Once upon a time, way back in my Coast Guard days, I had a chance to attend a football game at North Carolina State University. I’m not an active football fan. Actually, I’m not much of a sports fan of any kind, but I do enjoy watching a game now and then. At this late date, I can’t tell you who the opposing team was or even who won. But there are two things that stick in my mind from that day. First, I remember the guy sitting next to me saying that the N.C. State quarterback was a shoe-in for the Heisman Trophy. I said “Yeah. He looks good.” I had no idea what a Heisman Trophy was, but I didn’t want him to know that. Second, and more to the point, I remember seeing a small group of people, way over on the opposite side of the field, waving a large sign around that read: John 3:16.
Since that day, I’ve noticed people doing the same thing at other games. For some evangelical Christians, this is a simple way of witnessing to their faith before a national audience. John 3:16 is the line that reads, “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.” This is one of the best-known verses in the bible, and there’s good reason for every Christian to know these words. If you wanted to capture the essence of what the New Testament is trying to say in a single verse, this would be the one. God loves the world so much that he sent Jesus to show us the way to abundant and eternal life.
Now, I believe that. If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t have any business being a Christian minister. I am well aware though, that a lot of people don’t believe it, especially when it’s interpreted literally. More conservative Christians, almost universally, understand this line to mean that Jesus is the one and only way to reach God. If we believe in Jesus, we will be saved, but if we don’t, we won’t. Period. Which means that when we see a sign reading “John 3:16” waving around at a football game, what we’re seeing is both an invitation, to accept Jesus, but also a threat, that if we don’t accept Jesus we should not expect to go to heaven.
Now, honestly, I’ve never really understood that, and, for the record, I do not agree with it. How can we look at a passage that starts out, “God so loved the world…” and take it to mean that anyone who doesn’t believe is going to hell. For me, God’s love and eternal damnation simply don’t fit together. Especially when the very next verse, John 3:17, goes on to say “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world.”
God doesn’t condemn. God didn’t send Jesus to condemn. How then do we end up with a worldwide church in which condemnation is so common? Good church people, people who supposedly believe in God’s love and grace, seem all too willing to condemn people of other faiths, people of color, women, homosexuals, and even other Christians. As a more liberal Christian, I’ve gotten a lot of that over the years.
Back in January there was an opinion piece published in the New York Times by David Bentley Hart. Hart is the author of a recent book “That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell and Universal Salvation.” Sounds like a little light bedtime reading, doesn’t it? Anyway, in his article, Hart asked the question, “Why Do People Believe in Hell?” He concludes that, for many people, heaven would simply not be heaven if it was open to everybody. He writes…
How can we be winners, after all, if there are no losers? Where’s the joy in getting into the gated community and the private academy if it turns out that the gates are merely decorative, and the academy has an inexhaustible scholarship program for the underprivileged?
Hart wasn’t saying this is a good thing, just that it is very common for people to see all of life in terms of winners and losers. He concluded his article like this…
An old monk on Mount Athos in Greece once told me that people rejoice in the thought of hell to the precise degree that they harbor hell within themselves. By which he meant, I believe, that heaven and hell alike are both within us all, in varying degrees, and that, for some, the idea of hell is the treasury of their most secret, most cherished hopes — the hope of being proved right when so many were wrong, of being admired when so many are despised, of being envied when so many have been scorned. And as Jesus said [in Matthew 6:21], “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
Wow. Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. If what we treasure is our own superiority, it makes perfect sense we wouldn’t want just anyone to get into heaven.
This idea, that people think of heaven as a sort of gated community, explains a lot doesn’t it. If you found yourself with the necessary money, education and culture to be able to move into a gated community, who would you want to have as your neighbors? People like us, right? People of quality and culture and resources. People who believe what we believe and look like we look. We certainly wouldn’t want to see any homeless people hanging around on our streets of shining gold now would we. The whole point of having a gate on our gated communities is to keep out people who don’t live up to our standards. But isn’t it obvious that God doesn’t think that way? Isn’t it obvious that God’s standards are different than ours?
