Text: John 3:16
In the spring of 1979, while at the Southern Baptist Convention in New Orleans, a Texas judge by the name of Paul Pressler and the then-president of Criswell Bible College in Texas, Dr. Paige Patterson, met at a restaurant on Bourbon Street to hatch out a plan to “take over” the Southern Baptist Convention. Their vision was to restore the then-moderate Southern Baptist Convention into the hands of the fundamentalists, returning power to those who believed in the inerrancy of the scripture, that women should not be in pastoral leadership roles, and that wives should be submissive to their husbands. The plan: to control the nominating process for all Southern Baptist institutions and boards, therefore naming all the presidents and trustees to those institutions. Their plan was smart, powerful, shrewd, manipulative, controlling, and calculating and it worked like a charm. One of their first targets was Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and while it had taken them several years to set the wheels in motion, by 1986-87, my second year at Southeastern, the takeover was in full swing. Secret meetings of the trustees were being held. Hostile pressure was being applied to our beloved president, Dr. Randall Lolley, for his resignation. Professors were being closely monitored and the content of class lectures was being used to fire the best theological minds teaching at the seminary. As students, many of us were outraged and enraged at what we saw unfolding before our eyes. With a commitment to not go down quietly, (it’s never good to cross young rebellious wannabe theologians) the students banded together. We wrote letters of support for our administration and professors. We actively protested the trustee meetings. And on those rare occasions when there was an open trustee board meeting we would fill the room with our presence and our anger.
I shall never forget one of the last trustee meetings in which students were allowed to attend. The takeover was all but complete and yet, for this one last trustee meeting, students were invited to speak. I can only remember one speech from that day standing in that board room. And it was not made by one of my fellow classmates. One of the trustees stood before us and dared to claim that what the trustees had done was out of their love for God and their love for Southeastern and their commitment that the seminary stand on Godly principles. In total disbelief and in a deafening silence, students and professors alike turned and walked out. Some of us made our way to our next class. For me, that next class happened to be a theology class with Dr. Elizabeth Barnes-one of the best theology and life teachers I have ever had. The image of what happened next will be forever imprinted in my mind. Dr. Barnes a very distinguished, articulate, and poised woman, leaned into the lectern that day, looked us square in the eyes and said, “Luv, luv, luv. Tell me, what is love?” Obviously, that pompous trustee’s speech had had nothing to do with love in Dr. Barnes’ opinion and we were getting ready to hear all about it. And we were ready students. What is love?
Possibly no other scripture raises the question of, “What is love?” more profoundly than John 3:16. For God so LOVED the world, that God gave God’s only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. My first thought reading this scripture is a bit like that trustee saying that the hostile takeover of Southeastern came from a place of love. Both seem to me to be love gone wrong. But for some reason, in these past days, I have not been able to leave the John 3:16 passage there. No, if this God in Jesus’ story is really about transforming me-changing my life-then it seemed there was more to contemplate if I, if we, truly want to understand what real, sacred, life transforming God love is.
Frederick Herzog, distinguished professor of systematic theology at Duke University, lectured frequently about how the word “love” has been used and misused in theology to manipulate and control our responses to God and each other. His basic premise is that love fails to serve us unless we are willing and committed to flesh it out and give it content. Like all other words, he says, love is just another word until we can learn how to fill it out with more specific words-words like mercy, justice, compassion, and self-sacrifice.
For God so LOVED the world, that God gave God’s only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life may be the best example we have of what it means to fill out or give content to the true meaning of love. For sure, the Jesus story, unlike any other, embodies what it means to love-to show mercy, to do justice, to live compassionately, and to think of others more than ourselves. We may not like it. We may not like the cost of such love but one thing is for sure: we can’t deny the power that such love has had in our world for over two thousand years.
For years, I have gotten stuck in the notion that Jesus had to die so that the rest of us may know love-specifically God’s love. There is still something about that thought that I struggle with and probably will always struggle with. But the more I live and listen to your stories and my own story, the more I understand that pain and suffering is simply a part of the human experience-a part we cannot ignore. But as real as pain and suffering are in our lives, there is another truth to be told about our living. And it is this. We have a choice about what we do with our pain and suffering-how we understand it, how we live with it, and how we move from it. Some wise person once said to me that if we focus only on the loss and the pain and the suffering of the Jesus story, then we allow the story to end in the wrong place. I had done that with the Jesus story-I had gotten stuck in the pain and suffering and had allowed the story to end in the wrong place. And now, as I read John 3:16 as if for the first time, I am faced with a new question, “Do I have the courage to move through the pain and suffering-that of the Jesus story and my own story-and believe and trust that that is not where the story ends.
For God so LOVED the world, that God gave.…As I was preparing this sermon I wanted to know how the word “gave” translated in the original Greek. What I learned is that the word “gave” translates “bestowed”-as in one bestowing a gift upon another. Wow. What an image. God has bestowed upon us a gift of love and that gift was filled out, given content, made human in the form of the person Jesus-the embodiment of mercy, justice, compassion and self-sacrifice. We can accept this gift and allow it to be bestowed upon us with all that it is-grace, mercy, pain, suffering, compassion and justice-or we can reject it simply because we don’t or can’t understand it. I wonder, “How willing are we to receive/accept this gift given to us or bestowed upon us?” Dr. Barnes would often remind her students that Jesus was as good at receiving as he was at giving and again and again she would remind us of the story of the woman who anointed his feet with the expensive jar of oil and wiped them with her hair and his gracious acceptance of that gift. Yes, I wonder, if we are willing to be just as gracious in accepting God’s gift of love to us? Remember, to stop with the suffering and the pain of the gift is to allow the story to end in the wrong place.
So, what is love? Here’s what I know-right now, today. Love, God’s love, is a mystery. It is not our work to try and solve the mystery of love but rather to accept it. It is simply our privilege to try and live into it with all its complexity, trusting in its power. Love is a gift-it is not a commodity you can buy, or earn, or even fully deserve. In its essence, it is a gift, it is a grace. And our deepest response is gratitude. Love is always justice-seeking. It is tough, willing to confront the inequities and injustices which inevitably exist in our world and in our relationships. Love is radically merciful and forgiving, taking from our hands the burdensome luggage from the past, the pain and the suffering, offering the possibility to begin again…and again…and again. Love is wild and freeing-never controlling or manipulating or asking us to be someone we are not. Love compels us to live fully in the freedom of who we understand God has created us to be. Yes, sometimes love is lonely and self-sacrificing and sometimes even painful. But even in that, we have the promise that love never fails us.
To say I love you means very little unless that love is filled out with more specific words and actions-those of mercy and compassion; of self-sacrifice and fairness; of justice and truth. Contrary to Paul Pressler and Paige Patterson and often our world’s way of thinking and acting, love does not seek power; it is not shrewd, nor manipulative, controlling, or calculating. Love at its core, however, is both powerful and transforming-it changes our lives if we have the courage to accept it as a gift. Love filled out is what gives the God story, the Jesus story, and our own love stories the power to shake the very foundations on which we stand. What is love? For God so LOVED the world…for God so LOVES you…that God gave God’s only Son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have life-here and now. May the foundation on which you stand be shaken with such love.