March 14, 2021
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking… “What are you doing? Why are you getting ready to preach a sermon on Ephesians 2:1-10 when you could be preaching on John 3:16? What gives?” And if you were actually thinking that… which in my preacher’s mind I would like to think… but in reality, I know better… I would say you’ve got a point. John 3:16… that verse gets put on signs and held up by people… “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Martin Luther… the German monk… called that verse “the gospel in miniature.”
And Saints… now for the turn… I have nothing against the verse itself… but it’s how the verse has been misused that I have a theological problem with. And so would Martin Luther I might add… because it is the theological problem behind the misuse of the verse that caused Martin Luther to spark a little theological revolution that became known as the Reformation. An event in history which is pretty important to us Christians who are a part of the Reformed Tradition.
So… I’ll get to Ephesians here in a minute… I promise… but first let’s define what I would call the theological misuse of John 3:16 a bit more... and to do that we need to look a little wider than the verses Meg read… to see that this conversation Jesus is having… he is having with Nicodemus… the Pharisee that came to Jesus under cover of night to find out more about this new Rabbi who had come to town and caused quite a stir back at the Temple. If you know anything about Nicodemus… it’s Nicodemus to whom Jesus says… as some English translations put it… you must be born again. Those have become loaded words over time. You must be born again. Not every translation uses that phrase. The NRSV, from which we commonly read, uses the phrase “born from above.” Which is better because it keeps us connected to the larger context from what Jesus was saying in John’s gospel when he gets to this point with Nicodemus. Jesus had been talking about the work of the Spirit… and he uses the wind to describe that work and, really, the nature of the Spirit. “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” So when Jesus is talking to Nicodemus about being born from above, he is saying that this is the work of the Spirit.
And that’s where we get into the theological misuse… because… as you know… being born again has been turned into a work of the believer. That work of the believer has subsequently been well delineated… broken down into certain steps… given a methodology… reduced to a check list so that you can be guaranteed by the time you are done you have been 100% born again. The Spirit gets sidelined. But now… completing the work of the believer… now you have something in which to boast… to lord over others… to show how it is done. Wasn’t that the problem of the Pharisees in the gospels… lots of work by the believers in which to boast… but missing the renewed heart given through the Spirit. They could judge you for this or that infraction… but what people actually needed… a bit of mercy, forgiveness, understanding… would run in short supply.
So jump ahead a few verses to our reading today and that same theological misuse gets applied to verse 16. The first part of the verse is too often given short shrift… “For God so loved the world…” (yeah yeah great)… so we can get to the part where we can apply our definition of what it means to believe… which is defined as that work… that same work of the believer that it took for us to be born again. And the reward we have earned for our hard work to prove our belief is eternal life. What else could it be? That’s why we’re told we’re supposed to believe… so we will get rewarded.
Let’s welcome back Martin Luther… who loved this verse… but would have had a problem with how it is theologically misused today… because it is the same theological misuse that he experienced through the Catholic church of his day. The reward you desire is put before you… eternal life. Not a cross like we’ve been hearing about for the last few Sundays. How is taking up your cross seen as a reward. No. The reward is eternal life. There it is. You want it? Well, here now are the works you have to achieve through the church in order to earn it and receive it. Well this way of seeing things made old Martin Luther crazy… not because he first realized its potential for corruption… it made him crazy because he earnestly tried to follow it. And he was always racked with this worry that he hadn’t done enough. He wasn’t good enough. He would never be able to earn that reward as the good work he was doing would be undone by his ongoing sin. Sure, you could achieve the reward if you discounted sin… if you believed that while you were doing your good works… following the prescribed method… that the sin you committed somehow mattered less and less… deceiving yourself that you were somehow moving toward a state of spiritual perfection. But that wasn’t Martin Luther. He couldn’t do that. He couldn’t believe that doing these works prescribed by the church in his time would set him free from sin. And if he couldn’t ever be free from sin, then he would never get to the reward being held out before him… the reward he was being told was the be all and end all of his belief in Christ. He was trapped like Sisyphus… pushing that boulder up the hill only to lose control and have it roll to bottom to start all over again.