When I teach Bible study classes, I often say that, when it comes to reading and understanding the Bible, we need a focal point or a center against which we can measure the larger whole. If you simply read the Bible through cover to cover, it’s easy to get lost. There is enough in there to justify almost anything. We find passages about love and peace side by side with passages that commend war, prejudice and anti-Semitism. The psalms of faith and trust in God are all mixed up with prayers for the destruction of our enemies. If we’re going to make sense out of it all, we need to have a “heart of the matter” to work from.
But deciding what that heart is can be harder than you might think. People focus on different things. Some people put God’s love at the center and others are more concerned about God’s justice. Some see a divine hierarchy behind it all and others are more egalitarian. Some look to the humanity of Jesus, and others to his triumphant divinity.
At one time in medieval history, I understand, there was a group of people who decided that the most important passage in the bible, their heart of the matter, was when Jesus said, “unless you become like little children you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” Apparently, these people decided to take Jesus’ words at face value. They stopped feeding and clothing and bathing themselves. They would crawl around on the floor babbling. They tried, as adults, to literally turn themselves back into little children. I don’t know about you, but I don’t really think that’s what Jesus had in mind. As you might expect, this movement died out rather quickly.
When I lived in Massachusetts, as I mentioned recently, I used to drive by a church all the time that called itself, “The Whole Bible Church.” That was their focal point, they’re “heart of the matter.” I know there are some Christians who believe that all churches should be whole bible churches. But as far as I’m concerned there is no such thing. There is no possible way to give equal weight to everything in the bible. We all focus on some passages more than others. We all put different things at the center. That’s why it’s important to be conscious and intentional about what that center is for us. For me, the center is the love of God. God’s love for us and our love for God is what makes sense out of the whole Bible. God so loved the world.
Today’s passage is a good illustration. In John’s gospel, God’s love for the world was key. John uses the expression “the world” or “this world” sixty-seven times in this one short little book. But just because the word is familiar to us, we shouldn’t assume we know what John meant by it. He was using the word in a special way. The Greek word which we translate as “world” is “kosmos.” Kosmos is not simply the earth, or the people of the earth. Kosmos, for John, was the spiritual order among people, which is often blindly opposed to the spiritual order of God. So, the “world,” the “kosmos,” that God loves, according to John, is the whole worldwide collection of spiritually blind people. And God loves us, right in the middle of our blindness, even though it is that very blindness that is the source of virtually all of our painful and destructive behaviors. Remember what Jesus said from the cross. “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing.” The “they” he was referring to was the “world” that God so loves; the world in which we don’t know what we’re doing.
A lot of the turmoil in our country lately reflects this spiritual blindness. The idea that some people are better or more deserving than others is a deeply rooted problem for us. Regardless of what we say we believe, we often do not treat one another as equally beloved and valuable children of God. We see all of life through the lens of winners and losers, and it drives us to maximize our own benefit at the expense of everyone else. As I’ve said, I do very much hope the current protests will lead to a greater social justice. We need that. Some people are only going to do the right thing if they are made to by legislation and social pressure. But I have no illusions that we will be solving our problems by tearing down civil war statues or reorganizing police departments. So long we believe that some people are better than others, our culture will continue to reflect that belief.
What is spiritual blindness? Well, there are a lot of ways of talking about it, but essentially, what they all boil down to is that people, for the most part, believe and function as though they are separate from God, when in fact we are not separate. The vast majority of our loneliness, isolation, anxiety and despair – as well as the unfortunate, sometimes violent and destructive acts that arise from these feelings – can be traced to a single, basic human condition. We believe we are separate, autonomous, individual egos, dislocated from God and from one another. What Jesus came to tell us, and to demonstrate, is that this is simply not true.
