Preached at Alma United Church, March 22, 2009
Scripture John 3: 14-21
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have life everlasting. For God sent not his son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved.”
We love those words, don’t we? Many of us, most of us, maybe even all of us here this morning can recite that passage by heart. We have it embroidered and hung on our walls. We sing those words as an anthem sometimes. Some have t-shirts or bumper stickers that simply say “3:16,” and some even have it on their license plate.
We’re comfortable with verses 16 and 17. The familiar words lull us to a peaceful sleep like a mother’s lullaby.
But to those of us who believe in the love of God for every person on earth, verses 18 and following are a slap in the face, a car alarm going off outside our bedroom window just as we’re closing our eyes.
I’m not one of those people who believe that you can divine the whole meaning of scripture simply by reading the text. I personally find that I get a lot more out of the readings if I learn a bit about what was happening when the text was written, and this passage is no exception.
The Gospel According to John was written about sixty years after the death of Jesus. The Christian community by this time had grown from a few dozen vagabonds wandering about the countryside to hundreds, even thousands of ordinary people, with more choosing to join this strange cult every day. The fledgling community crossed boundaries, counting amongst its members slaves and masters, poor and rich, prisoners and jailers, Jews and Gentiles.
Because it crossed boundaries, because it didn’t fit into any of the neat categories in the Roman Empire, this new religion was perceived as a threat by Roman and Jew alike.
The Roman Empire was held together by the worship of the Roman gods and of the Emperor. Only Jews were exempt from the requirement to make sacrifices to the Emperor, because they were a pre-existing group that was likely very important to the economy of the empire.
The Christians were at first seen as a Jewish sect, but as more and more Gentiles converted, without the requirement that they also convert to Judaism, the Jewishness of the sect was called into question.
They began to attract the attention of the authorities, probably not because of what they did do, but because of what they didn’t do. They didn’t go to the temples, and they didn’t make sacrifices, which means that they didn’t buy sacrifices.
A letter from the Governor Pliney to the Emperor Trajan makes it clear, at the end, that economic considerations were at least as important as the correct form of worship. He talks of persecuting Christians, and of how many of them have repented of their “folly” and returned to the fold of Roman religious practice:
“At any rate it is certain enough that the almost deserted temples begin to be resorted to, that long disused ceremonies of religion are restored, and that fodder for victims finds a market, whereas buyers till now were very few.”
This letter was written about twenty years after our gospel passage for today was written—an eye blink in an era when things didn’t change very quickly.
John was writing to a community under siege, one where fathers tried valiantly to win their children back to the old ways, because following the new way often literally meant death on a cross, or being torn apart in the arena by wild beasts, or some other horrible death. He was encouraging them to be steadfast in their faith, and assuring them that their goodness would be rewarded, even after death, while the evil deeds of their oppressors would be punished. He was trying to keep them from taking the easy way out and converting back to the old religion.
He was probably also more than a little frustrated—after working with someone new to the faith for months, perhaps years, bringing them to the point of baptism, then having them say to the trial judge, “Well, I used to be a Christian, but it was all so much silliness. I’m not one any more.”
I don’t know about you, but I’d be depressed if I taught someone about my faith, came to care about them and see them as a brother or sister in Christ, only to have them say it was bunk when put to the final test.
But scripture is just words on paper if it only applies to something that happened two thousand years ago, and once we understand who John was talking to and what he was trying to say, we have to ask ourselves if the passage has any relevance in today’s world.
And my answer is, “Of course it does!”
We are once again a community under siege. Oh, we’re not likely to end our days in an arena with wild beasts tearing out our throats, but as we look around the church today, we can’t help but notice that the church is less full than it was this time last year, last decade, last century. We see also that the hairs on the heads of the remaining pew occupants are a little greyer (unless they’re gone altogether), and we wonder what’s happening and how can we reverse the trend.
And we increasingly live in a world where faith in a higher power of any kind is ridiculed. The new gods of science and the economy crowd out any space for things that can’t be observed in the laboratory or bought in a store.
