“God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that all who believe in him may not perish but may have everlasting life.”

For some reason that sentence reaches about as far back into my boyhood memories of going to church as any I know. It must have been posted on the wall in my Sunday School room. I must have heard sermons or talks about it. If you drive through my native South you’ll see it on billboards along the highway.

“God so loved the world that he gave his Son.” It speaks of God’s love for the whole, vast, perplexing universe. It is both personal and cosmic. It tells of the meaning of Christ’s entire life and ministry, and it speaks especially of the culmination of his life in the manner of his death. It’s what we hear in the Eucharist every week: “Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for you.”

We’re two weeks away now from the holiest days of the Christian year—from Palm Sunday to Good Friday to Easter. Before we know it we’ll be singing “O sacred head sore wounded” and “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” But today as a kind of preparation we hear maybe the best-known summary of the meaning of the entire week. John 3:16—“God so loved the world.”

The passage conjures up a lot of old words mainline Protestant Christians don’t use so much any more—words like sin, judgment, salvation, and redemption. They’ve fallen out of our vocabulary. We tend to think of God as the great, omnipotent ruler, the moral law giver. And preachers these days work hard to make this god relevant to an individualistic, consumer-oriented, wanting-to-feel-good audience. In modern, technological, comfortable America, who needs a savior anyway, people think? ‘We can do this ourselves.’ ‘Haven’t we advanced beyond this?’ A tough country character in a Flannery O’Connor novel says, “Any man with a bright red sports car don’t need any savior.” We’ve been living in a society of bright red sports cars.

The theologian H. Richard Niebuhr several decades ago summarized the bland faith for many Americans this way: “A God without wrath, brought human beings without sin, into a kingdom without judgment, through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”

If you’ve ever visited Michelangelo’s painting of the creation in the Sistine Chapel in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, you’ve seen God portrayed as this muscular, imperial, all-powerful God who rules over everything, a God worthy of a Christian empire. More moving to me is another image of God also in St. Peter’s—Michelangelo’s Pietà, standing just inside the huge bronze doors. There you see the sculpture of the grief-stricken Mary holding in her arms the lifeless body of her dead son, just after his crucifixion. You could easily miss this moving sculpture in all the hubbub of tourists in that grand space. But chances are you would see a few visitors standing quietly, solemnly taking in the image of a suffering, fallen God.

My guess is that most of us think of God as grand, remote, powerful. But then you follow a week or two of news like this past one. American fear has been turning to fury as the economy continues to stagger. We’re looking for scapegoats now on whom to vent our rage. The job lay-offs continue and plants are closing. We learn that the AIDS rate in the District of Columbia is close to the level of many African nations. Bombs go off in Cairo, shootings in Germany, genocide in Darfur. Meanwhile here at home all of us are carrying our own burdens—the diagnosis, the troubled child, the relationship. With all this, the notion of a controlling God rings hollow.

Maybe we need a savior after all and not just an inspiring teacher. Our problems are too deep for that. We humans are trapped in patterns of fear and selfishness, anxiety and violence, that no lesson from a teacher will cure. Maybe the most urgent news we could hear is the declaration that God has come into this mess of a world, that God’s Son has died for us, that here in the muddle and worry of our days we have a savior.

But why does it matter that Christ died for us? Through the centuries there have been several attempts to explain—theories of atonement, they are called. Jesus’ death was the ransom offered for the sake of our sins. Jesus was the debt paid to set us free from God’s wrath. Jesus on the cross won a victory of love over the evil of the world.

But these are all guesses—efforts to piece together an explanation of what Christians have believed for 2,000 years—that on the cross Jesus takes us deeper into the heart of God than anything else ever will, and accomplishes what no one else could. Something happened there that can redefine how you and I see our lives, and what can happen in a world as broken as ours.

Jesus didn’t have to go to Jerusalem. It wasn’t foreordained. He had a choice. But he knew that this urgent message of God’s demanding, welcoming, unstoppable love for everyone had to be taken to the center of power. And there they arrested and killed him.

Christians have often said that it was God’s will that Jesus die—as a payment for our sins. That has always made God seem to me like an angry, vengeful parent. And it implies that God was somehow staging a public performance to make his son suffer.

