June 28, 2015 Fourth Sunday After Trinity
St. John 3:16-21
Some of you will remember Rockin’ Rollen. The name his mama and daddy gave him was Rollen Stewart. For the rest of you – those who are not keen students of pop culture – in the 1970s and ‘80s he turned up endlessly at major sports events in full bloom.
A skinny white dude, he wore a rainbow afro wig. And he carried a sign reading simply, and writ large, “John 3:16.”
He dropped out of sight precipitously and I – one among many, I imagine – never stopped to wonder what happened to him. I looked him up the other day and discovered he had discarded his constitutional right to play the fool in public and landed in prison.
In 1992 he declared the Rapture would occur six days hence. It didn’t. Rockin’ Rollen papered the windows of a hotel room with John 3:16 signs and threatened to shoot at planes landing at nearby Los Angeles International Airport.
He escorted two men he was attempting to kidnap into a vacant hotel room, startling a maid who wisely locked herself in the bathroom. He is currently serving three life sentences for kidnapping.
At the risk of making sport of a clearly disturbed individual, I’d like to suggest that if he should ever be released on parole he be re-arrested immediately . . . on charges of as egregious a case of proof-testing as this world has ever seen. Let’s read John 3:16 in context: (John 3:16-21)
Here begins the love motif in the Fourth Gospel. We have seen that God the Son has come so that all who believe in Him might have eternal life (v 15). Verse 16 restates the one that precedes it but adds information.
Bear with me for a moment as I mention that a prominent scholar has written a brilliant commentary on the Fourth Gospel and he has included a note to preachers. He counsels us on how to avoid making the Johanine message of eternal life through faith in Christ boring.
The problem, he tells us, is that St. John has written such a tightly constructed gospel that he never ventures far from his theme: Believe and be saved. The preacher may find it difficult to present that message, week after week, in fresh and exciting ways.
I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Can eternal life be boring? Can everlasting glory be . . . tedious? Steel yourselves, brethren! You’re in for another dose.
The force behind the mission of the Son is the love of the Father. So deep and vast is the Father’s love for the world that He would sacrifice His one and only Son for the salvation of all who will live by faith.
You’ve all heard that the word for “love” -- meaning “loyal love” or “sacrificial love” -- in the original New Testament is agape. The verb form is agapao. The love theme surfaces in this chapter – v 35 reads “The Father loves the Son, and has given all things into His hand” – and comes to a boil in chapters 13-17, where those words – agape and agapao -- turn up repeatedly.
The Father loves the Son, we hear over and over (10:17, 15;9-10, 17:23-24, 26); the Son loves the Father (14:31); Jesus loves His true disciples (11:5; 13:1, 33, 34; 14:21; 15:9-10, 12; 21:7, 20) and they are to love Him (14:15, 21, 23f, 28; 21:15-26); they are also to love one another (13:35-35; 15:12-13, 17; 17:26).”
At times John mentions the Father’s love for the disciples (14:21-23; 17:23). More often, the Son expresses the Father’s love for true believers. The world, in which Satan is active . . . the world, which is in a state of rebellion . . . has no capacity for loving God in return.
I have no trouble at all conceiving a God who flies into a rage and declares of His ungrateful creatures, “I’ll scourge them mercilessly until they repent and return to Me.” But such is not the way of our God.
How, then, is His love for His fallen creatures and creation possible? Not because they are lovely but because, as John informs us in his first epistle, “God is love” (4:16). Here is the tension, a loving Creator and an unlovable creation.
Here is the expansion of God’s love, from an unrepentant and defiant Israel to an unrepentant and defiant world. Also in his first epistle, the apostle declares the world so fallen that Christ’s followers must not love it or anything it enfolds (2:15-17).
And here is the resolution of the tension: God’s love is so magnificent that He would send His only Son to die to redeem the world . . . to make it lovable . . . to make us lovable. Sin cannot put away sin, evil cannot overcome evil; only love can prevail in a fallen creation and this is the sacrificial love of God, grander and more powerful than all of the hatred and wickedness of men.
Beloved in the Lord, we have had the privilege of beholding in recent days an almost unimaginable outpouring of agape in the human realm. In the days immediately following the Charleston church massacre one relative after another stepped up and forgave the shooter who had, without pity or remorse, extinguished the life in their loved ones.
The Rev. Anthony Thompson serves as vicar of one of our Reformed Episcopal churches in the Diocese of the Southeast. His wife, Myra, was teaching the Bible study at the African Methodist Episcopal Church that night. She was one of the nine who died.
The next day, her husband said to the killer, “I forgive you; my family forgives you. We would like you to take this opportunity to repent. Do that and you’ll be better off than you are right now.”
Alana Simmons lost her grandfather, the Rev. Daniel Simmons. “Although my grandfather and the other victims died at the hands of hate,” she said, “this is proof – everyone’s plea for your soul is proof – they lived in love and their legacies will live in love, so hate won’t win.”
If forgiveness on this scale seems superhuman, it is. Only by the power of God could people turn away from reciprocated hatred and revenge and pray for the salvation of the perpetrator of such a monstrous act.
