John 3:16-17, Psalm 105:1, Isaiah 12:4
A couple of years ago Abigail and I were driving and a song from the Gospel of Keith Urban came on the radio. I don’t always listen to country music but I do when I’m in the car, I do. Maybe you’re familiar with the song—John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16. It is one of those many, many nostalgic American country songs that are being released lately. The kind that talks about how good things used to be—white picket fences, a mom who stayed home and baked apple pie, everyone going to church on Sundays kind of song—you know what I’m talking about. Anyway, the chorus goes like this:
I'm a child of a backseat freedom, baptized by rock and rollSo, there we were, driving along together, singing at the top our lungs and it occurred to me that I didn’t know the reference John 3:16. John Cougar—yes, if you’re my age, you grew up hearing from John Cougar Mellencamp. Jack and Diane, Small Town, Pink Houses… Now that I think about it—his songs too were quite wistful about an America that seemed to be long in the past. So, John Cougar and then John Deere—even a city girl like me knows this titan of farm equipment. But John 3:16—the clergy person was stumped. So, I said out loud, ‘I wonder what that scripture reading is—I should look it up.” Abigail, at eleven years old, answers from the backseat, ‘You mean John 3:16? It’s the one that goes, God so loved the world that he gave his only son.’
Marilyn Monroe and the Garden of Eden, never grow up, never grow old
Just another rebel in the great wide open, on the boulevard of broken dreams
And I learned everything I needed to know from John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16
And in that moment, I felt two things. A little embarrassed that she could pull that out of her back pocket at eleven, and I, a trained minister, could not. But I was also impressed that church has obviously rubbed off on this daughter of mine. However, I couldn’t remember that the Sunday School studying this scripture passage, so I asked, ‘You just know that? How do you just know that?’ And she replied, ‘I learned it when we were at the bar and watched the Mayweather fight.’ Which, I have to admit, was the answer I least expected . It turns out that a few months earlier, we were at a nomination party for our local MP—we are good friends with the family and we were anxiously waiting to hear if he had been nominated. I just want to be clear—we were not at a bar that night, we were at a restaurant. The TV near the party was showing the Mayweather fight. The kids were all watching it. That there is some good parenting but I’m thinking that’s just what happens with kid number four. Anyway, I guess Mayweather had the words John 3:16 on the waistband of his shorts…and Abby and the MP’s daughter looked it up.
Signs with the scripture passage of John 3:16 have long been held up at various sporting events. A wingnut named Rollen Stewart—and I know I sound a bit judgmental here but let me tell you this guy is currently serving three life sentences in California because in 1992 he kidnapped a hotel maid and demanded that he have a press conference to warn people about the imminent rapture that was going to happen in six days—anyway this guy began appearing at different sporting events in the Seventies wearing a big rainbow-coloured wig. He even showed up at Prince Charles and Diana’s wedding. Anyway, watching sports games on the television was growing in popularity in the Seventies and Stewart had figured out how to position himself so that he would be on camera when a goal or a touchdown happened. He would show up with a sign with just the words John 3:16 written on it and try to make sure he was caught on camera. So he did this all through the Seventies and Eighties and began a tradition of spectators holding up these kind of signs. The tradition began to wane in the Nineties but there has been a resurgence of people bringing signs to games since football player, quarterback Tim Tebow, wrote John 3:16 on his black eye-patches in college in 2008/9. College football has since created a policy stating that nothing can be written on those patches but signs still appear in the stands.
For many Christians, John’s words, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life” sums up the entirety of what they believe was Jesus’ ministry and God’s purpose in his life. God loves us, God gave up Jesus so that we might be saved and eternal life awaits all who believe in Jesus. Those who take literally the demand of Jesus to make disciples of all nations, will take this scripture with them when they go. When people come knocking on our doors asking if we know Jesus, it is John that they offer to you. When parents send their children to the mall to hand out tracts, it is John they are carrying with them. And, for them, this is the spreading of the Good News. They are evangelizing. They are sharing the Good News of what God did. Past tense. God gave his son. End of story. For many Christians, the Good News begins and ends only with themselves. THEY are saved. THEY will have eternal life. But, as per usual with the Bible, Jesus and with God, this scripture is bigger than just one person.
Let us take a moment or two to look these main sections. I’ll start with the giving up of Jesus. Many are taught that this piece of scripture means that Jesus has atoned for any and all sins of each of one us. As if by dying on the cross, our sins could be wiped away. If only we believed in him. And through him, believed in the one and only God. It would be easy to hear this passage of John’s and think that the giving of Jesus was if he was a gift from God. Handed over through the virgin birth and sacrificed upon the cross. As if a loving and compassionate God would do such a thing.
But remember that Jesus was the Word made flesh. God gave Jesus to the world so that God could experience life within Creation. All of life. From birth to death. So that God could experience the joys and sorrows of being human. So that God could become part of the world, to be vulnerable to it and could partake of what the world and humanity had to offer. The giving of Jesus was not a transaction between God and humanity. It wasn’t a tit for tat. The story did not end with the giving but rather it continues unceasingly. The giving of Jesus is like the writing of a love poem that carries on still, to this day. Just as the love we have for our own beloveds, for our dearest friends, for our children, for our grandchildren, the love God made manifest through Jesus continues onward, forever into our now and into the future. For it is through the stories, miracles and actions of this man Jesus that humanity has witnessed the very grace, mercy, compassion and love of God still offers to the world. And it is through the life of this man Jesus that we know God understands the trials and the celebrations of what it means to be human.
