changed over the last generation and especially since the pandemic (more about that in a minute).

A common thread was a sentiment that we are tired of hearing a narrative of decline and we need to instead see this time as a time pregnant with possibility. We need to face our fear of death, as the ancient Israelites faced the bronze serpent, and put our faith in the new creation, the Easter that follows Good Friday. Remembering that the risen Christ looked so different that his disciples had trouble recognizing him, we need to allow the church of the future to look different from the past. At the conference we heard from a whole lot of speakers who are trying new and creative ways of being church. It was exciting and it generated hope in the midst of our anxiety.

St. Paul’s knows something about this process: in fact, we are out in front of a lot of churches. One speaker shared her excitement that her church recently offered a service especially to welcome LGBTQIA folks. Others talked about throwing dance parties and encouraging local artists, and I thought of our recent game night, the Sound baths we have hosted, and our poetry slams and author celebrations. Don’t worry – I did come back with some new things to try, so the conference was worth the money. And I am deeply grateful for this congregation that is so willing to continue the journey to an unknown future, without the grumbling and rebellion that Moses endured from the ancient people of God.

Four years ago at this time we were entering into an extended Lent, where we were forced to give up a great deal that we had depended on. The performing arts and many sports came to a screeching halt; children and college students had to study at home; travel was paused. We had to give up gathering together, even for the sacraments. The church survived, but we came out of that time changed for ever. We had learned that we could live our faith in a different way, that what we had thought of as essentials weren’t. We discovered that maintaining relationships, by any means possible, whether that meant handwritten letters, video communications, circles of love phone calls, or Zoom worship services, drive-by pickups of ashes, delivery of festive afternoon tea boxes, re-edited recordings of liturgy – that these creative measures kept our community alive. The body of Christ could survive without so much that we had assumed we needed.

In the book of Numbers we read that the bronze serpent stood before the people of God as a reminder of suffering and an incentive to stay on the path of faith. For us it was the image of the corona virus that loomed over us as a constant threat.

But even in the midst of worldwide suffering, God still loved the world, and by God’s grace we found the means to stay alive as God’s people.

And in this post-pandemic, post-Christendom era, God continues to offer us what we need to continue the wilderness journey. It may not be what we have been used to, it may be manna rather than filet mignon, the church may have to sacrifice the sacred cows of former generations, but Christ is alive in us and the essential message doesn’t change: those who love the world as God loves it will enjoy the gift of eternal life, life abundant, meant for all.

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