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June, 11 2017

Most Holy Trinity (A)

Rev. Richard Eslinger

ou may have seen him, the guy in the end zone seat at the bowl game.  Every time one team or another scores at that end, when the kicker attempts the extra point, there he is, standing up in front of the TV camera and holding his sign:  “John 3:16.”  Right there in the middle of the huge crowd, one guy bearing witness to the gospel.  You know the verse in St. John, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.”  Of course, our friend in the crowd was holding up the sign for the television audience and hardly anyone else in those end zone seats probably even could see what it said.  But if they did see it, and if they did know John 3:16, you have to wonder what kind of time out conversation would have happened.  It certainly would have been interesting. 

     See, there are probably a lot of folks who have trouble with this huge announcement that God loves the world.  They may be sure that God loves them and people like them, but as for God loving the world, well that’s another story.  Fact is, for many people in our world, there is absolute certainty that God precisely does not love those not like themselves—the others are the “godless,” or the infidels,” or the other political party, or some other religious groups or denomination.  Sometimes, it is an entire nation or ethnic group that is viewed as the enemy of God.  “If God loves us,” the logic goes, “then God must hold those people in distain.”  So we watch the news and see people holding other signs—their faces twisted in anger.  The signs attack other groups and beliefs not their own.  Even at the funeral of a soldier, the hateful sign holders are there, trying to refute St. John’s proclamation that God loves the world.  “No,” the response comes, “God only loves certain of us in the world.”  And they might add “And when the rapture comes, God will take us right out of this wicked place.”  So loving the world may be too big a challenge for God according to all sorts of people and all kinds of groups.  How much easier it would be if St. John had said, “God loves some of humanity, but hates the rest.”  But no, here it is: “God so loved the world.”  All of it. 

     So while that dispute is going on in the end zone, there is quite likely another division within the crowd that has nothing to do with which team’s colors them are wearing.  This one picks up on the One who God gives to the world.  The word in John 3:16 means “only-begotten,” and Jesus, therefore, is proclaimed as God’s only complete and full revelation in the world.  Now, of course, anyone who is an adherent of another religion would object to this witness.  But many more might have problems with this witness to the “only-begotten” Son because such a singular claim is, well, a scandal.  “Look,” they might say, “we have no problem with Jesus—great moral teacher—but there are all kinds of inspired sages and religious teachers who should also be considered sons or daughters of God.”  And, in fact, we live in a culture that seems to prefer such an arrangement.  Look at some of the Hollywood celebrities.  They are into all sorts of religious groups with a boggling variety of practices and beliefs.  Not only that, some celebrities keep changing from one to another just like they change designer wardrobes.  But this much is certain, there are many in our world who do not warm to the notion that there is One who is the “only-begotten” of God.  The fancy word for that claim is “the scandal of particularity.”  Nicely translated, the words of a hymn from Zimbabwe expresses the “scandal”: 

            There’s no one in this world like Jesus, there’s no one in the world like him.”*

Well, now we have at least two contests going on up in the stands, all called forth by that sign, “John 3:16.”  On one hand, there are quite a few folks who are not all that happy to hear about this boundless, unmeasured love of God for the world he created.  On the other hand, some really have a problem with anyone who sings that “There’s no one in this world like Jesus.” But if we can extend the time out for just a bit longer, maybe now is the time to speak more directly to the man holding the sign.  Maybe the best way to do this is to ask a couple of questions to this one who is bearing witness.  And the first goes something like this:  “Well, friend, thank you for your courage and willingness to be a fool for Christ.  What do you think of the voices that shout at you about God not loving this or that group or this or that person?”  What if the man responded this way: 

Well, I am not naïve, and I know there are really bad people in this world, people who hate others and are happy when they make them suffer.  And I also know there are lots of people who even wish me wrong because of my faith.  But, you know, I try to take this Christian faith seriously.  I was reading one Bible commentary on John 3:16 and I really think the writer got it:  “God offers life to his enemies.”**  That’s what I wish these fans and the people watching the game could come to know about God.  It doesn’t make any sense from a human point of view.  And yet, as Jesus told Nicodemus, you have to be born from above to understand these things.  You have to be born of the Spirit. 

Well, now, we didn’t expect to hear that kind of response from our sign-holding friend, did we?  Those words put us on pause.  “God offers life to his enemies.”  That is so insane you do need to be born of the Spirit to believe it, and to live it. 

     Now comes the second issue, the witness to the “only-begotten Son.”  And here, once again, our sign carrier has a word for us: 

See, Jesus is not just another of the “sons” or “daughters” of God.  Although for those of us who believe in him and witness to his truth, we become the children of God.  No, Jesus Christ is the Son of the Father, and the Father gave the Son to be the Word made flesh—to be lifted up on the cross and in glory.  And it is the gift of the Spirit to us that grants us the joy of being born from above.  So I do believe the creed I say every Sunday:  “We believe,…One God, the Father,…One Lord, Jesus Christ,…the Holy Spirit.”  That’s what I mean when I hold up this sign. 

Now once again, our friend has caused us to pause and think.  He has just confessed the historic creed of the church and links his belief to bearing witness.  He seems rather compelled to show his sign to the world every chance he gets.  He wants no one to perish, wants everyone to hear the gospel and respond in belief.  He names himself as one of the children of God and confesses Jesus as the only-begotten Son. 

     The next question comes naturally.  We ask the man about his church, the community that proclaims the Catholic faith each Sunday.  How do they live it out, this faith in the Holy Trinity?  So our friend tells us about his parish, its vital worship, the sacramental life of the people.  And he goes on to speak about the ways in which his church lives out its Triune faith—the missional caring for the poor and homeless, the witness for life and human dignity—for the unborn, the sick, and the dying.  He tells about the prison ministry the parish has begun and how they have such a passion for making new Christians.  And he adds, “And would you believe that we just had an interreligious dialogue with those who do not believe John 3:16?  And then the man with the sign turns the tables on us.  “So what do you think about John 3:16?  Do you believe it?  And if you do, how do you bear witness to this insane love of God?”  Well, fortunately, the time out is over and the noise of the crowd drowns out any response to his questions.  Still, we do recall that our Lord asked that same question to Martha right before he called Lazarus out of the tomb.  “Do you believe this?”  May we be so born of the Spirit that we will never be a Nicodemus “secret Christian,” but remain a child of the light.  And as children of God, we will soon be fed with the Bread come down from heaven and be strengthened to bear witness to the love of God in his world.

Amen.

 *”There’s No One in This World Like Jesus,” Trad. Shona, Zimbabwe.  English trans. by  Patrick Matsikenyiri.

**Paul S. Minear, The Martyr’s Gospel.  New York: Pilgrim Press, 1984.  41.

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