Foundry United Methodist Church

Rev. Dean Snyder, Senior Minister

 

 

 

 “God So Loved”

Sunday, March 30, 2008

 

 

John 3: 16-21
Dean

Rev. Dean Snyder

 

These past two weeks our nation has been having a conversation about race. Out of all the words helpful and unhelpful that have been spoken, I am particularly grateful for an interview with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reported in this past Friday’s Washington Times.

 

I encourage you to read the interview with Secretary Rice. I sent her a letter this week thanking her for her honesty and vulnerability.

 

The sermon this morning is not going to be particularly about race, but Secretary Rice said something in her interview that stuck with me.

 

In the interview she talks about race being "a paradox and contradiction in this country," which "we still haven't resolved."

 

She talks about her family and her father especially "enduring terrible humiliations."

 

Then she says this: "What I would like understood as a black American is that black Americans loved and had faith in this country even when this country didn't love and have faith in them — and that's our legacy."[i]

 

The question I want to begin with this morning is: How do you love and have faith in that which does not love and have faith in you?

 

How have African-Americans managed for generations to love and have faith in a country that did not love and have faith in them?

 

How do gay and lesbian Christians love and have faith in a church that does not seem to love and have faith in them?

 

Some of us come from families that have been harsh and critical and rejecting. How do you love and have faith in a family that doesn’t seem to love or have faith in you?

 

How do you love and have faith in a partner who doesn’t seem to love or have faith in you? How do you love and have faith in those who reject and scorn you? How do you manage to love when the world seems to be a harsh, uncaring and unloving place?

 

We are beginning today a series of messages on the theme “No Greater Love.” It is about God’s love and God teaching us to love.  I have turned to the Gospel and Epistles of John for the passages of scripture that we will focus on in this series. The Gospel and Epistles of John talk about love more than anywhere else in the Bible.

 

I want to begin this series with the verse of the Gospel of John that many consider to be the simplest and clearest single statement of the message of Christianity – John 3: 16. In my translation, it says:  “For God so loved the world that God gave the only Son, so that everyone who trusts in him may not be lost but have eternal life.”

 

To love and have faith in that which does not love and have faith in you –  this is one of the clearest definitions I have heard of the kind of love described by the Greek word agape, the word used in the New Testament to describe the love of God. It is a love that is given not because its object deserves to be loved but because the lover decides to love the beloved anyway.

 

There are two things I want to say about agape based on John 3: 16 this morning.

 

Agape love is a choice. It is not a feeling. It is not based on the potential object of love being lovable. It is a decision, and it has more to do with who the lover is than who the beloved is. God decides to love. It is a choice of relationship rather than isolation.

 

The plot of the Bible is that humanity consistently chooses violence over peace, hate over love and self over community. God tries to deal with this problem by beginning over again with Noah but the same problems reemerge. God tries to deal with it by setting some basic principles of behavior through Moses – commandments – but the problems persist. God sends prophets to scold and to correct and to call humanity to loving, peaceful, just ways of living with one another. All this fails.

 

Rather than give up on humanity, God decides to love humanity all the more. Rather than choosing distance, God chooses intimacy. God chooses to love and have faith in those who do not love or have faith in God. It has everything to do with who God is and who God decides in Jesus Christ to be.

 

The community founded by John had a special charisma of love. The Gospel and Epistles of John make up 10 percent of the New Testament but contain 33 percent of all references to love. While the love of God may be implied in the other three Gospels of the New Testament, never do Matthew, Mark or Luke come right out and say in so many words that God loves us. It is what the writing of John’s community talk about again and again.

 

The story of John’s community is this. It was a community of Jewish followers of Christ who lived in or near Palestine who managed to stay in the synagogue and in fellowship with the larger Jewish community until 85 CE, 55 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection.

 

The Christians at Antioch had already begun to separate from Judaism 30 years earlier, and much of the rest of Christianity would have left the synagogue before this, but John’s community held on tenuously, believing that they could be faithful members of their synagogue and followers of Christ at the same time. In fact, they assumed this is the way it ought to be.  There may even have been some disagreement between John’s community and the rest of the Christian movement about this. John’s community may have stood over against much of the rest of the Christian movement to keep the church in the synagogue.

 

In 85 CE the Shemoneh Esreh, the Eighteen Benedictions, of Judaism were amended to curse the minim or heretics, which included the followers of Christ within Judaism.

