Monday, March 21, 2011

I Have Not Loved The World

There is a term that comes up a lot in John’s Gospel.
It’s “the world.”
In John, “the world” doesn’t mean the planet earth or nature.
It means the way things are – the system
-- the way of the world, so to speak.
It mostly means human society.

The world doesn’t come off too well in John.
When he talks about “the world” John doesn’t have much good to say.
The world hates Jesus. The world hates the disciples.
The world in John is a fallen place, a realm of darkness.
Disciples unfortunately have to live in the world,
but they should not belong to it.

We find John’s basic attitude in the hymn
“I have decided to follow Jesus.”
You know the line I mean.
“The world behind me. The cross before me.
I’ll follow him.”

It’s all pretty clear. Jesus good. World bad.
But in today’s lesson, right smack dab in the heart of John,
we find a most peculiar-- a downright amazing -- verse.
When John saw what he had written, he shook his head and muttered,
“Where did that come from?”
It may be the most famous verse in the New Testament.
But we usually miss what a shocker it is
in the context of a book about how bad “the world” is.

John 3: 16 – “For God so loved the world . . . . //
For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son
that whoever believes in him might not perish but have eternal life.”

It was hard for John to write that
because John and the world
were clearly not on good terms.
He felt hated by the world. He says that straight out.
And it sounds as if he hated the world right back.
That’s not an unusual attitude.

Lord Byron wrote:
“I have not loved the world; nor the world me.
But let us part fair foes. I do believe,
though I have found them not, there may be
. . . hopes which will not deceive, . . . I would also deem
O’er others griefs that some sincerely grieve,
That two, or one, are almost what they seem – . . . . “
“I have not loved the world; nor the world me.”

Byron didn’t much like the world because it didn’t like him.
John was the same way.
He felt rejected by the world, judged by it.
He wasn’t what the world thought he ought to be.
So naturally he responded in kind.
The world wasn’t what he thought it ought to be either.

I don’t know how that strikes you,
but sign me up with Byron and John.
The world hasn’t always judged me kindly
and I am perfectly ready to return the favor.

I had unkind labels for every girl in college
who declined to go out with me.
Nowadays, whenever someone honks their opinion of my driving,
I have to fight a reflex to express my opinion of their honking.

The world is addicted to judging, condemning, guilting,
and shaming.
Not good.
So I judge the world back, condemn it, guilt it, shame it
– and in judging the world, I join it.
I become part of the elaborate network of mutual condemnation.

Then I bump into John 3: 16 and it jerks me up short.
“For God so loved the world . . . . “//
That’s good news and bad news.
The good news is that I’m part of the world God loves.
The bad news is that God loves the rest of the world too.
What could he be thinking?

God’s love for the world runs right through Scripture.
Genesis Chapter 1 verse 31:
“God saw all that he had made and indeed it was very good.”
It wasn’t perfect but it was very good.

Sociologist James Davison Hunter has written a helpful book
titled To Change The World.
It’s about how Christians are called to relate to American culture,
how we can make a positive difference.
The first step he says is appreciation. Hunter writes,

“Goodness, beauty, and truth remain in this fallen creation . . . .
(P)eople of every creed and no creed have talents and abilities,
possess knowledge, wisdom, and beauty that are . . .
in harmony with God’s will and purposes. . . .

(T)here is a natural life . . . a natural order in creation. . . .
the dazzling processes of growth in a tree
or a bug or a newborn baby,
the intricacies of molecular biology
the stunning ordered complexity of mathematics,
the underlying logic of music
all speak of an order that God has created . . . .
These things . . . ,” Hunter says,
“Christians should neither dismiss nor disparage
but rather be grateful for and be delighted by
because they are gifts of God’s grace . . . .”

There really is something good about the world.
People may be wrongheaded, neurotic, and dysfunctional.
But there is still something there to enjoy,
something to shake our heads and laugh about,
something that makes us say, “That’s special.”

So here’ s a suggestion for a Lenten discipline this year.
Suppose we ease up on the world a little.
It’s easy to get stuck in an attitude
-- easy to get grouchy and grumbly
seeing everything and everybody
through a lens of negativity.

Suppose this Lent we keep eating chocolate
and checking our Face Book pages,
but we take a break from focusing on faults.

We have to start with a 3 step process of garbage removal.
The first step is knowing that the world’s judgments of us are rubbish.
The second step is forgiving the world for being too broken
to see us as we really are.
The third step is to know that our judgments of the others
are every bit as twisted as their judgments of us.
Then we are free to begin enjoying people.

Our appreciation and delight muscles
are likely to be out of shape.
It may be a strain at first.
This takes practice.

One way is to sit still for 5 minutes
and let people come randomly to mind.
As each person’s image pops up,
we hold onto the thought of them
just long enough to think these words:
“Equally a child of God.
Equally destined for likeness with Christ.”

So what does this have to do with the Christian faith
and the sacrament of Confirmation?
Check the vows of the Baptismal Covenant.
What have we promised in our Baptism?
What does Confirmation spiritually empower us to do?
“To respect the dignity of every human being.”
“To seek and serve Christ in all persons,
loving your neighbor as yourself.”

We cannot make a positive difference in this world
with our hands
until we have first looked kindly upon this world
with our eyes.

That is how we bless this world and convey God’s blessing.
We cultivate our appreciation of things and of people.
So this Lent, I urge you to take on this arduous discipline.
Cheer up. Lighten up. Be kinder.
Take a close look at someone each day
to find a spark of goodness to enjoy.