In the not-to-distant past, atheism was a choice an individual made. But recently, it’s become a religion of sorts on its own. A new campaign by atheists has bus shelters in England plastered with posters saying, “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”
It’s a disturbing trend, at least to me. Yes, I know Christianity and other religions have been advertising for centuries. We invented door-to-door sales, and if you don’t believe me, read the Gospel of Matthew. And organized Christianity hasn’t always lived up to it’s promise as God’s greatest gift to humanity.
But organized atheism disturbs me in a way that organized religion does not, because it is, at it’s very heart, based on dishonesty. Not dishonesty about what it is atheist believe in, but about the fact that atheism is, in fact, a system of belief and not of verifiable fact.
It’s true—there is probably nothing scientists can do to prove that God exists. Short of Godself appearing physically on Earth in a form that humans of every age, race and religion would recognize immediately as God, that proof will never be ours.
But it’s also true that there is nothing scientists can do that can prove that God DOES NOT exist. The belief that God does not exist is just that—belief, not knowledge. Hence the word “probably” in the ads. But people who wrote those ads only put that in to avoid criticism. They believe there is no God, but unlike Christians, who talk freely about belief as opposed to knowledge, they KNOW.
And people who KNOW, as opposed to believe, have a sordid history of trampling the rights of their fellow human beings. Hence the abuses that fundamentalist Christianity, Islam and Judaism have wreaked throughout history. If the atheists thing they’re exempt from this unsavoury human trait, they need only examine the history of Communist Russia to disabuse hemselves.
But it’s more than that. People who believe in a higher power, of whatever religion, have something to keep them in check, even if they KNOW. What happens if you believe that humanity is the highest form of life, and that once you’re gone, there’s no-one to answer to?
You bottle the second most needed element for life, water, and sell it back to the very people whose wells you drained, all the while thinking up schemes that will make that most precious commodity, air, turn a profit. You give loans to poor countries on the condition that they gut their health care and education systems, stop producing food for their own people and grow cash crops instead, for which you will, of course, pay less than the cost to produce them. You feed cow offal to other cows because its “economical.“ You sell land mines while piously denouncing them, you draft children at gunpoint and teach them to go out and kill their neighbours and friends.
A world without God is a world gone mad.
I can’t help but think that at some level this organization of atheists is the Emperor striking back at those who would step back from the world and shed light on the evil deeds being done by those whose unbelief frees them “to have fun.” We speak out against injustice and even if we imperfectly embody the justice we seek, still we hold ourselves to a higher standard than just “having fun.”
But even knowing that we are under attack, still like John we need a response to those of our friends and neighbours who once worshipped here, but do no longer.
And here I have an answer, because I’ve had to talk myself through the “Why should I believe?” a few times. Hold on to your hats, though, folks, because there’s logic involved:
The atheists say there is no God, and that we’re wasting our time on Sunday morning. The ads seem to imply that we Christians are always looking over our shoulders to see if God is watching us, and are therefore unable to enjoy life. They say that religion is a blight, and much evil has been done in the name of God.
To this, I reply:
There may indeed be no God. If there is no God, I’ve lost a few hours sleep each week. However, in return for that loss, I almost always get something in return. Hugs from a friend or twelve, lunch after the service, good music, inspiration to carry on despite the odds being stacked against me… I’m sure each person here could make their own list. It’s not a bad return on investment, even if there is no God. I’ve lost nothing.
Nor have I been unhappy. In fact, my faith has pulled me through some pretty tough times. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I might not be alive today if I didn’t believe, even at my lowest, that God loved me.
Again, even if there is no God, I’ve gained by my faith, not lost.
On the other hand, what if there IS a god? What if belief really is the gateway to life everlasting? In that case, the one who believes in God gains everything, while the one who does not believe loses everything.
I’ve seen people destroyed because they didn’t believe that anyone loved them. I buried a sister who killed herself for just that reason. Belief in a power higher than oneself is, and has always been, a matter of life and death.
I’m not a biblical literalist. There are not very many passages in the bible that I believe to be the true, unvarnished Word of God. There is always human translation, interpretation, and mis-understanding mixed in. But here, in this passage the Word of God shines through so clearly that pretty much each and every Christian can proclaim without a shred of doubt in their hearts:
“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have life everlasting. For God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.”
The car alarm is going off, waking us from our peaceful slumber. Those words are not a lullaby—they’re a call to action. It matters, this belief in God. We need to tell the world.