Which finally gets us to Paul’s letter to the Ephesians… chapter 2 verses 1-10. See if you can hear the message God spoke in these verses that set old Martin Luther free… the message that is a theological foundation of the Reformed Tradition.
READ Ephesians 2:1-10
You see the difference, right? You see how this theological understanding isn’t in opposition to John’s gospel, but gets us back to what Jesus is saying to Nicodemus? This being born again… being born anew or afresh… this being born from above… it is the work of the Holy Spirit. Nicodemus struggles to understand… first taking what Jesus is saying too literally… perhaps, good Pharisee that he is, looking for the methodology… the works of the believer… that it will take to achieve this. Unfortunately Nicodemus leaves this encounter with Jesus without understanding that it’s not the actions of the believer that makes the Spirit respond… it’s not the work that takes us to the far off God… it’s first God who acts in love towards us out of God’s love for us… giving the Son… sending the Spirit… making us alive when we are dead in our trespasses… dead in our sin. Good works is our response to God’s unearned love we have already received. What order they come in… good works and God’s love… is important. Good works are what God created us for as our way of life… a life whose potential is fully realized with God setting us free from sin… God filling us with the Holy Spirit… and God giving us as a grace filled servant to one another and the whole world so that we would serve with love… through love… in an unencumbered gratitude to God. God and God alone is the reward we seek. Everything else pales in comparison. And rather than having to earn God by this or by that… God cut through all that with grace and because of that… because our reward came to us while we were still sinners… while we were still standing at the starting line… while we were behind that boulder getting ready to push it up the hill by ourselves again… the only thing left for us to do is to respond to God’s grace and love. To use some words found elsewhere in John’s gospel… to love as we have been loved. Or to use the words from the longer catechism based on the Westminster Confession… “What is the chief and highest end of man? Man’s chief and highest end is to glorify God, and to fully enjoy him forever.” Or if you are more of a fan of the Heidelberg Catechism… “What is your only comfort, in life and in death? That I belong – body and soul, in life and in death – not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ, who at the cost of his own blood has fully paid for all my sins and has completely freed me from the dominion of the devil; that he protects me so well that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, that everything must fit his purpose for my salvation. Therefore, by his Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life, and (here’s the kicker) makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.”
For old Martin Luther rediscovering what Paul had been saying all along about grace… that good works didn’t earn us God’s grace… God’s grace freed us for good works. Grace… a proper understanding of grace… was key for Martin Luther to finally cast off the shackles of the theological problem created by the misuse of scripture… a misuse that put the power of salvation into human hands. When that power was given back to God… fully… a revolution was begun.
And Saints, wouldn’t it be great if the theological story then on went that this way… that everyone who took on the name Christian embraced God’s grace… and the richness of God’s mercy and the greatness of God’s love flowed into the world through those same Christians… growing exponentially so that the world truly began to reflect God’s will… that the kingdom of God came to pass. But what else did John’s gospel say in chapter 3? “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” The light is still in the world. Grace isn’t some passing notion of God’s. God isn’t going to one day give up on grace in order to embrace wrath. God’s love in Christ doesn’t fade away but in resurrection lives forever more. Not even death can withstand the power of God’s love. Try as we might.
There’s another phrase from Ephesians that I love. Paul says, “so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you.” Our hope does come through the gospel in miniature… through John 3:16… yet it takes John 3:17 to keep the enlightened eyes of our heart in focus… “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” You want to have some fun? When we are able to gather again… take a sign to some big gathering… a sign that says John 3:17… and hold it up for all to see. I’m sure you will have some very gospel inspired conversations if you do. Or better yet. Take a sign that says Ephesians 2:8-10… and you might even witness the Spirit at work as someone comes to realize the gift of grace that God has already given. You might even get to witness a light grow bright with love. Amen.