21 Lenten Study 05 – Fourth Sunday in Lent

14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” 16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. 19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.

John 3:14-21

John 3:16 is one of the most beloved, revered, and well-known of all New Testament passages. It is great assurance to those who confess Jesus as Lord and Savior; and it is strong motivation to live our lives in a way that will be attractive to those who do not yet believe. The gift and promise of eternal life is not a personal or individual prize but a naming of the reality and desire of God: that the whole world might be reconciled to the love of God. We live in a world where, metaphorically, people are deeply embedded and invested in darkness. It is the purpose of all Christian disciples to share and spread God’s light to everyone we can.
In both a practical and a literal sense, this means that we absolutely cannot engage in such things as racism, sexism, classism, caste-ism, border-ism, politicism, and dozens of other isms that divide, judge, separate, and do harm. Skin color, education level, language, cultural preferences are irrelevant; all means all. God so loves the whole world that those who are obedient to God can do no less.
We can never control what others think, what they might believe, how they might act, or essentially who they are. What is within our control are our thoughts, intentions, desires, and actions. Those of us who truly love Christ and seek to be faithful in our discipleship will be open, kind, generous, and caring of others, including those most different from ourselves. As Christians, we have no choice in the matter; if we love Jesus, we will show it in the way we treat other people (see Matthew 25:31-46).
This reality and commitment is at the heart of the Council of Bishop’s vision to Dismantle Racism. It guides our understanding that racism is sin. This is biblically and theologically supported, though Christian believers have found ways to perpetuate bias and prejudice throughout the ages. For some, human judgment trumps divine grace at every turn.
But we can no longer perpetuate poor theology and bad scriptural interpretation. Rather than selecting a few biblical passages to support our prejudices and fears, it is vitally important that we view the Hebrew and Christian scriptures as a whole, an intricate tapestry of varied and diverse threads God and God’s people have woven together to describe God’s will and create an image of beloved community, the very realm (kingdom/kin*dom) of God.
We may think that our responsibility ends with our family, our work, or our community. From time to time, we may take responsibility for our state and country. But John reminds us of God’s intention that we expand and extend our responsibility to the world, to all people in all places. It is our sacred task and call to shine God’s light to every person we possibly can, individually and with others. God so loves this world that God wants light, and love, and grace, and hope to be extended to the ends of the earth. Bryan Stevenson’s third point is that we “strive to live as a people of relentless hope.” This is a wonderful call to service and action. It echoes the sentiment Paul raised in 2 Corinthians 5:7: “we walk by faith, not by sight.” When we walk by sight, seeing all the hurt and violence, despair and destruction in our world, it is easy to lose hope. When, through faith, we commit ourselves to a relentless and abiding hope, nothing we see with our eyes can defeat us. Motivate us, yes, but defeat us, no. When we see racial violence, ethnic discrimination, immigrant oppression, class prejudice, economic injustice, and bigoted acts of hatred, we must be motivated to act. And there is no more powerful motivator than hope. Hope for peace, hope for equity and equality, hope for civility and respect, hope for justice. But this hope may never be passive or abstract. Hope must be a hope for a Promised Land, for a new reality, for a new beginning. Too many people have been victims of systems of prejudice and oppression that robbed them of any and all hope. Hope only for some is corrupt. Unless hope extends to all, it denies the will and purposes of God.
We are called to be agents of light and hope. We have been entrusted with gifts from God, and we have been the fortunate and blessed recipients of God’s love and grace. Jesus’ call to discipleship is a mandate to take all that we have been given to share with others. Should we deny any person—for any reason—access to God’s grace and love, Jesus will have nothing to do with us (Matthew 7:21-23).
Relentless hope is difficult (if not impossible) for individuals to sustain. This is why we have the gift of Christian community. Together we are greater than the sum of our parts (we create synergy), and together we enjoy a strength and support we must have in order to realize relentless hope. Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 13:13 that “Faith, hope and love [charity] abide,” and while the greatest is love, the three exist in a dynamic and generative relationship. When we dwell in the intersection of faith, hope, and love, there is simply no place for discrimination, prejudice, judgment, and condemnation.

Questions for Conversation

1. Share what you think and feel when you hear the term “relentless hope.” What impact might it have on our lives to live with “relentless hope”?
2. How do you define “unconditional love”? Who do you believe/wonder might exist outside of God’s unconditional love?
3. In what ways can we—individually and in our communities of faith—extend the love, grace, mercy, and justice of God to others?

Questions for Personal Reflection between Sessions

1. What are the situations and experiences you are most likely to avoid in your life? Why?
2. When do you feel motivated to leave your own comfort zone? What have been the results of such experiences?
3. What gives you hope? What challenges and threatens your sense of hope? What do you do about it?

Pastor’s Message

Closing Prayer (or one of your own):
God of love and hope, encourage us and strengthen us to be agents of love and hope for others. Inspire us to understand and experience world-loving hope and goodwill. Never allow us to choose who in our world might need your love; but help us to assume that every person needs your love and grace. We praise you, Lord. Amen.

Recommended Resources for Deeper Learning and Understanding:
Book: Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Racial Reconciliation by Jennifer Harvey. A clear explanation of the need for reparations and restoration as foundation for building a hopeful future for all.

Film: Just Mercy by Destin Daniel Cretton. True story of Bryan Stephenson’s defense of a man on death row, despite evidence of his innocence. A difficult look at the racial injustice at work in the United States penal system.

Pastor’s Recommendations:

Discussion (Virtual Faithlink Cafe) – Make sure to email your questions to pastor@miltonumc.org. Check our Facebook Page at 6PM Wednesday