But what if we believe that from the beginning God has shared power with the creation and with us, and given us the capacity to act and love and create and choose, but also to wound and hurt and betray and destroy?

I actually believe it was God’s will and desire that Jesus would live, that the people of Israel would turn and follow him and live the lives of compassion and generosity they were made for. But instead the Roman authorities were threatened, and they killed him. Jesus wasn’t born to die, he was born to live and call us to live, and he died because he refused to stop saying and doing the things that would draw people back to God’s love.

Then after he hung on the cross and was raised in three days, his followers came to believe that they hadn’t just seen their leader dying a tragic death, they were seeing God’s own life, God’s own son, God’s own heart. There on the cross, Christ was showing us the consequences of our selfish, driven, self-absorbed ways. Judgment, we call that. And at the same time Christ was taking our destructive ways on himself and forgiving us, enabling us to turn away from our fearful, manipulative ways to live his way of love.

One of the great theologians of the last few decades has been a German named Jürgen Moltmann. As a 17-year old boy in 1943 he was drafted into the German army and lived through the Allied firebombing of his hometown of Hamburg where civilian casualties came to 40,000. That was when he first began to ask, “Where is God?”

Later as a British prisoner of war he was shown pictures of the death camps and the horrible evil his fellow countrymen had perpetrated. And he again found himself asking, “Where is God in all this?” Ultimately he began to see that the cross of Christ and faith in a suffering God were the only way that people could face the atrocities he had seen in the war.

In his great book The Crucified God he asked, “Is God the transcendent and untouched stage manager of the theater of this violent world, or is God in Christ the central engaged figure of the world’s tragedy?” He even came to say that in Christ on the cross God experienced every extremity human beings can endure, including the experience of being abandoned by God, and in loving Christ on the cross God experienced the searing depth of grief at a son’s loss.

Of course, we might prefer a superpower God who would keep bad things from happening. But instead we know a God who will not force us, and will not protect us from pain. But Christ on the cross promises us a love that will go with us no matter what, and this love is capable of picking up the pieces with us and making something whole and alive and new. On the cross we see that there is nothing that can ever happen, or that we can ever do, to throw us out of the reach of this love that wants to bring us home.

And so we Christians are called to live by this cross here and now, to show that there is unstoppable love at work. We are called to show in our life in the church this hopeful, patient, forgiving, truth-telling love that is only possible because Christ died for us. We are called to translate love into justice and hope on behalf of the hungry, the unemployed, the sick, the weak.

The fine preacher John Claypool used to say that Jesus was God’s answer to a bad reputation—this God so many have learned to reject or fear as they see the evil and tragedy of our world. Instead, Claypool would say, Jesus came to give a face to the mystery of God-ness, and in the face of Jesus we see the anguished love of God.

There’s one more part to this great verse. “God so loved the world… that those who believe in him will have eternal life.” What about those who don’t believe in him, we wonder? That needs a longer answer than I can give now. But let me say this. The love we see in Christ on the cross is for everyone, for Hindus and Buddhists and atheists and Muslims—all of them. And the love of God we see on that cross is working in everyone’s life, whether they acknowledge that or not, and by whatever name they call it.

A couple of years ago Garry Wills wrote a book called What Jesus Meant, and near the end when he talks about the cross he reaches for a simple story to capture its meaning. One night his son woke up crying with a nightmare and Wills asked him what was the matter. The little boy said that a nun at school had told the children that they would end up in hell if they sinned.

“Am I going to hell?” the little boy asked his father. Wills wrote, “There is not an ounce of heroism in my nature, but I instantly announced what any father would: ‘All I can say is that if you’re going there, I’m going with you.’”

That is the deepest truth of the Christian faith. There is nothing we can face, no sin or failure, no misery or pain, no injustice or suffering, no depression or disease or even death, that can cut us off from God’s love. There on the cross God is saying, “If you’re going there, I’m going with you.”

“God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that all who believe in him will have eternal life.”

That’s the story we will trace in the coming weeks. There’s never been a more important story than this. I invite you to trust it. I invite you to live it.

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