Alright, I have something to confess, brothers and sisters. I’m not proud. I almost feel like I have to hide my face from you when I share my confession with you. Okay, here goes. When I was a kid, one of the highlights of a Friday or Saturday night was sitting around the television with my brother and sister and watching “professional” wrestling. Back then it was the WWF. I’m not proud. We had our favorites: Hulk Hogan (of course), Rowdy Rowdy Piper, Hacksaw Jim Duggan, Jake the Snake Roberts, The Undertaker, and Andre the Giant. Just thinking about these larger than life characters takes me back to my youth. And, of course, people held up signs in the crowd. The most popular sign is still seen today “John 3:16.” Now, let me also confess to you how naive I was.
I didn’t know much about the Bible at that age. I didn’t know that the sign was referring to today’s Gospel. I just thought it was a sign to some guy named John. And then I was confused. I thought “does John know to look for the sign?” And “does he have to be somewhere at 3:16? And is it AM or PM? And why did people choose this peculiar way of communicating with John? Couldn’t they have just gone to their local pay phone?” As I said, I was naive. I know better now, obviously.
I think that people want to quote John 3:16 so much because it is full of good news and promise. “‘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.” But it is so so so important to not stop there. Keep reading to verse 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.” Eternal life free of condemnation–it sounds awesome. This good news should be enough for me to stop the sermon right here and call it good. But, you know I’m not going to let you off the hook that easily.
At first glance, these two verses can be comforting and the ideas behind them may even seem easy. I mean, it’s easy to get behind the idea that everyone who believes in God will have eternal life. And it’s especially easy to believe this because well, we believe, right? Most of us have a faith that’s been fostered since we came out of the womb. In talking with some of you, I hear a common theme of “I was baptized in this church, confirmed in this church, married in this church, and some day, my funeral will be at this church.” Your faith in God most likely brings you comfort. It’s easy to hear this verse, think of ourselves or our loved ones and sigh a contented sigh. Aaah yes. Jesus was given by God for me so that I may have eternal life. Ahhh.
Did I mention that it’s not that easy? It’s not that easy. Because here’s the thing: there is one tiny, itty-bitty little word on here that trips me up every.single.time. Everyone. “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.” Everyone who believes in him. Would you like to feel really uncomfortable? I’m going to make you feel uncomfortable here because that’s part of my call. Loving and following Jesus isn’t always warm and fuzzy. Loving and following Jesus sometimes means feeling like you’re wearing sandpaper underwear. Now that we all have that mental image, let’s get uncomfortable.
I want you to do something that will probably seem very odd to do in church. I want you to think of someone who you don’t care for. You could say it might even be an enemy. This is one of those people who just the thought of them puts a sour taste in your mouth. Do you have this person in mind? I want you to have their name ready in your mind. Is it there? Is this uncomfortable for you yet? It’s about to get really uncomfortable. Hear this verse again and add the name you’re thinking of, okay? “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that (NAME) who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Well…I feel unsettled now, how about you? I think so many times when we picture our eternal life, we picture it surrounded by our loved ones, our friends, and our family. But I don’t picture eternal life also filled with my enemies, with my adversaries, even with those who wish me harm. But when this reading says
“everyone who believes” God really means “everyone.” I want to share a story with you.
Disclaimer: some of the details and names associated with this story have been changed to protect all of those involved. This past week, I found myself in a social situation. It was clear to all at this social gathering that I am a pastor as I had introduced myself that way. It as a nice event, one I was more than honored to be a part of. I was about to leave this social event when I heard a man’s voice call to me “hey are you leaving?” And I answered “oh yes I am. Sorry. I have a lot of things still to do with church.” And he said, “well, before you go I wanted to share some scripture with you.” I knew this was going to be interesting but I welcomed it. He sighed and seemed to hem and haw a bit, but then finally said “I just…I just…God laid it on my heart to share this with you.” Now let me pause right there.
I do believe that God speaks to us and through us. The Holy Spirit can stir and God will whisper or sometimes yell, depending on our ability to listen. However, I also believe that sometimes the phrase “God laid it on my heart” can be used as a cop-out. As if to say “what I’m about to say isn’t going to be nice but you can’t be mad at me because God asked me to tell you.” Anyway, he continues. “Do you know the book of Timothy very well?” And as soon as he said that, my friends, I knew where he was going. “The verses I want to share with you are 1 Timothy 2:11-12.” These verses state “Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man;she is to keep silent.” And this man then said to me “perhaps you should pray about that before you think about preaching again.”
I left the social gathering without punching anyone and as you can see, I’m still preaching. I was angry. And then I started immediately thinking about verse 16 from today’s reading. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” Everyone includes this man who firmly believes I shouldn’t be a pastor. And the crazy thing is, that’s how God works. God’s love doesn’t care who we like or don’t like; who we get along with and who we don’t; who is our enemy and who is our friend; God’s kingdom doesn’t have velvet ropes. God’s kingdom doesn’t have limits. And that’s angering and refreshing at the same time.
There are people who I don’t want to in eternal life with me. There are people, who, if the decision was left to me, wouldn’t even have the option of eternal life. But it’s not up to me, is it? And it’s not up to you. For this, we should be thankful! I want to leave you with a quote from one of the oddest places today. I am going to end by quoting Pastor Jeremiah Wright. Reverend Wright came into the public spotlight when President Obama was first running for office. He was and still is quite controversial. But his quote says “I refuse to believe that my God loves only some of his world. My Bible does not say, ‘For God so loved some of the world–or most of the world …’ My Bible says all the world and whosoever – not those I like. Whosoever – not those who are like me. Whosoever. I refuse to limit my God, to lock God into my cultural understandings because culture is fickle. And culture is often wrong. Culture was wrong about slavery. Culture was wrong about women. Culture was wrong about Africans and Indians, and culture was wrong about Christ. I refuse to limit my God, to lock God into little cultural prisons, no matter how comfortable those prisons may feel.” God does not limit you. Don’t limit our God.