God So Loved the World
On my visit to Pittsburgh this week, I walked to the south side of the Monongahela River and boarded the incline that takes travelers from the riverside to the Mt. Washington Ridge.
There weren’t many people on board this time of evening—about 8 pm. Among them were two girls, perhaps 12 years old. I thought it odd that girls so young were out and about in downtown Pittsburgh. What happened increased by suspicions. The two of them boarded a compartment above me, the upper most of three sections in the car. They were assertive, even rowdy from the first, more aggressive than most pre-teen girls. Then the cursing began, with ample use of the f-bomb. Then, more explicit sexual talk. I was shocked, then irritated, finally angry.
One crawled over the banister from her compartment into the middle compartment, just over my shoulder. She began to spit. I tried not to notice, and I did not respond. What I wanted to do was grab her by the shoulder and shake some sense into her. Where is her mother? I thought to myself. Then, said to a person sitting next to me, “I’d hate to be a teacher with a room full of kids like her.”
Her language escalated, her behavior became more confrontational, and I sensed she was pushing for a fight. It was all I could do to hold my tongue, my hand, and my emotions. It was the most disturbing public behavior I could remember, perhaps, that I had ever witnessed. This girl needs help, and she needs it fast.
That was Monday, and even then—before and after this unpleasant experience—I was thinking about my sermon, my gospel, my Bible text. Jesus told Nicodemus (in words framed by John the beloved disciple), “God so loved the world that God gave his only son that whosoever believes in Jesus Christ will have eternal life.”
But surely, neither John nor Jesus meant to include this vulgar, bratty piece of work standing straight in front of me, glaring, cursing, and spitting. Surely, God did not love this specimen. Surely Jesus did not die for this unhappy, unholy street urchin.
Monday, on the Monongahela Incline, my gospel text ran headlong into this vulgar, semi-violent female. What came out was six days of meditation and this sermon!
Which brings me to the text.
One night many years ago, a seeker came to ask questions of Jesus. Jesus was a famous rabbi in his day, a celebrity with a large following, a spiritual man who often was at odds with the religious establishment of his day.
How would we classify Jesus today? As a Christian? As spiritual but not religious? As a NONE, those people who answer the religion question with “None of the Above”?
Was Jesus deconstructing his religion like so many people today? Would Jesus have created a TikTok channel to talk about his journey?
This tension between religious tradition and spiritual reality is what drove Nicodemus to see Jesus that night.
Nicodemus was a religious man, a devout man, a Bible-reading, Bible-believing man. Nicodemus wanted to be a man of prayer, a man of righteousness, a man of faithfulness to God. God was at work in his life and in his soul; God was stirring up in Nicodemus a desire to know God more fully, a desire to worship God more truly, and a desire to obey God more deeply.
What are you seeking today?
What is it that you want, or need, or desire? What stirring in your soul brings you to worship or to your knees in prayer? What is God calling you to do, ask, or seek?
“Knock and the door will opened. Seek and you will find. Ask and you will receive.”
God bless Nicodemus! For two thousand years, he has been the patron saint of those seeking true religion, true spirituality, true life.
Is your name Nicodemus today? Are you seeking an answer, a direction, a peace, an assurance? Are you looking for the truth? Are you looking for love? Are you looking for God?
Many people give a testimony like this today: church is not what I need or want. We are in the midst of a great awakening… an awakening to the shortcomings of church, and religion, and tradition. Traditional religion has sinned and fallen short of the glory of God and the good of the world. Traditional religion—of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim varieties—has fallen short of what it needs to be, of what it must be, of what we need.
We need the word of God, but religion gives us the traditions of the elders. We need grace but religion gives us judgment. We need love but religion gives us law. We need freedom but religion gives us commandments. We need peace but religion gives us strife and even violence.
We need Jesus, just like Nicodemus.
When Jesus said to Nicodemus, “You must be born of the spirit” he was talking to all of us. When Jesus said to Nicodemus, “You must have a new birth, a spiritual transformation” he was talking to us. When Jesus said, “God loves everybody, all of us, every person in the world, including that rude and rowdy girl on the Monongahela Incline,” he was talking to us.
There is a meme making its way around the internet that reads like this: “God didn’t send Jesus into the world to condemn the world so I don’t think he sent you to condemn the world either.”
