John 3:16. A Johnny Tuttle Sermon

A Sermon Offered by Johnny Tuttle, Duke Divinity School Intern
Lent IV
March 15, 2015

Almighty God,
Since the beginning this Holy Lent,
we have remembered that we are dust
and to dust we shall return.
Now, O God, we ask with your faithful Psalmist
that you remember we are dust;

O God,
remember and Love the dust of this world
so that we might love it as well.
Amen.

_______________

You would think that John 3:16
would be a piece of cake for the preacher.
This, my dear friends, is false.
Because it is so well known,
it is incredibly intimidating.
I am charged with speaking about a verse
(or set of verses)
many of you know by memory
and perhaps knew before you stepped foot in church.
So, I face the possibility that one or more of you
might think whatever I might have to say about it
is unnecessary and/or pedantic.

Yet, while I am concerned with this possible reception,
I have some questions about the way we have read
and continue to read these verses,
particularly in light of our Lenten frame of reference.

I wonder whether we are even acquainted
with the dust to which we are so deeply bound.
Do we know what we mean when we say, “love”,
let alone that God “loves”?

Throughout this past year,
it has become more apparent to me
that we are so alienated from the world –
from the earth and one another as God’s creatures –
that we have no idea what it might mean for God to love the world.

Similarly, “belief” has been drained of all its concrete implications.
I fear we have reduced “belief”
to an individual’s opinion or conceptual assent.
And this belief is vaguely related to the nebulous idea of “eternal life”.
In both cases, belief and love become abstract concepts
without any concrete articulation.
And our belief in this love
anticipates some kind of future reward – eternal life –
that we suppose is great
(but we secretly fear will be super boring)
Ultimately, these abstract categories
threaten to render this passage nearly vacuous.

To complicate matters a bit more,
while God indeed loves the world,
we live in a world within a world –
a world of our own construction.
We have alienated ourselves from God’s creation
by constructing synthetic institutions and systems
of alternative mediation.
We work within processes and bureaucracies
that dictate the ways we relate to one another.
They mediate for us.
We who are bound to the dust,
who come from and return to the dust,
have constructed modes of relating
that fundamentally alienate us
from God’s dusty, beloved creation.
I’ll share some examples:

In our globalized economy,
money is the almighty mediator
between the gift of God’s creation
and the work of human hands.
Many of us are well acquainted
with the way those who grow and pick our food
struggle under this unmerciful mediation.

The value of the care and attention given to the plant
is marked by a number driven by market demand
rather than the need of the farmworker.
Similarly, we consume the food
without having to actually know who grew it,
where it came from, or how it was grown.
All we have to know is the dollar amount assigned to it.
Money itself is an alienating mediator.

Or we might consider the tragic events
in Ferguson, Missouri this past week.
Two officers were shot and wounded
in a city that has been the epicenter of the movements
of protest against racial injustice in this country.

We must both lament the violence
suffered by these two police officers
and stand in solidarity with those
who are subject to the racial injustice
created through the system of so-called “law and order”.

Such a system is presented as a given, a necessary mediator.
We assume we need it to maintain the peace.
Moreover, “law and order”, as a system,
exists as something more fundamental
than the people who participate in it.
It is a socially constructed ideal
with underlying biases and prejudices
imposed as a necessary absolute
mediating between officer and protester.
So, it may be the case
that the racial injustice felt by so many of our brothers and sisters,
is built into this system that creates
the alienating space for dehumanization and violence.

And, at the risk of being labeled a fanatic,
I have to mention the so-called criminal justice system once again.
Both victim and perpetrator
Are victimized by the alienating mediation
of the state or federal government.

The victim and perpetrator rarely encounter one another
After the initial incident,
Because the crime is ultimately against the state
Rather than against another person.
The personal and social consequences of an offense
are rarely confronted by the offender
and the victim is left to navigate
the bureaucratic hell that is the Criminal Justice System.

But this way of seeing one another runs back as far as that first garden.
Through the deception of the serpent,
Adam and Eve begin to see one another as obstacle rather than gift.
“That woman you gave me…”, Adam says.
“But the serpent…” says Eve.

No longer speaking to one another.
Only speaking about one another.
God’s creatures speaking of one another in the third person,
Speaking about one another as objects rather than beloved gifts.

How can we who are so alienated from one another,
who have learned to see one another as objects,
who have lost sight of one another as gifts,
who have disdained the dust from which we came, –
how can we begin to love one another as God’s beloved creatures
who believe, trust, and participate in God’s love in Christ?

It may help to reimagine what this famous Gospel text is saying.
How do we understand the “belief” spoken of in these verses –
“so that everyone who believes in him
may not perish but may have eternal life?”
What is this belief? What does this mean?

