God So Loved the World
December 07, 2003
God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him will not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned, but those who do not believe stand condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God's only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their actions were evil. Those who do evil hate the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But those who live by the truth come into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done through God.
Reading from Swedenborg
We know that love exists, but we do not know what love is. We know from everyday conversation that love exists, since we say, "He loves me," "The citizens love their ruler," "The husband and wife love each other," "The mother and her children love each other," and, "They love their country, their fellow citizens, and their neighbors." We also talk about loving things that aren't alive, as in, "He loves this or that thing." But even though we are constantly talking about love, hardly anyone knows what love is.
Since we cannot come up with any clear idea about love when we stop to think about it, we either say that love is not really anything at all, or we say that it is merely something that flows in from what we see, hear, touch, and talk about, and that it influences us in that way. We are entirely unaware that love is our very life. And love is not only the generalized life of our whole body and all our thoughts; love is the life of every single part of us. (Divine Love and Wisdom #1)
Thanksgiving is past. Our stomachs have been filled, perhaps a little too full. I hope our souls have been filled too, both with the warmth of sharing a holiday feast with family and friends and with the warmth of gratitude for all of the Lord's blessings.
Now we are entering the season of Advent, when we have especially strong reasons to be thankful for the Lord's blessings. We are preparing ourselves to celebrate the greatest gift and the greatest blessing that has ever come to humankind: the Lord's birth among us as a little baby who would become our Savior. This morning, as we begin those spiritual preparations, I would like to share with you some of our church's beliefs about who the Lord was and is, why he came to earth, and what this means to us.
Some of you may be familiar with what I have to say; others may be less familiar. Either way, our beliefs about the Lord are so central to our faith that it is good to revisit them and remind ourselves of who it is that is at the center of our faith and our life.
Another reason to revisit our beliefs about the Lord is that there are many ideas about Jesus Christ running around in the world. Some of them are good and genuine, but others can lead to real problems, both for those who believe in them and for those who feel some of the negative effects of what we consider to be faulty beliefs. I am thinking not only of the more literal or fundamentalist views of Jesus, but also of the more humanistic views. We need to examine these perspectives as well our own church's views so that we can have a clear, constructive, and living faith.
The passage we heard from John this morning is one of the most commonly quoted passages among Evangelical Christians. It is also one of the most troubling for people with a more liberal, humanistic perspective, because it says that those who do not believe in the God's only Son stand condemned already due to that lack of belief. Many people these days cannot accept the idea that God would condemn people just because they do not believe in Jesus. But for an Evangelical Christian, this is one of the prime motivators for making converts to Christianity.
How can we resolve this dilemma? How can we have a strong faith in the Lord in the midst of such conflicting and emotionally packed views?
Let's step back from this muddle for a moment and consider some of our church's most basic teachings about who God is. Our reading from Swedenborg is one of my favorite passages in his writings. It is the opening statement in his great cosmological work Divine Love and Wisdom. After setting the stage by remarking on how little we understand love--even though we talk about it all the time--Swedenborg grabs our attention with this bold statement: "We are entirely unaware that love is our very life. And love is not only the generalized life of our whole body and all our thoughts; love is the life of every single part of us."
We are love! Love is not merely a wispy feeling or influence. Love is our very life--our guts, our substance, our being! Everything we do comes from love, because love is who and what we are. Without love, we are nothing.
This is no accident. The reason we are love is that God is love. And just as the love that drives us and makes us who we are is shaped by our knowledge and understanding, our faith and beliefs about life and its meaning, so also the infinite love at God's core is shaped and directed by God's infinite wisdom. Infinite love flowing through infinite wisdom. That is our God! And God's love and wisdom are just as warm, bright, and human . . . no, much more warm, bright, and human than our own deepest and most personal emotions and beliefs.