Now onto God loving us and our belief in Jesus. What can be easily overlooked is that John says that God so loved the world that his gave his son. God came for all of Creation, not for one person over another, not for one community of people over another. God did not come for a few, God came for all. All that has been asked in return is to be believe. Not that long ago to believe was to belove. In our near history, our rational, scientific influences want belief to be connected to a truth that can be proven. Unless you’re Donald Trump of course, but I’m taking a self-imposed hiatus from talking about him. Before conservative literalism grew in the mid-19th Century, to believe in something meant to belove something—to yearn for that something, to pay attention specially to that something, to commit to that something, to be loyal to that something, to value that something above all else. God wants us to believe, to belove. What should we belove? If I say we are to believe in God, to belove God, what would that mean? Jesus taught us. To belove God is to yearn for peace, to pay attention to injustice, to commit to loving others as ourselves, to be loyal to God’s Creation, to value above all else compassion.
Once we belove, once we believe, we find ourselves being transformed by these things. We find trust where before there was skepticism, find connection with those who might only be passing through our day, we find the Divine in those it would be east to dismiss as less-than, not worthy , we seek justice for all people, not just those closest to us. People matter. Creation matters. When we believe, when we belove, our problems don’t disappear, the issues each of us struggle with, the hurt and pain of life, of living and of death, do not simply vanish. Being of faith doesn’t mean you are protected from brokenness. But when you open your heart, when you welcome in others, when you are willing to be vulnerable just as God was through Jesus, when you fully partake in the life that has been given you, you will see how God’s goodness moves in and through us. Amongst us the Holy Spirit moves, reminding us that love always overcomes hate, that choosing to be kind trumps choosing ridicule and scorn, that compassion always, always has a place in relationships, be they long and deep connections or fleeting.
When we feel these moments of the Holy Spirit moving, when God enters in and touches our heart, when the meaning of the words Jesus speaks suddenly rises before us, guiding us, urging us to move, to use our power for good, how can we help but want to share the good news? How can we help but want to run down the road to our friends to tell like Mary did when she discovered the truth of the tomb—not only was it empty but Jesus was right there, he had never left. How can we not tell others like we would tell them about other awesome things in our lives? Like you would when your kid receives an acceptance letter from a university? Like when you find a restaurant that has the best French Onion soup ever? Or how about when you discover a TV show on Netflix that deserves every award ever made. We have no problem exclaiming these things, do we? I don’t. I’ve been telling everyone lately—and here I am doing it again—if you haven’t seen This is Us on TV yet, you need to get yourself sorted and watch the first season. Don’t watch it alone—or at least set yourself up a discussion group because this show has so much going on, lots of feelings, lots of crying, lots of amazing acting, lots of love between a complicated family that experiences hurt and pain in very real ways, you will need to talk about it. It really is an awesome show. I can talk about this show with anyone, a friend, a person I don’t know in line at Tim’s, my doctor, but I’m pretty sure I would never follow up my synopsis with the show with a story of how God has recently pushed me, pulled me, cajoled me to be better. To do better. To be the hands and feet of Christ. I wouldn’t do that. I might be afraid that the message would be heard as me trying to convert them. Trying to convince them that their way of life is wrong, while I am on the true path. That I am saved and they are not. We bear the weight of those who have gone door to door, who hand you tracts at the shopping mall.
So, what does evangelism mean to us, in this United Church of ours? We are not a converting church. We do not require doctrine or dogma to be declared as truth before we help. In Zambia I was asked if the United Church of Zambia was not prepared to agree that LGBTQ people have rights and freedoms in their country, would we hold back funding and assistance? No, absolutely not, I replied. Because we are not a converting church. However, we didn’t back down from sharing our understanding that God’s love is for all people. That God has made all people in God’s image—white, black, brown, male, female, trans, gay, straight, bi, short, tall, narrow or wide. God’s grace and compassion is never-ending for all who walk the face of this earth. We spoke our truth for the whole of our trip and once in awhile found ourselves in a bit of debate over what God’s thoughts really were. It was never a comfortable discussion and we never told the other they were on the wrong side of loving one’s neighbour as ourselves, but we also didn’t shy away when asked about our beliefs. This is how we evangelize. We talk about what love and connection we experience here together, in this community of faith of ours. We share what good this congregation is doing for the wider community. We talk about how we care about the homeless. The forgotten. The hungry. And we go serve those who live at the margins. We show how God has moved in our lives through our loving and caring actions. We talk about the need to remain open, we act justly even when the law doesn’t require us to, we speak against racist, bigoted, misogynistic comments and behaviour. We speak of God’s grace as we speak our truth, we show God’s compassion in how we treat others—those we hardly know, our friends and even our enemies and we declare God’s love when through our own willingness to be vulnerable and open, we allow others to be open and vulnerable with us. We do not convert. We do, we show and we speak. And then we let go. We let go and let God. For God is good. All the time.