Lent is the time of the year when we contemplate Jesus’ suffering, where we contemplate our own sin, and where we take on a personal sacrifice in an effort to identify a bit more with Jesus, and what his death on the cross means to us.

Given all that, we should probably be quite miserable, right?

Maybe not. 

You may see the Rose colored stole this morning. Rather than wearing the typical Lenten purple, this Sunday, called “Laetare” Sunday, we wear a Rose colored stole. This Sunday is supposed to give us a moment when we can step back a bit from our Lenten disciplines and live in the joy of our salvation. The Latin word “Laetare” means “Rejoice!” 

The Gospel this morning gives us the reason for our rejoicing. Today we read the much quoted line in scripture that says, “God so loved the world that he sent his only son that people might not perish, but have everlasting life.” 

But there is more to the Gospel than just this verse. You see, just before this, Nicodemus, a Pharisee, a ruler of the people, had come to speak with Jesus at night to avoid detection by his cohorts. He was truly interested in hearing what Jesus had to say. And Jesus tells him that the only way to heaven is to be born again, to be born of water and spirit. And each time Nicodemus says, “What? How is this possible?” He doesn’t understand. And then Jesus begins with the passage about how the Son of Man must be lifted up, and all who believe in him will be saved in reference to the passage about how the Israelites complained about God’s provision, and then had to contend with poisonous snakes. Just like people looked to the serpent on Moses’ rod, people must look to Jesus to be saved. Then comes John 3:16. God came to save the world, and if you believe, you will have everlasting life. 

A good reason to rejoice, right?

A very good reason to rejoice. 

Unfortunately for us, several of the following verses have proven to be problematic. You see, in verse 18, the Gospel tells us that those who do not believe are condemned already. That is, if they do not believe, then God has already condemned them. And what that has meant for some people in history, is that if you are not a believer, and if God has condemned you, then do I not have the authority to condemn you as well? If you don’t share my faith, are you not expendable? Are you not inferior? Some of these attitudes were even enshrined in law, justifying the destruction of entire groups of people, simply because they did not believe the same as those who follow the Christian faith.

And even though we don’t necessarily have the full legal justifications in place for this kind of systematic destruction of peoples, what we find is that this attitude is still ingrained in our  religious culture. By this I mean that rather than justifying the destruction of entire people we deem “unbelievers,” we still look for ways to determine what constitutes a “true believer.” We look for ways to determine who is a real Christian, as opposed to those who are just “playing at religion,” or “worshiping false gods.” Rather than looking at the direction of a person’s heart toward God, rather than seeing how closely their lives emulate God’s love – a sacrificial love that would die on the cross for us – we instead look at how they do things differently than we do.

And we begin to draw lines in the sand, and build walls to keep people out, because, as we have decided, they do not meet the definition of a “true believer,” and therefore, I should be able to condemn them, just as God apparently has, and treat them despicably.

“These people don’t look like me,” we say, and we draw a line in the sand, and we build a wall, and then we decide, my religion is safe from those who don’t belong.

And then Jesus comes along and wipes away the line, and tears down the wall.

For God so loved the world.

“These people don’t think like me,” we say, and we draw a line in the sand, and we build a wall, and then we conclude, my religion is safe from these people who lack critical thinking skills and don’t have the proper education.

And then Jesus comes along and wipes away the line, and tears down the wall.

For God so loved the world.

“These people don’t love like I do,” we say, and then we draw a line in the sand, and we build a wall, and we enact laws to make loving another more difficult or even impossible, and then we decide that we have saved the world’s children from these godless heretics.

And then Jesus comes along and wipes away the line, and tears down the wall.

For God so loved the world.

“These people don’t pray like I do,” we say, and then we draw a line in the sand, and we build a wall, and we tell those in our camp to stay away from those idol worshiping, hocus-pocus loving people that say their prayers from a book, and traffic in useless tradition. And then we decide that we have saved the world from their ancient religion and sorcerer’s ways.

