Last weekend, a fairly significant portion of the human race tuned in to watch the wedding of Harry and Meghan.
Truth be told, I haven’t actually watched the whole ceremony yet. In this era of youtube, I assumed that there was a slight and passing chance that someone in the world might actually post it online, so getting up that early on a Saturday morning was no longer an absolute necessity.
The only portion that I have watched, after being told about it by a number of friends, was the sermon offered by Bishop Michael Curry from the Episcopal Church in the United States. Bishop Curry’s words about the power of love, and the potential for love to transform the world, were both quite moving, and quite powerfully delivered.
But there was nothing particularly new what the Bishop spoke about. As he himself stated, he was just re-articulating that vision – of a love that can redeem and transform this world — that rests at the heart of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Today’s suggested reading from the Gospel of John, for this particular Sunday in the church year, offers one of the most famous articulations of that vision of a love that rests at the heart of all things.
“For God so loved the world…”
Most of us can recite the rest of that verse from memory. But rather than just focus on that one famous verse, it can be good for us to keep these words within their wider context.
When we do so, we are reminded that the verse is set in a passage about a long, late-night conversation that Jesus had with a character named Nicodemus.
We do not know a lot about Nicodemus, but what we know is interesting. He was already a leader in the religious community, but he still had questions. He was not one of those types of people that try to pretend that they have it all figured out. Instead, his questions had motivated him to come to talk with Jesus, the young teacher. The text states that Nicodemus came at night, which likely reflected the fact that Nicodemus felt a certain awkwardness about being seen in the presence of Jesus; but regardless of the reasons why he came under the cover of darkness, what was important was that he was there, asking his questions, trying to find truth.
And Jesus spoke some strange words to him. Words about not being able to control the mysterious Spirit called God, but needing to bend with it when it blows through one’s life. Words about not giving up if life seems to be overwhelming and out of control, but instead realizing that all things can be new again, life can begin again, that new life can be found, even when all seems lost and hopeless.
Nicodemus did not “get it” at first – anymore than any one of us would have understood Jesus’ strange words. Two thousand years later, we’re still trying to figure them out!
But Jesus’ words were not all comfort and consolation. He also acknowledged the brokenness of the world as it is; the hurt, the pain, the injustices and the evil that are present for anyone to see. In fact, Jesus’ words suggested that the world does not need to be judged, since anyone with eyes to see can see that it is already suffering.
Jesus was neither the first, nor the last to acknowledge the imperfect state of our world. In every enduring and significant spiritual, or political, or philosophical or ideological tradition, in all of human history, there has always been some articulation of an awareness that things are not as they could be, and some proposed solution for how to address that perceived brokenness.
Some of the ancient Eastern spiritual traditions, for example, suggest that existence itself is suffering, and the way out of the suffering is the overcoming and negation of desire; the Jewish and Christian traditions, and other spiritual traditions, suggest that the reason for the brokenness is the human propensity to sin, and the way to overcome the consequences of that brokenness is through some form of atonement and forgiveness.
In the realm of politics and economics, this same pattern of diagnosis and cure can be found. The communists suggested that the essential problem was the unequal distribution of the means of production, and the solution was a more equal sharing of a community’s resources; the capitalists typically suggested that the problem was too much state control of power and wealth, and the solution was that individuals who take risks, work hard and make sacrifices should be freed in order to own capital and thereby to allow them to make progress, which would be a benefit not only to themselves, but to the entire community; while the socialists suggested that the problem was that those with power and wealth tended to want to hold onto it, for themselves, and that the solution was more community or state control so that all could benefit more equally.
The categories could, of course, go on – but the point is clear — in every religion, every spirituality, every philosophical system, every ideology, every economic theory, in every mode of human thought that tries to take reality seriously, there is a common thread that weaves them all together.
And that common thread is that they all acknowledge that something is not right with the world. Something is not right with our communities. Something is not right in our relationships with each other, with the planet, with our societies, even with ourselves. And, ultimately, they all long for good and effective change to be embraced so that we can move towards a world rooted in peace, in right relationships, in harmony.
And that is what the author of the Gospel of John was addressing when he wrote that most famous of verses. Yes, the world was broken, imperfect, flawed; just as our lives are broken, imperfect, flawed. But our lives, and this world are, according to this passage, also loved by the One who could heal the brokenness.
“For God so loved the world…”
Many of you might remember a member of our community who died a number of years ago, named Stuart Coles. Stuart lived a long and remarkable life… but there can be no question that he was also an iconoclastic curmudgeon of the first order. He often railed against the injustices of the world, but also against the hypocrises of the church…even though he was in church every week well into his nineties.
Throughout his life, he had always been on the cutting edge of important social issues – addressing the economic inequalities of the world, the racism and sexism that warp life, the need for respect and reconciliation with the first nations peoples of our country, the need for churches to be inclusive of people whose skin colour, mental abilities, economic status, or political ideology were different from those who typically occupied positions of power. He wanted the church to be more prophetic, more bold, less complacent, and more effective in addressing the injustices, the violence, the greed, the consumerism, the hunger, and the poverty that have such devastating effects on human life.
And he was never reticent to share his views – both in conversations, but also in essays and articles that he would write that challenged the injustices of the world. At times, he would even re-write words to popular hymns since he often lamented that the traditional words were theologically vapid and overly sappy, and – in his opinion – seemed to lull people into an apathetic spirituality. His substituted lyrics to those hymns were not always amazing – after all, prophetic passion and poetic artistry do not always go hand in hand. But the sentiments that he expressed, and the passion that he demonstrated, revealed his true intentions — and those intentions were noble.
But at the heart of his love for, and his discomfort with, the world and the church was this very verse from John chapter 3. Time and again, Stuart would repeat and emphasize that the text says that God loves the world, and not just the church; that God loves the world, and not just the good people; that God loves the world, and not just the beautiful parts of it. God loves the world.
Stuart died a few years ago. But still, every time that Bob and I mention, at the closing of a service, that we are called to go into this world that God loves, the voice that rings through our minds is that of Stuart Coles, reminding us that our responsibility is to remember that God loves the world, and not just the church.
And God wants this beloved world to be better, to be healed. Which, according to this text, is why God sent Christ to show us how much God loves the world, and how much God wants us to join in loving that world as well.
Which in its own way, is the good news.
After all, what we are called in the church to remember and to proclaim is that God’s love — made real in word and action, in attitude and intention – is what can transform and redeem this beautiful but broken world.
And the beauty is that each and every one of us can join in that great and powerful work; in our homes, in our workplaces, in our relationships, in the church, in the world, we can – and are called – to carry that love, and encourage that love, and extend that love to others.
Into this beautiful yet broken world, God sent Jesus of Nazareth to show us how to love — with grace, with forgiveness, with courage, with humility, with generosity; and in his name, we as his followers are sent into this beautiful yet broken world – with all of our imperfections and insecurities and inadequacies – to continue that great work of transforming the world through love.
Thanks be to God.