John 3:14-21

What if we have got the point of this whole faith thing wrong?
What if the thing we think is the most important part isn’t at all, at least not in the way we think it is? And what if because we’re missing the point we are concentrating on the wrong things?

Sam Well’s asks that very question in his book A Nazareth Manifesto. I spoke about this a bit at our recent congregational conference and I wanted to come back to it because I think this is hugely important for us all, and especially for our church.

So, I want to encourage you to really listen carefully… because this could… and probably should make you rethink a whole load of things.

Sam Wells poses a question that’s been asked throughout the centuries… Paul Tillich calls it the question of ‘our ultimate concern’. The question is simple… What’s the core of our faith? What is the most important thing? What matters most to you?

Wells suggests that our big obsession, our ultimate concern, both as a society and as individuals is mortality. Or to be more specific, avoiding the reality of our own mortality.

We spend billions of pounds on lotions, potions, diets, gym memberships, supplements, treatments, and even surgery to make us look younger. Companies will even freeze you in cryogenic storage until a remedy is found for whatever you’re about to die from and scientists around the world are researching a cure for aging.

But what does that have to do with our reading today?

When Jesus says “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.” we’re absolutely in. Live forever? Oh… absolutely. Sign me up for that. It’s not an accident that John 3:16 is the most famous verse in the bible.

The next question then becomes ‘How do I get that eternal life?’ It’s THE question. It’s the question that frames how we think about faith. It’s the question that drives the church’s mission. And it’s the wrong question.

In Luke’s Gospel someone asks that question to Jesus. Love God and love your neighbour is the right answer. But that conversation ends up in a parable we call the Parable of the Good Samaritan. It’s a story about how loving God in a formulaic, ritualistic way gets in the road of loving your neighbour. It turns out that the key to this eternal life is living well now… but not as a way to earn some kind of reward where we are excused our mortality.

Seeing faith like that is a problem. If I only just believe enough…. If I only just do enough good things…. If I only just behave properly…

Perhaps we need to remind ourselves about what eternity is. Eternity is forever. All of time. Eternity is all the way back and all the way forward… and eternity is now. We are living in eternity. And that means our obsession with mortality as some kind of final end to be avoided at all costs really isn’t what we should be concerned about.

And Jesus says as much in John 3.

Jesus goes on to say ‘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.  Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.

The problem has been that our fixation with the mortality problem has caused us to read this in the wrong way. When Jesus says ‘condemned already’ we turn that into ‘they are already condemned for all eternity’. And that’s not what it says or means at all.

It means what it says. That people who believe are not condemned and those who don’t are… but condemned to what? We need to keep reading:

And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.  For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.  But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.’

Jesus is talking about our response to Christ’s presence in the world. Here and now. This is a conversation with Nicodemus, the Pharisee who comes in the darkness of night to see Jesus.

Jesus is asking Nicodemus why he has to hide his visit. Why can’t he be open about a conversation? What forces is he afraid of? Who stands in opposition to Jesus and why is he standing with them?

This most famous of passages isn’t about solving the mortality problem. It’s about how we react to the realisation that the Word became flesh and moved into the neighbourhood. It’s about the implications of God being present in the world. For Nicodemus that’s a question about whether he can acknowledge that reality publicly. We will see at the end of John’s Gospel that Nicodemus is the one who asks for Jesus’ body so he can be buried before the light fades.

If the key to eternal life is to love God and love our neighbour then the next question is ‘how do we make that happen?’ The answer is only found in relationship with God and with each other. And remember, Jesus stretches the boundary of neighbour way beyond what anyone is comfortable with.

I think Sam Wells is right. Jesus came to end our self-imposed separation from God and from each other. That’s what leads to the darkness. Selfish deeds done in secret and in shame because they hurt or exploit or devalue other people.

Relationship is the key because solving the mortality question is about me. It’s about my behaviour and my belief. Solving the isolation problem is about us. It’s about what we believe and how we behave. It depends on the depth and quality of our relationships.

So, the real question, the thing that should take up all our energy and attention isn’t what the best face cream is or what fad diet I should try next. The real question that should occupy our imaginations is how we end isolation.

Too many people are lonely… and loneliness is caused by a deficit of relationship. And that’s something we can surely help to fix.

When we think that tackling isolation is the most important thing we can do then our activities and the importance of some of the things we already do should change. All of a sudden the coffee morning and the Hope Cafe and Messy Church become models for mission because they encourage people to get to know each other. Lunch after the Sunday service might just be the most important part.

Our invitation to people might sound different too. We find it so difficult to ask people to join us at church. I wonder if that’s to do with not really knowing what we are inviting people into. Come and… well come and what? Be saved? Saved from what?

There’s a strong hint of condemnation in that kind of language, isn’t there. And more than a little judgement. When we hear Jesus telling us that God doesn’t want to condemn the world then we should probably be a bit more hesitant about using those kinds of words… and about doing that judging too.

We should perhaps heed Richard Rohr’s reminder that we “are by nature a son of God, a daughter of God, a beloved of God. That’s not obtained by any exercise, performance, fasting, praying… it is your nature. Your true nature is God’s nature.” He goes on to say that we all have to experience separateness from God in some way to be able to re-chose that nature.

I think that means that we choose isolation. We wander off into the darkness. We focus on that mortality problem and that means we actually don’t really care that much about the fate of anyone else’s souls as long as we think that we and the people we love are ok.

And then we realise that being alone isn’t what we’re made for. That being in the light is a better place to be than being isolated in the darkness.

Light is a brilliant image for what happens to us and how this works. Darkness separates us from each other. It isolates us. It hides us from view. We cannot see or be seen.

But here’s the thing… Any amount of light, even the smallest flicker, makes the darkness disappear.

But where does light come from? Jesus tells us that He is the light of the world and that God’s desire is that everyone should live in that light.

So, as we deepen our relationship with God we rediscover our light. When we enter into relationship with others then our light dispels their darkness, even if they don’t have any light of their own yet.

So maybe that should be our priority? We should embrace our true nature, not as awful sinful people, but as God’s beloved…

And that is true even when we wander off into the darkness, even when we choose separation. Our job for those who choose that is to be their neighbour too. To refuse to let them be alone.

As we learn to embrace our relationship with God and delight in it we see the needs of our neighbours as our own needs, because their need and our need is the same. We all need to be in relationship with our neighbour. How else can we love them. Their concern is our concern because we are all God’s concern. We are all God’s beloved.


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