And then Jesus comes along and wipes away the line, and tears down the wall.

For God so loved the world.

“These people don’t vote like I do,” we say, and then we draw a line in the sand, and we proof-text scriptures to show how those others are living a lie, and when they don’t come over to our camp, we begin not just to ridicule them or regale them with our impeccable logic for why we are right, but we begin to use physical violence to “convince” them that they need to change.

And then Jesus comes along and wipes away the line, and tears down the wall.

For God so loved the world.

And finally, we get so mad, we turn to Jesus and we say, “Okay. Stop it Jesus! Why are you erasing these lines? How am I supposed to know the true believers from the pretenders?”

And Jesus just comes up behind us, puts his hands on our shoulders, and turns us around… …so that we can see someone behind us, drawing a line in the sand, and building a wall, in order to keep us out. To them, we are the deplorable ones. To them, we are the pretenders, we are the fake Christians, we are those who do not believe the right way and are therefore worthy of God’s condemnation.

And then Jesus comes along and wipes away their line, and tears down their wall… and turns to us and smiles.

For God so loved the world.

How can we not rejoice when we see the world – and ourselves – through the eyes of God? That the Family of God is far larger than we ever imagined? That the person across from us is just as loved by God as the person in the mirror

St. Augustine says it this way: “God loves each one of us, as if there were only one of us to Love.”

And if we have been loved in this manner, should we not rejoice and pass on that same love? Rather than focusing on differences, rather than fostering divisions, shouldn’t we focus on our similarities, on those areas where we might live and work in harmony?

Our Gospel passage continues today, and gives us an insight into how we might accomplish this. John says that those who hate the light do not come to the light, because the light would expose their deeds. How would it expose them? It would expose their deeds as superficial, skin deep, lacking in love. Those who do come to the light have their deeds clearly seen, and their deeds will be seen to be done in God.

What does all this mean?

The word “believe” in John does not simply mean agreeing to a set of principles, but a word that implies trust, and a word that implies action based on trust. Action. Based in trust.

If you were a financial advisor, and I had a million dollars to invest, I might believe you when you tell me that you have the necessary skills to invest and manage that money. But trusting you with my own personal million dollars is another thing entirely; giving you that million to steward for me might be a bit more frightening, and if I don’t trust you enough, then I may not follow through on action – even though I believe that you are capable. 

Just not capable enough for my money.

For John, those who believe in God are also those who trust God enough to live by the commandments that Jesus handed down. And those are simple: Love God and Love your neighbor as yourself. 

Ten chapters later here in John’s Gospel, Jesus says, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35)

We are commanded to love one another, and our neighbor as ourselves.

Even if, or perhaps, especially if, those neighbors live on the other side of a line we have created ourselves. Rather than looking at our differences, we need to look for where others are loving their neighbors, and join them in that work, regardless of whether they look like me, think like me, love like me, pray like me, or vote like me.

If we can trust God enough to bless the actions within the family of God and allow ourselves to rejoice in our mutual faith, then imagine the rejoicing that will happen when we come to understand ourselves as neighbors even to those who don’t even believe like we do

For God so loved the world.

[This sermon was delivered at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Wickenburg, AZ on March 10, 2024.]

About Michael

Mike was called to be the Vicar of St. Alban's Episcopal Church in Wickenburg, AZ, and started this call on February 1, 2024. Before taking a call as clergy, Mike worked in IT for almost 25 years, variously working as a back- and front-end web developer, database developer and manager, and as a business analyst. If he's not engaged in the work of the church, you can find him on a motorcycle, enjoying the ride, or training for an upcoming BikeMS ride. Mike holds a Bachelor of Arts in Classical History from Seattle Pacific University, and a Masters of Divinity from Fuller Theological Seminary. He attended Sewanee School of Theology for a year of Anglican Studies in the Fall of 2022, and graduated in May of 2023. Mike was ordained as a Transitional Deacon in the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona on January 20th, 2024, and will be ordained to the priesthood on July 27, 2024.

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