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. (John 3:16)
This is an extraordinary statement in John’s gospel which has the capacity to stop us in our tracks if we truly hear the words and intention of God towards God’s beloved world. The love bound up in these words leaves me breathless.
But I wonder, if someone asked you what is the good news Christians have heard which makes them so excited, what would you answer in a way which makes sense to a stranger?
I suppose my starting point is to think about how I know if someone loves me and how I know God loves me.
I know what isn’t love: just like millions of women expressing their anger, fear, grief and frustration at the lack of action by families, employers and governments over violence, misogyny, patriarchy and sexism against women. This is at crisis levels in all cultures and societies around the world including Australia.
I am also glad to speak with men struggling with this culture who can say what isn’t love either. Their grief is profound that we have come to this point as human beings.
Love isn’t about power, control, fear, hate, guilt, violence, anger or dislike. I suspect we’ve all experienced these emotions and can point to times when they flare up inside us. Our judgment in such moments is clouded; we resist anyone who tries to tell us something different. We become deaf and blind to every other reality around us. We project our fear onto others and we will not acknowledge our vulnerability. We are unwilling to let go our hurts. We refuse to believe we cannot be in control. We continue to try to tip the world in our direction, spilling its benefits and favours our way. We seek to retain those privileges and entitlements we’ve always assumed are ours. We’re devastated when we discover human love is uncertain and unreliable.
Yet, in faith we hear about God creating the world out of love. This beautiful creation around us, the cosmos singing its eternal songs of joy and love in a way only God can hear in its beauty and majesty. The symphony of sun rising and setting, the moon and stars in their patterns, the life-changing seasons, the wildlife, the dawn chorus, the fish and the great oceans, flowers and bare winter growth. It is astonishing and miraculous.
God spoke God’s Word and creation came into being. God was there before all things and God is there at the end. Paul writes to the Colossians:
Christ is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible… all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the first-born from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For it pleased God that in him all fullness should dwell, and through all things be reconciled to himself. (Colossians 1 15-20)
God established a world out of love to live in love, which has since chosen other ways to live. Humans are created in God’s image; and, as God seeks to bring this creation back into the fullness of relationship with which it was intended to exist, God freely gave us God’s Son to break open the world, renewing God’s will on earth as it is in heaven. Doing so now, not in some distant future, but here for all time and for all people.
In a world filled with death-dealing powers, the love of God is a light shining in the darkness. This outpoured love of God for God’s world is revealed in the gift of God’s only Son. The Word became flesh and came to live with us. God gives of God’s very being in an act of self-sacrifice for the whole world; earth-shattering in its magnitude and humility.
God does not love only those who gather on Sunday in the right church with the right rules, not just the religiously inclined, not just those who have heard Jesus’ name, nor just those who determine who’s in or out of their theological club, but the whole world.
God gives of God’s self in Christ to show the way of life and light in darkness and death which has been humanity’s choice in ignorance and despair.
However, we remember God’s love does not coerce us into relationship with God – even though this is our experience as humans. God invites us to choose whether we will love God in return. But irrespective of our choice, God’s love is not deflected or removed. It is not unreliable, conditional, time-limited or untrustworthy. Its not demanding or angry. Its not violent or abusive. Its not male or female. It is God, beyond understanding, it simply is always present, whether we acknowledge it, see it or not.
The choice to love God is built into the very essence of our lives, but the power of this decision is so overwhelming we often choose to walk away from it; minimize it, keep it manageable and shoved into the spare places in our lives so it doesn’t disrupt.
Yet the decision to love God in return does not require our understanding. To be honest, it was never intended to make sense. God’s love doesn’t require me to take an exam, fill in a form or learn some rules. If we choose to accept God’s love, we find we want to share the good news of being loved now in God’s kingdom. The ongoing work of creation is brought deliciously into view in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus in his work on earth, just as it is in heaven.
I have experienced being in love and as with all loving relationships, it means I want to help the beloved. I pay attention to what is important to the other. I care about what I say and do with the one I love.
Now imagine this with God. God’s attention and love for us is all embracing. Those who choose to accept this love find they can do nothing more than reflect back to God and those around them what this means to them. Their lives are filled and shared with love and it shines like a light filled with joy.
To those who choose otherwise, such love shining in our hearts and in our lives is uncomfortable. It reminds them of choices they’ve made and the consequences. So some turn back to the darkness as such love disturbs and discomforts. Christians come to the light of Jesus and when they go out into the world, Christ is the light by which they see.
Some who love the darkness, live imagining eternal life is to be found in the accumulation of possessions or prestige and power. For some, the darkness is a land of addiction to short term fixes which can never mask the long-term pain.
The church has found itself in this darkness on many an occasion when it tries to domesticate Jesus, telling him what he can and cannot do or say, who he can and cannot save. Frequently, the evil deeds done in the dark have become so commonplace and habitual we can’t recognise this way of life is not Jesus’.
To say no to God’s love is to choose a life in the familiar darkness of the world we have been taught to call reality. It is to be condemned to the living hell of the ‘real world’.
Yet believing and trusting in Jesus, means living purposefully in God’s extraordinary love for the world. We are invited to live in response to the gift of love of God for all people. My own experience is echoed in Psalm 40:10
Surely the Lord will grant his loving mercy in the daytime: and in the night, his song will be with me, a prayer to the God of my life.
It is worth ending with the Easter conclusion of John’s gospel which returns us to God’s love for the world and our response in belief. The risen Jesus breathes new life on his disciples, on you and I, commissioning us as messengers of God’s reconciling, forgiving, healing love, Jesus’ fingerprints spread over the whole world.
The Lord be with you.