That is a reference to this story. You know how it reads: John 3:16-17: “God loved the world so much, that God gave the only begotten son that whoever believes in him might have eternal and everlasting life. For God send Jesus into the world not to condemn the world but to save the world.
But religion has become the chief repository of condemnation.
Our religion, Christianity, has a long history of condemning heretics, Jews, Muslims, and foreigners of every kind. Our religion Christianity has a long history of condemning those who do not say the right words, believe the right doctrines, submit to the right authorities, and embrace the right sacraments. Our religion has a long history of condemning people who do not marry right, love right, behave right, even think right.
Too many people have had to leave the church in order to be free, to be honest, to be righteous, even to be themselves.
To judge rather than love is to ruin true religion. To condemn rather than love is to reject the teaching of Jesus. To rebuke rather than receive is to flip our faith on its head and crush the gospel of God.
people. We are to love them, welcome them, feed them, heal them, and learn from them. We are to treat them like we would treat Jesus.
God so loved all the people, all our brothers and sisters, all our neighbors, all our enemies and friends. God loves you, just as you are.
I have a particular interest in the children of my college and seminary friends. Hardly a week goes by that I don’t ask somebody near and dear to me, “Tell me about your children and Jesus.” I had that conversation several times on my recent 12-state, 2,500-mile trip through Kentucky to Missouri, to Ohio and Michigan, then to Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Virginia. Every conversation confirms what the scholars are saying.
This week, British scholar Stephen Bullivant is publishing his research under the title Nonverts: The Making of Ex-Christian America.
Dr. Bullivant points to four factors: the fall of communism and the decline of its godless threat; the marriage of religion and politics in America; the rise of the internet and the way it connects people asking similar questions; and last, the power of the herd instinct—it has become a trendy thing to do: quit religion, exit the church, say to goodbye to Jesus.
Little in this book is new. He describes those who were born into non-religious families and those who were born into religious families. Today’s unbelievers come from both kinds of homes. Faith in God and love for Jesus does not come easy any more, not to anybody, not to you, not to me.
But here is the rest of the story. Dr. Stephen Bullivant is a Britisher. England is still publicly a Christianized country, like Libya is a Muslim country. He grew up in a secular, unchurched home. But just as a religious home is no guarantee that a kid will grow up to believe, a secular home is no guarantee that a kid will grow up to ignore God and Jesus, to reject faith and grace.
Stephen started on his intellectual journey but along the way something startling happened—he met some Christians: people who welcomed him, loved him, received him, and witnessed to him. They were Catholic Christians; to be more precise, they were Dominicans, formally known as the Order of Preachers. Thomas Aquinas was a Dominican, and I can name some in the United States. I came to know them during my Academy of Preacher days.
“I want to be a Dominican,” I said once to Dr. Greg Heille, then dean of St. Aquinas Institute in St. Louis. I asked him, “Can a Protestant be a Dominican without becoming Catholic?”
The answer was No. But when Dr. Bullivant asked if he could be baptized, the answer was Yes. So it came to pass that the man soon to have two PhD degrees, one in theology and the other in theology and now teaching religion at Christian universities in London and America, became the outlier to the herd that is stampeding out of the church.
He was converted, born anew, changed, and baptized as a believer.
Stephen Bullivant was a seeker, like Nicodemus. He was open to the love of God, like Nicodemus. He is Exhibit A in the purpose of God to convert the heart, save the soul, and change the direction of a life.
Your encounter with God can do the same for you.
God loves you, just as you are, part sinner, part saint, half trusting, half doubting, somewhat converted, somewhat cautious. God loves you, pilgrim in this weary land, marching to Zion with the rest of us, walking in the footsteps of Jesus. It is true religion, for now and forever.
A member of this congregation sent me a link this week. It was a video from the service of St John’s Episcopal Church in Sylvia, North Carolina. The service included readings and hymns, prayers, and a sermon.
But it was the special music that gripped my heart and brought me to tears. The vocalist was a drag queen, with the name Beulah Land. Isn’t that wonderful? What did she sing? That old Billy Graham crusade invitation hymn. “Just as I am, without one plea, but that your blood was shed for me. And that you bid me come to you, O lamb of God, I come. O lamb of God, I come.”