(Sermon for March 22, 2009 || Lent 4, Year B, RCL || John 3:14-21)
Last week, the annual rite of spring commenced. Sixty-four college basketball teams began competing for the NCAA title. My apologies for bringing this up. I wrote this introduction before Dayton upset our own West Virginia Mountaineers. The field has been cut in half, and WVU is, unfortunately, in the wrong half. Soon, the field will be halved again, and there will be sufficiently few teams left for SportsCenter to analyze them as the “Sweet Sixteen”: only one quarter of the teams will have survived. Presumably, this fact makes them “sweet.” After this third round of games, the sportscasters will chatter on about the “Elite Eight.” A mere 12.5 percent of teams will advance to play in this fourth round, making them (sure enough) “elite.” Notice how the sports media doesn’t have a term for the first and second rounds of games; there’s no such thing as the “Snappy Sixty-four” or the “Thrilling Thirty-two.” The field just isn’t small enough to qualify for such exclusive epithets as “sweet” and “elite.”
In our society, we often associate success and value with exclusivity. Only a handful of doctors can perform that neonatal heart procedure. Only a few original 1977 Luke Skywalker action figures exist still in the blister packaging. Only a couple dozen baseball players have accumulated over three thousand hits in their careers. As a culture, we assign value to these exclusive objects and groups. If every baseball player had over three thousand hits, such an achievement would certainly not make one a shoe-in for Cooperstown.
Of course, our society operates in this way because of Econ 101. From a young age, we are socialized to think in terms of supply and demand. If only one kid in the cafeteria has a strawberry fruit roll-up, the demand for that delicious snack will be high. You might have to trade a week’s worth of pudding cups for that fruit roll-up. The same market forces apply outside of elementary school. If OPEC cuts oil exports, you know what happens to the price.
Sadly, the exclusivity model, on which the doctrine of supply and demand is founded, has infiltrated the Christian religion. Too many Christian groups attempt to define themselves as the exclusive repositories of the faith, as the exclusive holders of the keys to heaven. If you don’t interpret the Bible exactly as they do, then you are excluded. If you disagree about the way worship is conducted, then you are excluded. If you don’t subscribe to the same set of social values, then you are excluded. This exclusion provides for these groups of Christians an illusory feeling of certitude, and, consequently, a “my way or the highway” approach to outsiders.*
Over time, a single severely misinterpreted verse of scripture has developed into the brand for such exclusivist, cliquish Christianity. We heard it this morning in the Gospel. Perhaps, your ears perked up because you recognized the verse from a bumper sticker or the television or the half-forgotten memory of Sunday School. Homemade signs at ballgames give the citation: John 3:16 in big, block letters. “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.”
Cliquish Christianity has so thoroughly branded John 3:16 that the verse rarely appears outside its exclusivist shrink-wrapping. Here’s one plausible line of reasoning employed to co-opt John 3:16: Supply and demand teaches that for something to be valuable, it must be limited. Eternal life is valuable. Therefore, eternal life is limited. If eternal life is limited, we must figure out who’s got it and who doesn’t. Let’s see: “everyone who believes in him.” Okay, that’s seems clear enough. If you believe in the only Son of God, you may have eternal life.
But cliquish Christianity ignores two major problems with this logic. First, the major premise of the syllogism** (for something to be valuable, it must be limited) is altogether false. One of the wonderful things about God’s love and grace is their utter repudiation of basic economic theory. The counter-economics of the Gospel are well-documented. All the workers in the vineyard receive the same pay no matter how long they labored. The five loaves of bread feed a thousand times their number with twelve baskets to spare. God’s love abounds when it is freely offered, rather than becoming scarce like the bills in your wallet when you give your cash away. Likewise, eternal life cannot be limited. That’s what makes eternal life eternal.
Second, cliquish Christianity mistakes the minutiae of adhering to particular doctrinal positions for belief in the only Son of God. Disagreements about what constitutes the correct method of making someone wet during a baptism or what instruments are approved to be played in church have driven some Christians to deny eternal life to others. Such disagreements are akin to thinking that ketchup, rather than ground beef, makes something a hamburger.*** History and experience have shown that there are many paths to belief in Jesus Christ. The early leaders of the church recognized the need for four accounts of the Gospel to speak to the widest audience possible. In sixteenth century England, two competing groups struggled for doctrinal dominance, but Queen Elizabeth saw value in each position and accepted both into the Book of Common Prayer. As Christianity spread throughout the world, missionaries fused the message of the Gospel with local custom, creating unique expressions of the Christian religion.
But cliquish Christianity disregards both counter-economics and the substitution of particularity for belief. The misinterpretation of John 3:16 has become inviolable, an idol in blister packaging. And this packaging is necessary for cliquish Christians to use the verse as validation for their exclusivism. You see, the shrink-wrapping protects the sixteenth verse from all the ones surrounding it. But scripture has never been intended to be taken a verse at a time. Indeed, judging by the age of the Bible, verse numbers are downright innovative, having debuted in the 1550s.
So, let’s reattach verse 16 and see what happens: “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 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. 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.”
In this context, we notice the object of God’s love: the “world.” God gave his only Son because God loved the world. God sent the Son into the world to save the world. In just these three sentences, the “world” appears four times. God’s loving gift takes on cosmic proportions and comprehends the whole creation.
God doesn’t give the gift of the Son to an exclusive group of people but to the entire world. The Son is not the exclusive property of those who believe in him. He is not trussed up in the backroom, ready to be ransomed in exchange for compliance to doctrinal particularity. Rather, those who believe in him are the property of the Son, in whose presence eternal life gushes up like a spring.
God loved the world so much that God gave the only Son to be lifted up on the cross and to die and to rise again and, in so doing, to lift us to the light of eternal life. If this sublime story of sacrifice and salvation were meant only for an exclusive few, then there’s no reason to believe it. But the world is the recipient of God’s loving gift, a gift so extravagant and precious that an exclusive few could never hope to unwrap it completely.
In our fallen society, we measure success and value by exclusivity. But in God’s family, we measure success by our ability to include. We measure value by our generosity and hospitality. We invite others to discover God’s loving gift just as we have discovered him. We welcome everyone to celebrate the joy of an abundant life illumined by the light of God’s Son. We do not play the role of the gatekeeper to God’s house, checking credentials and barring entrance. We do not play the role of the bouncer with the clipboard. Our role is simple and humbling. We go out into this world that God loves so much and we meet our brothers and sisters and we say, “Look at the gift I received from God, this gift full of love and grace. Come and see. God offers the gift to you, too. Come and see. God gave the gift to the whole world. Come and see.”
* In recent years, to the detriment of the work of God in the world, various members of the Anglican Communion, the Episcopal Church included, have exhibited a variation of these exclusivist tendencies.
** My focus group (read: my mother) advised me to remove this word from the spoken version of the sermon, which I did. But, this is technically the correct word for the context, so I figured I could sneak it back into the written version. A syllogism is an argument that has a major premise, a minor premise, and a conclusion. Here’s an example: “People who use the word ‘syllogism’ in sermons are pretentious goobers. Adam used the word ‘syllogism’ in a sermon. Therefore, Adam is a pretentious goober.”
*** Brian McLaren and Tony Campolo have written about this. Check out their Adventures in Missing the Point