John 3:16

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at St Paul’s Church Bantam Connecticut on  March 18, 2012  

John 3:16 is a bumper sticker.  You’ve probably seen it; maybe just the reference: John 3:16, maybe with the text which would be too small to read unless you’re closer than you ought to be to the car ahead of you.

John 3:16 is the second verse in today’s Gospel reading. I have an “Amplified Bible” that enlarges, dilates, expands on, every verse of the Bible and it puts John 3:16 this way:

For God so greatly loved and dearly prized the world that he even gave up his only be-gotten, unique Son so that whoever believes in, trusts in, clings to, relies on Him shall not perish, come to destruction, be lost but have eternal, everlasting life.

Well, OK, but what does it mean?  What difference does it make? What should I do about it?  Faith is a hard thing to pin down.  The people who put those bumper stickers on their car would probably tell you they are evangelical, born again Christians. Well, we are all born again Christians except some of us were born again when we were baptized and some weren’t.  Some people never got a good start or maybe got a good start and then drifted away and so they had to be born again later on or maybe had to be born again again and when that happens it’s often an emotional thing and some churches cater to that and make worship a dramatically emotional thing with a lot of hand waving and hallelujahs and that’s ok – maybe – sometimes.

But the trouble with emotions is that they come and go. You can get very involved emotionally in a movie or book or church service but you can’t live on emotions all day.  You can get very emotional about a new relationship but it won’t be like that for fifty years – – not every day.  You have to do the shopping and pay the bills and put food on the table and those aren’t emotional activities most of the time. You feel good briefly, but it wears off.

The churches that cater to the emotions come and go, they don’t last. The people that center their faith on their emotions very often don’t apply their faith, they leave it in church and don’t take it with them into a world that needs something more than an occasional emotional jolt. You can’t keep up March madness very far into April.  There are churches that pop up like mushrooms, build a big box on the edge of town and fill their parking lots with people provide coffee and donuts and bowling alleys and, yes, the emotional impact of a service with a rock band and power point sermon. But does it build a community? Will it still be there when a new preacher comes?

Emotional religion also tends to be a very individualistic thing.  It’s all about me; me and my feelings. There must be something about the life we live these days that makes us respond to that type of approach. The standard Episcopal Hymnal has 14 hymns that begin with the word “I.” The Renew Hymnal was 17 in half as big a book.  There’s another supplemental hymnal produced by the Episcopal Church with even more first person hymns. And surely they have a place.  We are all emotional beings, we tear up at weddings and funerals, but some of us more than others.

Emotion is also a cultural thing to some degree. The English, you know, are famous for the stiff upper lip and restrained emotions.  I spent a month many years ago in an English parish and I stood with the Rector at the door at the end of the service to greet people as they left. And they would nod slightly and say, “Good Morning, Mr Chamberlain,” and he would nod slightly and say, “Good morning, Mrs, Jones” or “Good morning, Mr Smith” but they never actually touched each other.  In the four weeks I was there I only saw one person actually shake the Rector’s hand and he was an American visitor.

Episcopalians have a good deal of that English restraint. It’s not that we aren’t emotional, we just don’t express it as openly. It’s not that one pattern is good and the other is bad.  Some of us would like a bit more emotion and some a bit less and we need to find patterns that work for all of us as well as we can. We don’t all have the same favorite hymns we don’t all have the same needs for physical contact.  God made us different and our parents made us different and our society makes us different and there’s a place for all the variety or God wouldn’t have made us as we are.

Somehow an old spiritual came to mind as I was thinking about this, one that goes, “Sometimes I fell like a motherless child, a long way from home.” Yes, sometimes – maybe more for some than for others – but probably sometimes for all of us and we need a hug, need an emotional charge to get us through whatever it is.

Our pattern of worship in the Episcopal Church is not emotional in that outward sense, not a lot of opportunity for arm waving and Hallelujahs. We do get to touch each other at the peace nowadays; we didn’t used to. But maybe a less emotional worship is more deeply satisfying, maybe more like meat and potatoes as opposed to a chocolate ice cream Sundae. We all like to indulge ourselves once in a while, but it’s not a healthy daily diet, not what you want for breakfast, not something that can sustain you long term.