This is the way to defeat evil . . . not by retaliation but by overwhelming sacrificial love. This is the way to win the war, by emulating the merciful acts of God so far as we are able. This is the way to hasten the return of our Lord, by showing the world what His sacrifice means to us.
The admiration I have for these relatives of the victims is beyond my ability to express it. I would like to believe that in their situation I would respond with such grace . . . but in fact I do not know. I pray I never know.
Only those who know they are forgiven can forgive on this scale. Only those who know they are loved can love so selflessly. Only those who know God’s peace, which surpasses our understanding, can drink from the well of peace.
The divine love that forgives on such an immense scale has a purpose, plainly stated in 3:16: The Father sent the Son so that men might have an opportunity to believe in Him. For the result of each person’s decision to believe in Him two outcomes are stated, death or everlasting life.
A contrast sharp as a razor’s edge, death or life. What’s behind door No. 3? There is no door No. 3. Death or life.
But make no mistake, the Father’s desire is that all would place their trust in the Son and enter everlasting life. I think of the opening clauses of the declaration of absolution in our Order for Morning Prayer:
“Almighty God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who desireth not the death of a sinner, but rather that he may turn from his wickedness and live . . .”
We have been introduced to this Son, you’ll recall, in part through the signs He performs. At the wedding in Cana He gave His first sign, turning water into wine. John will show us six more signs, given to authenticate this Jesus as the Christ, the promised Messiah.
By the way, word has reached me that the wedding at Cana was not the only occasion on which He performed such a miracle.
Father O’Leary was driving home one night in Dublin when he heard a siren and, looking into his rear-view mirror saw the flashing light right behind him. Groaning, he pulled over.
“What have you been drinking?” the officer asked.
“Nothing. Only water.”
“Then why,” asked the officer, “do I smell wine on your breath.”
“Faith and begorrah, He’s done it again.”
The first time the Lord did it, He turned water not only into wine but wine of superior quality. In the miracles that follow He will again go above and beyond, performing not “ordinary” miracles but spectacular ones.
To what end? That those to whom He reveals Himself as God the Son, the perfect manifestation of the Father in the world, and do not believe are without excuse. The signs all involve providing and healing and even raising the dead and they point to the wondrous God who wants no more than to give away life more abundantly.
The Christ did not enter into a neutral atmosphere to find some guilty and others innocent. He arrived in a world of sin where all are condemned because all are sinners.
He holds out the hope of eternal life to those . . . who believe. And the others? There’s a story about a man who took a tour of the Louvre and, standing before the Mona Lisa, informed the guide, “I don’t think much of your old pictures.”
“Sir,” said the guide equably, “these pictures are no longer on trial; it’s those who behold them who are.” He who looks at the Person and work of Christ, who peers up at the cross of Christ, and does not admire the beauty of the Lord . . . condemns himself. He has embraced the darkness and not the light.
Wherever we find ourselves in the Fourth Gospel, we are never far from the theme of light and darkness. It appears here to sharpen the contrast even more between those who believe in Christ and those who reject Him.
Those who refuse God’s offer of eternal life in Christ pull the blackness in which they live ever tighter to them like a shroud. I suspect I am not the only one present who, while I was aware of the light, elected to remain in darkness because I had no interest in abandoning my evil ways.
When the light appears, will we welcome it for revealing our sins and affording us the opportunity of repentance or will we follow our first parents, who sinned and, when God came calling, ran away and hid?
Sin brings pleasure. Let’s let our hair down here for a moment. Sin brings pleasure and the antidote for fleshly pleasure is eternal hope. But that hope comes at a high price. To profess Christ is not enough. Even the demons know Him. From Luke 4 (41):
“And demons also came out of many, crying out and saying, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of God!’ And He, rebuking them, did not allow them to speak, for they knew that He was the Christ.”
Those who truly believe in Him want to follow Him, and so doing entails forsaking the delights of sin. Light cleanses, but it also accuses. I once feared the light because the darkness had drugged me, and I wanted to remain drugged.
I was like St. Augustine, who knew better but would not turn away from his sin, who said to God, “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.”
If I might offer a lukewarm defense of St. Augustine and myself in our early years, I believe honest sinners may do less harm to the cause of Christ than cultural Christians. Some of these don’t bother with church at all and others participate in a perfunctory way.
In either case, unbelievers see people called Christians who behave as though they were not, corrupting the witness. They walk like the natural man, talk like the natural man, think like the natural man. They do great damage to the cause.
Do not miss how painstakingly the author avoids a perfect parallel between those in darkness and those in light. Some choose darkness, "But he who does the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be clearly seen, that they have been done in God."
The purpose of the light is to reveal the God by whose power we flee the darkness. In the words of the Psalmist, “Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but to Your name give glory, because of your mercy, because of Your truth” (115:1).
When Abraham proved himself prepared to sacrifice his son, Isaac, God intervened and spared him. But God did not spare Himself. He offered His only Son in love for the redemption of the fallen creation. So it is that He deserves all the glory, for we were without hope, utterly unable to save ourselves.
Perhaps now that he has time on his hands, Rockin’ Rollen has gotten past v. 16 and come to understand that God’s love is indeed as vast as His world . . . but the story doesn’t end there. Any who spurn the One sent in love bring judgment upon themselves. Pray for them. Amen.