Saturday 29 May 2021

“For God so loved the world”

When we say “God so loved the world”, what do we think of as “the world”? The world of people? The world of business? The sinful, evil world we imagine always being out there? The world of nature? The universe that God created? All things we can think of as “the world”. 

The Book of Common Prayer baptism service includes rejection of “ devil, the world, and the flesh.” 

I mean, first up. Yes. Obviously reject the devil. Very sensible. Not a good bone in whatever body the definition of rebellion against God possesses. Let's get rejecting the devil very clearly out there. Rejecting the devil is very much, in my opinion, a good thing. Spotting the devil in order to reject the devil, often trickier.

But how do we reject the world? What meaning of world? We can love the world too much - and get obsessed with ambition, riches and what have you. What meaning of flesh? Obviously we can become obsessed with things that make us feel good. Or, these days, we can be driven to things that make us too sad about the flesh we have. Look too much at magazine articles and vlogs and influencers that are all about perfect bodies and not our own ordinary bodies. Either way, that’s not good. We aren’t called to make either gods or devils of our own bodies.

But God made the world.  We are told in the beginning, when God created the world, his Word was what brought things into life. And God’s Spirit was on the waters of chaos. And God said the things of the World are Good. 

And the Word - as Jesus - became flesh. So these things aren’t bad. Flesh and the world aren’t actually bad. Flesh must be good because God walked around made of it.

And now we’re told this. “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. That whoever believes in him will not perish, but will have eternal life.”

So God loves this world that God made. Maybe God’s not so fond of some of the things we do with it. And maybe we have lost God's own wonder at the world. We can lose the sheer joy of the world in our modern, industrial, technological lives. Sometimes the computer screen, or the phone, or the motorway ahead of us, or the building opposite, is all that we see. 

And we’ve inherited from the Industrial Revolution a view of the world that it’s there to exploit - a thing we’ve conquered, and a thing we’re separate from. We extract gravel from farmland so we can make cities and we suck oil from the ground to make the toys in McDonalds Happy Meals so they can wash up on Turkish beaches in 10 years time and the earth itself is just a resource for us.

But God loves this world. So much that God’s son came for it. All of it. We can go down to the individual level in a minute. But worth staying at a higher level for a mo. God loves this world. Its geology, its plants, its animals, the amazing way it sustains life. God also loves the entire universe that the world moves through. God made it beautiful and even with its flaws and dangers, it is beautiful.

And then God loves us. And God makes us a special case. First up - he sent his Son, who came as one of us. Imagine the cost to God of giving the Son? You can’t. I can’t. It’s a mystery. We’re not God. But it must be costly, as God had to love us so much that it was worth it. And his Son was lifted up on a cross so we can all be saved. And that’s an amazing image Jesus uses about the snake in the desert. I’m sure you’ll all remember the story from Numbers, but in case you don’t - there was an outbreak of snakes in the desert. And the people of Israel came to Moses and said “make the snakes go away”. And God didn’t make the snakes go away. Instead, he got Moses to lift up a bronze snake on a pole. And though the snakes kept on biting the people, if they looked at the snake they didn’t die but they were saved.

In the same way - remember the snake in the Garden of Eden - well, the curse he talked our mythical ancestors Adam and Eve into hasn’t gone away. We still have temptation and we still have sin. But Jesus is saying here - even though sin is in the world, and even though you still sin - look up to me and you will be saved. You will be a subject of the Kingdom of Heaven. 

But Jesus I think is also saying, beyond that - because you’re sinful, you actually need to know to look up to him for your forgiveness. Under your own power, you can’t even find the forgiveness that is available to you. 

So Jesus says - you must be born from God. Through water and the Spirit. Born from above, because you can’t do it in your own strength. I’m not going to give you a definition of what “born from water and the Spirit” means, as after 2,000 years of analysis there’s at least four possible ways of explaining it and we wouldn’t have time! But what it says to me is that God’s spirit is working with our human nature. And I’ll get the rest of the explanation eventually.

Last Monday the Church of England, and hopefully last Sunday the Methodist Church, remembered John and Charles Wesley. Not on the date that either of them died, which is a bit unusual. But on what I call, as an old Methodist, Aldersgate Day. It’s the day John Wesley went to meeting at a chapel in Aldersgate St in the City of London, and someone read from Luther’s preface to the book of Romans. And Wesley wrote later, “while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” 

And the funny thing was, he’d been a priest in the Church of England for 10 years by then.

But I think that was the Holy Spirit working in Wesley. He’d gone from a dry faith, about what he did and what he’d always believed - and to be fair he’d known he needed more. And now he had a direct experience of the Spirit working in him. Giving him the faith he needed in Jesus. And giving him the assurance that through Jesus’s work on the cross, he was forgiven all the things he had done wrong.

Now some people read “born from above” (or “born again”) and think it prescribes a very stereotypical way that you become a Christian. You’re full of sin. You think to yourself, there is nobody to help me. You hear the Gospel. You become a Christian. Hallelujah! You’re born again.

And if that happened to you, that’s all well and good. It more or less did to me, as it happens. But it’s only one way, in my opinion, that you become a Christian. Millions of people have become Christian by being steadily going to church all their lives, loving Jesus and being filled with the Spirit, and not needing to have a crisis experience. Jesus says that people who are born of the Spirit are like the wind. You can’t control where they’re coming from or where they’re going to. And to prescribe how other people become Christians is I believe like trying to put chains on the Holy Spirit. You shouldn’t try it. And it won’t work. Let’s rejoice however people come to Jesus, not give other people our patterns to fit into. And let the Spirit blow where the Spirit wants. Which is what will happen anyway. You don’t have to be like me, and I don’t have to be like you and that is all good. What matters is that we know Jesus and we are filled by the Spirit.

So Trinity Sunday. I’ve not tried to do any illustrations of the Trinity. Not tried to explain the Trinity. I won’t. The Trinity is a mystery. The Creeds don’t explain the Trinity - they put a hedge around the definitions. Tell us what is safe to say, what we can say. And then leave it.

But the revelation of the Trinity to us is utterly woven through this passage that we’ve heard. God so loved the world that God sent the Son. The Son is lifted up for us to be saved. And the Spirit is the one that brings us to new birth in God, lifts up our eyes to Jesus, moves us forward and guides us in our faith. That’s not a theoretical Trinity that we might try to investigate like a lab specimen and define under a microscope, if we were so arrogant. That’s the living Trinity of love. The Trinity that made us, loves us, makes all things new, and brings us to eternal life. May we continue to know that open, generous, love of God the Holy Trinity, three in one. And may we reflect that love in our lives, forever.


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