4 Lent B 2015
March 15, 2015
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
[quote’] “Those who believe in the Son are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” [unquote]
So reads one of the most troubling verses in all of Scripture. I say that from personal experience---from the angst I felt when I heard this verse preached in the evangelical Episcopal Church I belonged to in my late 30’s. I struggled when I thought about all those people I loved / who didn’t believe that Jesus was the Son of God, and didn’t care, either.
I suspect that many of us here today may have similar feelings about this verse. It sounds so harsh, doesn’t it? It doesn’t sound like the God of Love whom we preach from this pulpit. It sounds very black-and-white, very strident, very much like something a Bible-thumping fundamentalist might use / to judge and to condemn.
What about Aunt Millie, who left the church and abandoned God when her newborn baby died? What about that professor from college who used to crow about how silly it was to believe in God? What about our own kids, some of whom have left the church and have left belief in Jesus?
What do we do with our anxieties over the issue of the eternal destination of those we love / who don’t believe?
What do we do with this very troubling piece of Scripture?
Let’s take 2 approaches. First, let’s look at the verse in context: where it sits in this gospel. Then, we’ll take a look at how the rest of Scripture may speak to it, because Scripture interprets itself.
OK here we go. This verse, verse 18, comes shortly after that very famous verse, John 3:16. This is the one you see held up in the end zone seating of football games. “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.” God so loved the world. God so loves the world. The implication here is that God sees our world as worth saving—worth going after. Therefore God sees us that way, too, for we’re of the world. God sees us as precious children, quite worth a lot of bother and expense. That’s important to keep in mind.
The verse ends by reminding us that those who believe in Jesus have eternal life.
The next verse repeats the thought, “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.”
So far, so good.
But now here comes trouble, in the next verse. “Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” But look closer. “Those who do not believe are condemned already.” Condemned by whom? Does it say?
Is it not possible that people condemn themselves to a lesser life without God, by way of their refusal to believe?
Could it be somewhat analogous to an alcoholic who’s actively drinking? If she doesn’t stop drinking, she condemns herself to a life of living hell. She has no hope / unless she turns and seeks help, and stops drinking. She condemns herself.
Maybe each of us is like the alcoholic who’s stuck in a life of drinking and isn’t ready to change. Maybe each of us is an addict of sorts—addicted to poor behaviors, to bad choices, to SIN. As the gospel goes on to say, people love darkness often a lot more than we love light.
So, maybe God isn’t the one who condemns. Maybe we condemn ourselves by our behaviors and our choices, and our refusal to enter fully into our faith.
And there’s one more thing to notice. The text never says that the condemnation we choose is final. There is room to turn, there is room to come to one’s senses. There is still time to come to faith.
* * *
So now let’s take a look at the second way we might approach this difficult verse. Let’s weigh it against other Scripture. Let’s let other Bible teachings help us interpret this hard passage.
Lo, and behold! The lectionary makers have really given us a big gift here today. Our second reading, the one from Paul’s letter to the Christians in Ephesus, gives us a way to look further at John 3:18.
It helps us remember that even though 3:18 sounds so condemnatory, still, we must remember the essential character of God. Our reading from Ephesians reminds us that God is love, / and mercy, / and grace.
We read at the end of the selection that “by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” This little sentence is full of important good news. We’ve been saved by God’s grace, and through faith. Now, it’s not clear from the Greek whether or not it’s our faith that saves us OR if it’s the faith of Jesus that saves us / as a free gift. That implies that we may not fully be in control of our believing.
Is it that we believe because we’ve been given the grace to believe? The reformation theologians had a word for that kind of help from God. They called it prevenient grace—meaning it comes before anything we decide on our own. John Newton, the slave trader turned ardent Christian, called it “Amazing Grace.”
* * *
So what about Aunt Millie, and my old professor friend, and our adult children who can be such skeptics? What about them?
Well, we’re called to share our joy and our sense of peace with them. We’re called to preach the gospel at all times, only using words when absolutely necessary. We’re called to trust that God isn’t finished with them yet. God’s amazing grace may have yet to knock them upside the head.
And we’re also called to trust that God isn’t finished with us yet, either.
And isn’t that good news?