So for some people John 3:16 is an emotional charge. For all of us there ought to be an emotional component. But beyond the emotions that come and go we need a faith that’s maybe less spectacular but perhaps more deeply felt as a constant transforming presence.

Nicholas Herman was a young soldier in the French army in the seventeenth century when he looked at a barren tree, one winter day, stripped of leaves and fruit, and realized it awaited the sure hope of a springtime revival and summer abundance. Gazing at the tree, he realized that even though he himself felt spiritually dead, there was hope that God had life waiting for him, and at that moment, he said, “first flashed in upon my soul the fact of God,” and a love for God that never ceased.  He left the army to join a monastic order and take the name Brother Lawrence and be assigned to work in the kitchen since he had no education and there he spent the rest of his life.  He said that never after that did he fail to know God’s presence as much in the work of the kitchen as in the monastery chapel. “I began to live,” he said, “as if there were no one save God and me in the world.”

That’s a great gift: a constant sense of God’s presence. Most of us work at it from time to time but somehow never perhaps get there, never quite satisfied. There’s always a nagging feeling that  there’s still room to grow.  But we’re all different.  For some people, a relationship with God is much more an intellectual thing, it’s a question of getting good answers to questions, understanding the Incarnation and Trinity, the sacraments, how it is that God comes to us, more knowing and less feeling.

I was at Hartford Seminary Library last week and noticed a book on John Hus and the Conciliar Movement of the 14th century and on an impulse picked it up and borrowed it. John Hus was an intellectual whose ideas about faith and reforming the church led to conflict with the pope but he said, “I would rather die than forsake the truth” and he was finally burned at the stake. So those were exciting times but the book is not a page turner. I’m about a hundred pages into it and it’s not exciting reading, I have to admit, but interesting – to me – and something I can turn to in an idle moment, when March madness gets boring, that brings me back again to an awareness of God at work in a 15th century martyr and still today, a reminder that God is still at work and calling people as different as John Hus and Nicholas Herman – and you.

So we can know God’s presence and our relationship with God through emotions and intellect but we can also know God’s presence in action.  For some people, the best way to know God or be with God is to be with others, maybe as intentionally as at a soup kitchen or food pantry or after school tutoring program or volunteer work in a hospital. Remember how Jesus said, “Inasmuch as you have done it for one of the least of these, you have done it for me.”  For some, the deepest relationship with God is a relationship with human beings in need – who need our presence  maybe even more than our help – the knowledge that they are not alone,  that somebody actually cares. And maybe we need them to remind us that Jesus is present  in other people and our relationships. Jesus is there in that activity,  that relationship, as truly as in the church service,  the Bible study, the time of prayer.

There’s a place for all these patterns of faith, these various ways of responding to God’s love. Some churches thrive by holding revival services with lots of shouting and emotion; some thrive by offering study groups and speakers to stimulate thought, and some thrive by getting deeply involved in outreach and mission whether in Torrington or Africa, and some thrive by offering a pattern of worship that offers a weekly liturgy that’s familiar and beautiful and peaceful and challenging, and God is present in all of these – and more.

I want to know God’s presence as a conscious, constant reality giving me security and peace and guidance and renewed strength and sometimes I do. And sometimes I don’t. But I also know that my sense of God’s presence is constantly distracted by the business of life and the inadequacy of my devotion.  For me, a deep sense of God’s presence is a rare thing. But the sleeping child whose mother or father looks in on him or her and tucks the blankets back in place is completely unaware of the parent’s care and it doesn’t matter. God also is there for us whether we know it or feel it or act on it or not.  I need to remind myself of that as often as possible at the very least by daily prayer and weekly worship.  A bit of emotion from time to time can also be helpful, a commitment to some outreach activity is important. But John 3:16 is still true for all of us, each in the way that works best for us.

John 3:16 remains a vital text: God loved the world so much that God came into the world in Jesus Christ to bring us the gift of life, life now, life here, and life forever.

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