 

The Jewish followers of Christ in John’s community, who may have already been separated from the rest of the Christian movement because of their determination to stay faithful to Judaism, are now suddenly expelled from the synagogue. Already distant from other Christians, they now lost the synagogue, their community, and their extended family relationships. And if their job was in the family business, they lost their livelihood as well.

 

It was in this state of abandonment by everybody that the people of John’s community came to focus on and concentrate on the love of God and how God teaches us to love.

 

It is at the point of separation and alienation that we make a decision whether to choose isolation or relationship. Agape isn’t about loving the people we love. It is about who we decide to be in relationship with the people who don’t seem to love or have faith in us.

 

It is the question we face at the moments in America when we manage to look at our history of racial oppression and alienation. Do we choose isolation or relationship?

 

It is the question we face every time the United Methodist Church meets. There is apparently a resolution someone is proposing to make at the very beginning of the year’s General Conference saying that General Conference will just not talk about homosexuality this year. What an effective way to isolate gay and lesbian people that would be…to remove them from the agenda; to act as if they did not exist.

 

Agape is a choice, and it has more to do with who we are than with those we decide to love and to be in relationship with.  

 

Have you ever been an object of hate? I mean, have you had the experience of somebody hating you? It is a shattering experience. And it is a defining experience. When we are hated, we have a choice. We can choose to hate back or we can choose agape. The choice has nothing to do with those who hate us and everything to do with who we decide to be.

 

This is why Christians say that we know the very heart of God in Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is who God decides to be in the face of humanity’s rejection.

 

The second thing I want to say about agape is that agape sees the essential being and the potential being of the beloved that he or she may not see within themselves or even desire or aspire to.

 

I think the African-Americans Secretary Rice was talking about saw a potential within America that America as a whole did not see in itself.

 

In God’s love for the world, God sees a potential within the world for eternal life that the world does not see in itself.

 

Others who love us see in us that which we can not see in ourselves. God sees potential within us that we do not see in ourselves.

 

A friend shared with me a reading from the theologian Paul Tillich this week. It is about being neurotic. (Not quite sure why he shared it with me.)

 

It is a bit complex but I think we can get the essentials:

 

“Neurosis is the way of avoiding nonbeing by avoiding being [a way of avoiding life by avoiding death]. In the neurotic state self-affirmation is not lacking; it can indeed be very strong and emphasized. But the self which is affirmed is a reduced one. . . The neurotic person affirms something which is less than [her] or his essential or potential being. He or she surrenders a part of her or his potentialities in order to save what is left.”[ii]

 

Tillich says the neurotic “affirms something which is less than [her or] his essential or potential being.” We avoid the full potential of life – what John calls eternal life – in order to make the anticipation of death less painful.

 

God’s love sees something in us we refuse to see in ourselves…some potential, some gift, some glory. We hide from ourselves the essential and potential self God sees, and we live half-lives and it is an illness within our psyche…this is what Tillich is saying.

 

Some of us live half lives – maybe all of us. Some of us learn to affirm ourselves but we affirm a reduced self.

 

It is what we are tempted to do as Americans. We affirm America, but we affirm a reduced America. I was interviewed this week on a talk show on an African-American radio station in Atlanta. We were talking about the role of preaching and I was saying that one of the roles of preaching is to try to see ourselves, our people, our nation, as though we were seeing ourselves through the eyes of God who is no respecter of persons and sees both the good and the bad.

 

The talk show host’s next question threw me for a loop. “But” he said, “American is still the best nation to live in on the face of the earth right?”

 

Well, it is for me, but I’ve met other people who have loved their nations too. I love and have faith in America but the America I love and have faith in is the essential and potential America, an America that lives out its deepest principles and beliefs. When we are afraid of criticism from without or within, and insist on affirming an America that is less than America’s essential or potential being, we are acting out a national neurosis.

 

Our families are not all they could be or are meant to, our church is surely not all it could be or is meant to be. Our nation is surely not all it could be yet. It is at this very point of awareness that we decide whether nor not to love. Love is a decision.

 

Love is a decision, and it is one we can make because we are not all we could be or are meant to be, but we are still loved.

 

 

 

 

 

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[i] http://www.washingtontimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20080328/FOREIGN/746301768/1001

[ii] Paul Tillich The Courage to Be (Yale University Press), 66.