If you are anything like me,
this has meant a kind of rational assent
to a set of ideas about Jesus or God.
If I just think the right things about Jesus,
if I can just wrap my head around the doctrine of the Atonement,
then I’ll be saved.
This “rationalist approach” terrifies me.
What about those who are cognitively differently abled,
those whose memories are not what they used to be,
or children who rely on the patience and faith of their parents?

Putting stock in a “think your way to Jesus” plan of salvation,
is a far too limited account of God’s love for the world.
So I think, at least at this point in my life,
I really want to resist this understanding of “belief”.
But the modern narrative of “reason” and “rational thought”
has done a number on a lot of us.

We may do well to recover what is lost in translation:
That is, that “belief” and “faith” are translated from the same word.
So, when I hear this famous chunk of the Gospel,
I want to think of it in terms of “fidelity” or “trust” –
something that is time-tested and relational.

An alternative might be:
“This is how God loves the world: God gave God’s only Son,
that those who are faithful or who trust in him
might not perish, but would have life eternal.”

Now, this New International Johnny Tuttle Bible translation
still doesn’t answer all my questions.
Part of being “faithful in Christ”,
if we are to accept my interpretive translation,
is knowing what that fidelity actually looks like.

I had a professor in college put it this way:
“I can tell you and explain to you the concepts of what I believe.
But if you really what to know what I believe, what I trust in,
follow me around for a few days.”

Describing belief in terms of trust and fidelity
puts it on the ground, makes it immanent.
And if it is this belief – or trust – that brings life eternal,
it may mean life eternal is closer
than we may have once thought it to be.
“…Everyone who believes in him may not perish
but may have eternal life.”
When God gives God’s son,
life eternal presses into the world as an immanent reality and free gift.
It does us no good to think of eternal life
as something in the far off, distant future
It is something God has brought to us in Christ
And we are invited to join it, to participate in it now.

But what does this “life eternal” look like?
How do we live in such a way that we participate
in the life eternal God has already given in Christ?
How do we “believe” on the ground?

I think it has something to do with seeing how God loves the world.
And yet “How” God loves the world
is not so much a “how” but a “who?”
That is, God’s love comes to the world
in the person of Jesus Christ.

If we are to be those who are faithful in Christ,

if we are created in Christ for good works,

our fidelity as disciples depends on the perfect fidelity of Christ

to God’s love for the whole world

Here, we can look to First John 3:16.

 

“This is how we know what love is:

Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.

And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.”

 

The love of God and the faithfulness of Jesus are one and the same.

God’s love looks like Jesus.

To “believe” – to trust and be faithful –

we are called to participate in the love of God

manifest in Christ Jesus through the gift of the Spirit.

 

Similarly, First John chapter 4 says,

“Dear friends, let us love one another,

for love comes from God.

Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.

Whoever does not love does not know God,

because God is love.

 

This is how God showed his love among us:

He sent his one and only Son into the world

that we might live through him.

This is love: not that we loved God,

but that he loved us and sent his Son

as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.

 

Dear friends, since God so loved us,

we also ought to love one another.

No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another,

God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.”

 

If we are to believe, and therefore participate

in the immanent life eternal given in Jesus Christ,

we must participate in the love of God in Christ

poured into our hearts by the Spirit –

the Love with which God loves the world.

 

We look to Jesus to see the love of God for us,

We look to Jesus to see our love as creatures for God

And we look to Jesus to see one another as God’s creatures.

“This is how we know what love is:

Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.

And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.”

 

So we look to Jesus, who gives his life eternal to us

in this Bread of Life and in this Cup of Salvation

In these simple elements of bread and wine

The Incarnate God comes to us as a dust-bound, dirt-borne gift,

Revealing to us and for us the extent of God’s love for the world.

 

We who come to this table draw near to Jesus,

we draw near to one another to be joined by Christ in the Spirit.

And though the serpent in the garden alienated us from one another,

the Body and Blood of Christ are lifted up

in the elements of bread and wine

just as Moses lifted the serpent in the wilderness.

There we behold what we are, and we become what we receive,

that we might behold one another, no longer as alienated strangers

but as beloved creatures and gifts to one another in Christ.

 

And from this table, we are called into the world that God loves.

We are called to one another as people of the Advocate,

to support one another in our various and common ministries

caring for one another as each has need.

We are called to our neighbors in the Rogers Road Community,

developing sincere and vulnerable friendships

that we might see one another as beloved creatures and gifts.

Finally, we are called to love, not by our own strength

But by that very love of God poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit,

The love with which God loves the world

Amen.