We approach World Communion Sunday this week acutely aware of the divisions among us. We need desperately the reminder communion offers that we are all God’s children helping each other through this life. John chapter three provides us this reminder. God sent Jesus into the world to provide hope in the midst of brokenness, then as now. We sometimes wield this promise of hope as a measuring stick. But, if we consider verses 17-21 as often as we do verse 16, we find liberation from the judgments we pass on others and ourselves, making possible the healing we find at the communion table.
16 “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.
17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”
World wide communion is a Sunday in our worship year that seeks to remind us of our fundamental unity in the midst of our diversity, we are called to focus upon whom we worship more than the ways we worship.
Unfortunately, in real life, the shrillness of our dialogue exposes our need to be right and our fear that we will be discounted. We are a divided world and a divided nation. In the world, we have heads of state calling each other deranged and dotards. And in our nation, we act as if patriotism and courage can be determined by who stands or kneels for the national anthem. Have we forgotten that we have fought wars to maintain the freedom to disagree? No matter which ‘side’ you are on, have we forgotten the words, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” (see footnote***) Our indignation is threatening our secular heritage not to mention our Christian beliefs. It is a day we need world wide communion–precisely because there is so little of it.
Our scripture this week is a benchmark of our faith but even these familiar words are easily misused. John 3:16 is found stenciled on football players faces, on the back of trucks and on billboards across the nation. Maybe it is time to pay attention to what it says. “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…” This is not a verse about child sacrifice. It is about the expansive, inclusive love of God. It is a verse about God’s love for a broken world. We are saved from a life of futility and a life of ever repeating errors to an eternal life of meaning, purpose and safety with God. As a species we stubbornly hold onto ways of living that seem rational—survival of the fittest, achievement, obedience, self defence, accumulation of power, security, winning, etc—but which inevitably fail us. The need to preserve self is hard wired into us and can not be denied. But it cannot be the only basis for living.
I have come to believe that it literally takes divine intervention to show us another way. Without such intervention we will continue to turn toward ourselves instead of God in the way we live our lives. We will continue to repeat patterns that consistently fail outright or which have short-lived half lives. We had to be shown another way.
Every one of us repeat patterns we know are bad for us—patterns that are proven to fail. Lives based primarily on self-reliance and on self-interest have bad endings. On a grand scale, they are the values of the world and we often admire them. But watching out for number one inevitably means adversarial competition, exploitation and diminishment of peoples.
A far more ordinary way to say the same thing is: “you can live a long time on Doritos but finally you will die of malnourishment.” In the short run, junk food is very satisfying but it does not feed the body. Jesus points us toward nourishment. Jesus is the light and Jesus redefines life. Secular life, the sum of our accomplishments, will end in death— even if it takes a few generations. But Jesus promises that if we live his way, we can be part of the eternal. He points us toward reliance upon God, humility, service and mindfulness—no matter how the world views us. He endured what the world called the end—-humiliation, helplessness and painful death—to show us that life and love go on and will prevail. That’s what it means to believe in Him and to live in the light. It is not a way of living we ‘naturally’ aspire to.
Ironically, even these promises of grace can be used to condemn. In its worst iteration, ’believing in Jesus’ becomes a test in itself. Humans try to arbitrate who has ‘proper’ belief—who is in and who is out of God’s love. That is not what God wants for us. Hence the next verse: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
Signposts of grace all too easily become the measuring sticks of our worthiness. The second we do that, we start turning from God. The signpost points us toward the eternal. It is like saying Canada is to the north. If we want to get to Canada, we need a direction and an orientation. In real life we may only get to Chattanooga but the distance we travel is less important than our trying to travel North. Every bit of our compassion moves us toward the eternal. Our human compassion will fall far short of what God wants— but showing compassion remains the direction God calls us. It is paradoxical but it is only when we come before God seeking him and trusting him with our shortcoming can it be “…clearly seen that (all) their deeds have been done in God.”
We used last week’s discussion of the Good Samaritan to illustrate how easily we can make God’s grace about us instead of God. An ongoing struggle in our group was trying to figure out how to be a good neighbor. This is a very important question but if we try compare our capacity for compassion to that of the Samaritan, we will routinely fall short. It is only a short human step from realizing our limitations to feeling guilty about them. And if we are guilty, we are likely ashamed. And if we are ashamed we will prefer the darkness.
One our most devastating repeating patterns is our judgment–of self and others. Very few of us are able to claim our failing and trust that we will be received. It turns out it is very hard to believe that “those who believe in him are not condemned…” It is completely counter intuitive, it is contrary to the way of the world to come into the light when we have done wrong or view ourselves as ‘not enough’. We do not want to risk ridicule or rejection.
Last week I spoke with a woman with this same dilemma in her marriage. By her own description, she had a wonderful husband and her marriage had withstood any number of difficult life predicaments. But in her secret self, she often worried if her husband ‘could do better’. She did not feel at risk but had a hard time trusting that he could fully know her and stay with her because he cherished her—not because he was ‘obligated’ by practicality or his promises. As far as my experience goes, her anxiety is ordinary and probably universal to the institution of marriage. It is very hard to believe we can be fully known and simply loved. It is hard to believe that love does not depend on our being enough. Yet that is God’s promise.
Humans try to arbitrate who has ‘proper’ belief—who is in and who is out of God’s love. We are so busy judging ourselves and others, we forget that ‘God so loved the world’. That is not what God wants for us.
We do not need to self-judge nor do we need to judge others if we are safe with God. Phrases like living in the light and eternal life are frustratingly inadequate to express the experience of being safe with God. We do not make it in this world by being perfect, we make it by being accountable to the one who loves us—to the one who is the light of the world. We simply can not do that without the promise of God’s embrace.
World wide communion reminds us who we worship and why we worship. Jesus shows us the way and because we are safe with Him, we can share the table with those who stand or kneel —those we oppose and those we agree with. God is at work saving his people.
Lord of all, help us to love as we have been loved. Help us to be in communion. Let it be so.
***I discovered to my surprise that this quote is falsely attributed to Voltaire but is in fact from Evelyn Beatrice Hall in her book Friends of Voltaire. It still captures the spirit of respect for free speech. Ironically, she had to use a male pseudonym in order to be heard. In her day, she was a ‘disobedient’ woman. She reminds me that new truths almost by definition must come from outside of the expected.