One of the very special things about Jesus is that he seems to have lived in the ongoing awareness that God was as close to him as his own skin, as close as his own breathing. Marcus Borg called Jesus a “Spirit Person;” by which he meant that Jesus had, “vivid and frequent subjective experiences of another level or dimension of reality.” Jesus, in other words, lived in the Spirit of God. Of course, Jesus was also a great moral teacher and socially conscious person. He was very concerned about social justice and taught his followers to work to make things better. But it was his spiritual connection, his oneness with God, that gave rise to everything else. He consistently taught that this spiritual connection is available to all of us. Usually though, we don’t live in that connection in the way he did. We think we are alone. We think we are what Aldous Huxley called “Island Universes.”
In a book called The Doors of Perception, Huxley wrote about this isolation we generally feel. “We live together,” he said, “we act on and react to one another; but always and in all circumstances we are by ourselves…. We can pool information about experiences, but never the experiences themselves. From family to nation, every human group is a society of island universes.” Sounds pretty lonely doesn’t it.
But that’s exactly the fear that lies at the core of our being, that we are ultimately alone. This goes a long way to explain why we so often fill our lives with perpetual motion, noise, distraction and addictions of every kind. We can’t seem to bear the silence out of which we fear that our own emptiness will rise to the surface. Jesus came, largely I believe, to tell us that this is a false perception: that the belief that we are separate and alone is a false belief. Jesus came to show us how to live lives that embody connectedness. Life in God is possible. Not only is it possible, life in God is inescapable. “Where can I go from your Spirit, where can I flee from your presence,” the psalmist wanted to know. (Psalm 139:7) God’s presence is the underlying reality of our lives whether we know it or not. Everything we manage to accomplish, in fact, comes about because we are connected to God. “I am the vine, you are the branches,” Jesus said. “Apart from me you can do nothing.”
This message is right at the heart of Christianity. But it is not unique to Christianity. Alan Watts, in a book called Out of the Trap, talks about the Buddhist understanding of “Dukkha.” Dukkha is the human condition. “Dukkha,” Watts said, “is the chronic frustration of living in a squirrel cage where, run as you may to get out, you stay in the same place…. The problem that Buddhism sets is: how do we get out of the rat race? The Eternal Cycle, or to be more exact, the Everlasting Cycle, of the pursuit of one end. Pursuit of one’s own end, as a matter of fact. Naturally, if you pursue your own end, you’ll go round in circles.”
I always find that idea funny, that we are pursuing our own end. One time, Pam and I had a wonderful chance to see exactly what pursuing one’s own end looks like. It happened when we first brought our Bichon puppy, Terra, home to live with us. As new dog owners, we bought lots of toys and scattered them around the house for her to chew on and play with. Before long, we noticed that Terra liked to take her toys and drag them over to a small rug in the kitchen. She had claimed the rug as her own sovereign territory, and from it, she exercised dominion over all of her squeaky toys.
One day, Pam and I were in the kitchen watching her play when she started chasing her tail. She went around in circles for a few minutes, first one way and then the other. That was funny enough. But then, she somehow managed to actually catch it. Her whole back end was pulled around sideways, but she had a firm hold on her tail and wasn’t about to let go. The funniest part though, was that she then proceeded to drag her own rear end over to her personal rug as if it were one of the toys she had been playing with. She didn’t seem to have the slightest idea that this thing in her mouth was actually attached. Pam and I were splitting our sides laughing as Terra did this ridiculous crab walk across the kitchen floor to her rug.
That’s a pretty good image of what we’re talking about. Chasing our own tails. Dukkha. Believing that we are island universes. Call it what you will, it’s the human condition that gives rise to our suffering. But it’s a condition based on a false understanding. As Jesus knew so well, we are not who we think we are. We are caught in the spiritual blindness of this world. But this is the world that God so loves, the world that needs forgiveness because we do not know who we are, or what we are doing, or how to treat one another. This is the world that God so loves. This is the world that Jesus was sent to save; not to condemn, but to lead all God’s beloved children to abundant and eternal life.