We are love and wisdom because God is love and wisdom. Swedenborg states this very clearly in True Christian Religion #37:
God is love itself and wisdom itself; these two form his essence. Our earliest ancestors realized that love and wisdom are the two essentials that account for all the infinite qualities that are in God and flow out from him. . . . Love cannot exist in the abstract without taking form; rather, it works in and through forms. And since God is the genuine, only, and primary substance and form--the essence of which is love and wisdom--and since everything that was made came from him, this means that he created the universe and all its parts out of love through wisdom. So divine love together with divine wisdom are present in every single created thing. Further, love is not only the essence that forms everything; it also joins them together and unites them, and in this way keeps together the things that have been created.
God's love, says Swedenborg, is not only the source of everything created; it is also the attractive force that holds all things and all people together. God's love makes it possible for us to love each other, to care about each other, to work and to play for each other's happiness. God's love in us makes us human beings.
God is pure, infinite love. And as Swedenborg explains later on in Divine Love and Wisdom, from that pure and infinite love God could not help but create beings who have their own identity and can choose of their own free will to accept God's love, and to love God in return. We--you and I and every other person on earth--are the beings whom God created to be capable of receiving God's love and loving God in return. And whatever else we do here on earth, the choice of whether or not to accept and return God's love is by far the most important choice we will ever make. Other things we do may make us more comfortable or happier for a time, but allowing God's love into our lives will give us a deeper joy that will remain with us both here and to eternity.
Now let's take this view of God as infinitely loving and wise back to our passage from John. "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him will not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him." Yes! It had to be from pure love that God sent his only Son into the world to reach out to us and save us. And through the perfect life that Jesus lived, he became not only God's Son, but reunited himself with the Divine he came from, becoming one and the same as God. Because of this, God now has a personal presence with us in the form of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. And God did all of this, not from any sense of wrath or anger or thwarted justice against the human race. No! As John says, it was because God so loved the world--meaning God loved each and every one of us.
I recall a conversation years ago with one of my high school friends. As the decade of the seventies pushed on, this girl must have been one of the last of the Jesus freaks. She was also a big Janis Joplin fan. One day as we were sitting on a grassy hill outside the school building, she said to me, "I really love Janis Joplin. She's got such a great voice! It's too bad she's in hell."
"What?" I replied, not quite believing my ears.
"Yes," she said, "It's too bad she's in hell. She didn't accept Jesus as her Lord and Savior." I didn't know quite what to say. I had heard that people believed this sort of thing, but until that conversation, I had never really believed that people believed it.
But there is a curious thing about our reading from John. Though it does say that those who do not believe in God's only Son are condemned already, it does not say who condemns them. Many people of literalistic beliefs have jumped to the conclusion that it is God who condemns them. But a God of pure love cannot condemn--and John himself tells us that "God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world." The Bible also says that God "causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous" (Matthew 5:45).
No, it is not God who condemns us when we refuse to have faith; it is not God who condemns us when we refuse to accept God's love. It is we who condemn ourselves. And we condemn ourselves by shutting ourselves off from the only source of genuine love, light, and joy--because God's love is our life.
We do not need to dogmatically insist that people must literally accept Jesus as their Savior in order to be saved. What really saves us is our belief in the love and wisdom of God that Jesus represents--and our willingness to live from that love and wisdom.
Do we truly believe that God is love and God is wisdom, and that Jesus Christ expresses the love and wisdom of God? If so, then we must realize that every time people accept the love of God--no matter what their particular beliefs are--they are accepting and believing in the essence of who Jesus was. And they are saved through their acceptance and faith even if the God they worship wears a Hindu or Buddhist or Muslim or Jewish face. It is all the same God.
This is the message we can carry with us into our Advent season. God loves the entire world, including every single one of us, so much that God reaches out to us and comes to us in love, to show us the way back to God and the way back to each other's hearts. For us as Christians, that love is shown to us fully in our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, whose birth we are preparing to celebrate. This Advent season, may each one of you be touched deeply by the love and wisdom that comes to us through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Dear Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ, as we approach our celebration of your birth into the world, we pray that you will be born anew in our hearts and minds this Advent season. Two thousand years ago you came among us as the light of the world that shines out in the darkness. From your infinite love, shine into the dark parts of our own souls. Open our hearts to reach out to those who are separated from us by barriers of hurt, misunderstanding, and mistrust, so that we may all become one in your love. Amen.
Rev. Lee Woofenden