Some passages roll too easily off the tongue and too slowly under our feet.
“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen, yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?” (John 3:11-12)
When I was a pastor in Austin, Texas, I was at a church with far more space than the congregation reasonably needed. This had proven to be less of a concern and more of an opportunity. For many years preceding my time with them, the small but mighty Faith Presbyterian Church had opened its doors as worship space for churches of many denominations, to the local school district’s preschool, and their own food pantry for the hungry. These were historically segmented ministries doing their own work … until quite literally the perfect storm, Hurricane Harvey, hit the gulf coast of Texas twice, leaving the city of Houston with rapid flooding they did not anticipate.
“For God so loved the world…” (John 3:16)
Austin is 162 miles from Houston. On the evening news, harrowing video clips of neighbors using boats to rescue neighbors were heart-stopping and hopeful. There were also neighborhoods where residents did not have the luxury of owning motorboats — these places did not receive the same amount of media coverage. Quite frankly, parts of Houston were rescuing each other, and parts were drowning in solitude, and sadly, this was falling along socio-economic and racial lines as the waters rose higher and higher.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish…” (John 3:16)
Prior to this event, our congregation had not yet engaged in an intentional conversation about race. Our campus partner, Wildflower Unitarian-Universalist Church, was a year into their anti-racism education and relationship building. As a result, a Black Lives Matter-inspired group asked us, through Wildflower, if our facility could be used for an immediate emergency shelter. Without a second thought, they had sent buses those 162 miles to load as many people as possible from the underserved areas of Houston to bring them all the way to Austin. We had just a couple of hours to determine our response to the immediate need for clothes, food and children’s toys as families left everything they had to find dry ground and maybe a new home.
“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.” (John 3:16)
People were served in their moment of need, and we had made some mistakes. I made a split-second decision to open the facility to the incoming group from Houston without session approval. Perhaps because of this, I also felt a need to “reclaim our facility” as Sunday approached. A hard conversation ensued about privilege and ownership and White supremacy and who belongs versus who doesn’t, about who owns and who doesn’t, and who gets to determine the fate of Black and Brown bodies and who doesn’t. Who is Sunday church for and who isn’t it?
“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.” (John 3:17)
It is true that Faith Presbyterian and Wildflower Unitarian participated in this rescue and relief effort under the leadership of people of color. Many lives were saved that week as a result. It is also true that we were brought from the shortsightedness of Nicodemus’ night into the longer view of the day.
As Howard Thurman said in Jesus and the Disinherited,
“Wherever a need is laid bare, those who stand in the presence of it can be confronted with the experience of universality that makes all class and race distinctions impertinent … They were no longer white, black, and brown. They were men, women, and children in the presence of the operation of impersonal Nature. Under the pressure they were the human family, and each stood in the immediate candidacy for the profoundest fellowship, understand, and love.”
“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.” (John 3:21)
Let us walk with these words under our feet…
- Familiar passages are part of our heart’s joy, yet we can forget to look for their deepest meaning amid their familiar cadences. How might you stop, look, and listen to John 3:16 and other such familiar passages anew to allow them to further work in your life?
- How has John 3:16 been preached and taught in your life? How does John 3:17 confirm or shape that understanding?
- How might our conversations around race, politics, and gender be shaped in universally empowering ways by these words?
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