“God So Loved The World”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
March 8, 2020: Lent 2
Shortly after George Washington was elected as the first president of the United States, many churches, congregations, and religious societies wrote to him, offering their prayers and congratulations. Washington, unbelievably, replied to each and every one with a personalized message of thanks. Scholars believe that Washington received nearly 1,000 of these letters in total and they point to two reasons why. First, they believe that he received so much mail because Americans were genuinely happy to welcome Washington as their President. Second, they believe these letters were a subtle way for the churches, congregations, and religious societies in America to remind the new President that things were going to be different this time. Each letter was a way to remind Washington that religion was going to be handled differently in the United States since many of these congregations and societies had uprooted and fled persecution and government control. On one hand, hearty congratulations and fervent prayers; on the other hand, a stern yet gentle reminder that freedom of religion was one of the cornerstones of the new republic. Washington is remembered for having a tremendously strong and positive relationship with religious groups in America.
In 1790, President Washington visited Rhode Island to celebrate that the state had ratified the Constitution and to promote passage of the Bill of Rights. As was the custom, when Washington visited Newport, he was met by a delegation of the state’s most prominent citizens. One of those citizens was Moses Seixas, the warden of the Touro Synagogue in Newport. In his welcome, Moses gave thanks to, “the Ancient of Days, the great preserver of men,” that the Jews, previously, “deprived…of the invaluable rights of free citizens,” on account of their religion, now lived under a government, “which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” Strong words, indeed. In a letter of thanks to Moses a few weeks later, Washington used some of Moses’ words to describe the religious liberty found in the new republic. You’ll find part of the letter in your bulletin today where Washington writes, “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it is were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”
I did some deeper reading this week to understand the message at the heart of this complicated sentence, and it comes down to this: Washington’s belief was that as long as a citizen of the United States lives within the boundaries of the Constitution, and promotes the well-being of the nation and all citizens, religious affiliation is of no matter to the government. Religious liberty, for washing and the founding Fathers, is a natural right given to us by God and not a gift from the government. Europe tried religious tolerance and it failed. In the new world, it was about expansive liberty in which all citizens are equally free to exercise their natural right of religious belief.
So that’s your civics lesson for today, thanks in large part to the amazing online resources of the Library of Congress. Now, lets have a Bible lesson.
The same expansive vision of liberty is at the heart of the dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus that we’ve just heard. The conversation starts out simple enough with Nicodemus trying to figure out how Jesus is able to do the things he is able to do. How can you heal the sick and open the eyes of the blind and turn water into wine? But Jesus doesn’t open up much about where his power comes from. Instead, Jesus points Nicodemus to the personal nature of the movement he has come to start. “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” That’s a fancy way of saying that if you want to experience the fullness of God, if you want to experience God at all, something must change inside. Nicodemus, instead of asking how that change can occur, goes on to argue with Jesus about language. Nicodemus asks “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” “No, no,” Jesus says, “you’re missing the point I’m trying to make. Through water and the Spirit you are changed and this change is as easy to understand as the wind. Just believe me and allow the change to happen.” Still, Nicodemus does not get it.
At this point, I like to imagine that Jesus sighed a big sigh and began rubbing the bridge of his nose. “Let’s try this again,” Jesus says. “You think this is about actually being born all over again. Well, that’s not going to happen. Just like no one can ascend and descend from heaven except the Son of man. Here is what I’m trying to say: For God so loved the world that he his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. 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. That’s what this is all about. God’s love for the world is huge and that love will change every person who embraces it and is embraced by it.” It was probably just before dawn and I bet Nicodemus was thinking, “Man, I wish he had just started with that.”
Jesus uses the word cosmos when he speaks to Nicodemus about the world God loves so much. Cosmos can be mean ‘world’ or ‘universe’ and we learn more about this world as we read further on in John’s gospel. Jesus talks a lot about the world in John’s gospel, but each time Jesus talks about the world, he is talking about how the world, the cosmos, is always in opposition to the ways of God. The world as Jesus knew it, the world as we know it, is hostile to the ways of God. The world is hostile to love. The world is hostile to hospitality. The world is hostile to forgiveness and reconciliation. A different translation of John 3:16 might sound like this: “For God so loved the God-hating world that he gave is only Son.” And John 3:17 might sound like this: “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn even this world that despises God but instead so that the world that rejects God might still be saved through him.” God’s love is just that audacious and unexpected. And what Jesus is telling to Nicodemus under the cover of darkness is that the world, the cosmos, and all that are in it, are free to either accept that audacious and unexpected love and be changed by it or reject that love and go another way. Either way, God’s love never changes.
This was a radical message for Nicodemus to hear, just as radical as the constitutional principle that religious liberty is a natural right and not a gift from the government. The religion of which Nicodemus was a leader, similar to the religious temperature of Europe in the 18th century, was that you change, you convert, you do what we say or you die. The Pharisees, which is what Nicodemus was, barge into Jesus’ story later on as the ones who inspire the crowd and Pilate to execute Jesus because he will not be silent or change his ways. Theirs was a religion of conquest. They were so sure of what they believed, so certain that they had the one and only hold on the truth, that they were willing to murder the innocent in order to achieve a pure religious landscape. But, as we learn from Jesus, the religion that they were practicing was nothing related to God, nothing even close to the type of faith, devotion, and love that the God of heaven and earth demands from his people. God’s love, so big and wide and high and deep, changes the heart of those who accept it and is available even to those who have not yet come to know its power.
I think we need to hear this as good news today and I think we need to hear it as a call to examine the way we practice our faith. The God that we worship and serve loves us to the point that he was willing to sacrifice his only son on our behalf. That is a love that we will never fully understand, no matter how harder we might try. It is a love that transforms us from head to toe and can fill us with such joy that not even the powers of hell can take it away. That’s the good news. The call to examination is to remember each and every day that God’s love is a choice that we make, a matter of the heart, and that our call as Christians is not to bash others with the love of God, but to share it, to pass it along, to show it to the world, even if the world rejects it. The height, depth, and breadth of God’s love is not changed by the number of people who do or not accept it; the power of God’s love within each of us is also not changed by the number of people who accept it or don’t. Our first and primary task as God’s people is to embrace and display the love of God, allowing God to change the hearts and minds of those around us.
It is a picture of a much gentler and compassionate Christianity that Jesus paints for us today in the gospel. It is not about evangelism or conquest or inquisitions or crusades; it is not about getting people saved or altar calls or wining souls for Jesus. To be certain, Jesus calls us to share our faith with others. But changing people? That’s God’s work and, frankly, God doesn’t need our help. Instead, God wants us to live in an expansive sort of love that embraces the world, hostile as it may at times to God, in the same way that God embraces the world. This means living in peace with people of different faiths. This means living in peace with people who claim no faith at all. This means working for peace with those whose faith traditions differ from our own. This means understanding the ways in which our own faith hurts, oppresses, demeans, or denies others, and making the necessary reforms to bring it back into alignment with God. This means living, as Washington wrote to Moses Sexias, in such a way that bigotry has no sanction and persecution is given no assistance. For God so loved the world and we should, too.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, God loves us…and God loves the whole world. In this we find our calling to extend that love to everyone we encounter. There is no better way to get people to come on over to our side than to show them just how much love we have from God. May God bless us as we continue to live in and show God’s expansive love to a world so desperately in need of love. And, as George Washington concludes his letter to Moses Seixas, may the father of all mercies scatter light, and not darkness, upon our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy. Amen.