Sermon Archives

Sunday, March 11, 2018
The 4th Sunday in Lent (Year B)
The Reverend Andrew Van Culin, Rector
That He Gave - Three Critical Words

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

We speak of “love” rather frequently in the Christian community.  “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  “Love one another as I have loved you.”  “Faith, hope, and love, these three, and the greatest of them is love.”  Few passages within the Gospels, however, have found their way into the modern America mind as a verse from today’s Gospel text:  “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.”  Even if the text is unfamiliar, the citation likely is not:  John 3:16.  If you’ve ever watched on TV an extra point being kicked or a free thrown being taken, then you’ve likely seen a poster board waved overhead that simply reads “3:16” – a simply reminder of the importance not only of this verse, but of the love that stands behind it; God’s love for the world.

Unfortunately, that’s often where we stop the conversation.  While we speak readily of God’s love or our call to love in response, we seldom do much more than that.  Even when we do, we dare to move beyond the fact of God’s love, we most likely to focus on the object of God’s love – you, me, our neighbor, the stranger, the world.  

“For God so loved the world.”

What a wonderful message.  What a comfortable message. 

But it’s the next three words, however, that may be the most important – “that he gave.”

These three simple words, hidden in plain sight at the center of this seminal verse, are among the most difficult and challenging of our faith.  If we find fact of loving our neighbor, or the stranger, or even more our enemy and the world difficult in comprehend, these words which speak to the means of love as God loves are infinitely more difficult to grasp and to live.

With these three words John moves us beyond the fact of God’s love for the world to the means of God’s love for you, for me, for our neighbor, for our enemy, and for the world. 

And it is here, reflecting on the means of God’s love that we ought to spend the bulk of our time.  So, while there may be little question among Christians today of the fact of God’s love for the world – there does remain real disagreement as to how God loves, which of course is the model of how we ourselves are to love. 

If we are to take up the mantle of Jesus’ love in the world, if we as baptized women and men are to take to heart our call to love one another and the world as Jesus loved us, then we must look with attention to the means of God’s love for the world.

And these three words, “that he gave,” point us in the right direction.  The first of these three words, “that,” reminds us that “Love,” even God’s love, is a catalyst for action.  For God so loved the world that.  Love without action is nothing more than a hallowed out emotion, of little to no practical use, a futility of the human or divine heart. 

Love is meant to provoke, to stimulate, action toward its object, be it art or mammon or self or neighbor.  From the beginning of time, the fact of God’s love has compelled God to act, for creation, yes, but also for fulfillment and redemption. 

With one word John reminds us that love is more than the drawing of our heart to something, but a concrete action to the object of our love. 

But John does not stop there.  He continues to lay out before us the heart of God’s loving action: gift.

“For God so loved the world that he gave.”

Regardless of what the world around us might say about what the act of love ought to be, John reminds us that the action of God’s love is gift, he gave.

This, of course, is what we see over and over and over again in the life of Jesus.  Jesus, the embodiment of God’s love in the world, gives himself in remarkable ways as an expression of God’s love for the world.

What does this love look like in action?  For starters, Jesus gives the gift of his presence.  When an ailing woman reaches out her hand to touch him, he stops all that he’s doing to be with her.  When a grief stricken father seeks him out, Jesus walks with him the long journey to his home.  When man so broken that society can only chain him up among the dead, Jesus stops and gives himself to him.  When his disciples are so afraid that they have locked themselves in that upper room, Jesus comes to be with them. 

For God so love that world that he came to the world.

Presence, of course, is not all that he gives.  He gives hope as well.  When the world that has grown dark and cold, Jesus bears a light.  To a tax collector who for love of self would cheat his neighbor out of all he possessed, Jesus comes with a new vision for who he can be.  To a woman caught in adultery, Jesus simply says, “go and sin no more,” confident that a new life can emerge.  To a distraught disciple who had thrice denied him, Jesus invites him to remember his love, reminding him of the hope Jesus himself has for him as the shepherd to his community.

For God so love that world that he proclaimed hope to the world.

Presence and hope, however, are only a foretaste of the greatest gifts of God.  Presence and hope are natural gifts for the object of our love.  Jesus’ love, however, continues.  From his first encounter with the paralytic man born to him on a matt, Jesus offers another gift of love:  forgiveness.  But it is one thing to forgive the sins of one who has done nothing to you, it is another thing altogether to forgive the hurts inflicted upon you directly. 

And so Jesus walks a path of brutality and mercy.  He who possess the capacity for violent, destructive anger – look no further than last week’s lesson which recalled Jesus’ making a whip of cords and violently over turning the tables of the money changers, or to his capricious cursing of a fig tree out of season, to know the capacity of Jesus, that is the capacity of God for destructive anger – we must make no mistake about it, Jesus possess the capacity for anger, violent, destructive anger at that, but he chooses otherwise.  As brutality and insult are inflicted upon him, Jesus chooses instead to give forgiveness. 

For God so loved the world that he forgave the world.

Yet behind each of these gifts lies a greater gift, the gift of himself.  So great is his love for the world, that God chooses to suffer for his love.  Over and over again, Jesus reminds his disciples that the suffering he will endure is not merely something imposed upon him, but a choice that he will make on account of the love he bears for them and for the world.  When he chooses to feed Judas and Peter and Thomas and all of his disciples who flee and deny and betray him, Jesus chooses the path of self-giving love for them.  When Jesus greets Judas with a kiss and heals the wounded ear of a centurion sent to arrest him, he chooses the path of self-giving love for them.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.”

Friends, when we consider love, Christian love, we must remember not only the fact of God’s love, nor simply its object; the means of love matter as well.

If we are love one another and the world as Jesus first loved us, then we too are called to love through presence, through hope, through mercy and forgiveness.  If we are to love one another and the world as Jesus first loved us, than we, too, must be willing to pour ourselves out for one another, for our neighbor, for an enemy even.

Friends, these are the means of Jesus’ love for the world.  They are meant to be ours as well.