Love, Limbo, and How Low Must We Go?
Second Sunday in Lent, March 20, 2011
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. 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 3:16-17
Have you ever played the game of Limbo? You know, the game where two people hold a long stick, and participants shimmy under the barrier to the accompaniment of some bright Caribbean-inspired music. The bar is dropped a notch each time through until the last person either touches the bar or falls on his or her back. Ultimately, there are no real winners in this game because even the last person fails in the end. Sometimes I feel like we play a limbo-like game with God’s love, trying to make it some sort of exercise in which there are well-defined winners and clear losers, an “in-crowd” and some “outcasts.” Who can win in a game like this?
We are supposed to be good stewards of all things, right? Not just our money. Not simply our time. We try our best to manage the myriad resources with which we personally and corporately have been entrusted. We work diligently to steward the good news by seeing that its spread is prodigal across a hurting and broken world. For the most part, I believe our efforts are honest, earnest, and faithful. I just have one nagging question that keeps hanging out there in theological limbo-land. Why are we so stingy with the love of God?
Think about it this way; almost every child who has ever processed through a Sunday school program at least memorizes John 3:16. We see this verse on signs at major sporting events. We “love” this verse about God’s lavish and self-giving love—as long as it applies to us and those with whom we are comfortable sharing eternity. I’d be willing to bet most of us, short of those who openly claim to be universalists, have at one time or another wondered how “so and so” is a viable candidate for eternal salvation. This topic has been hotly debated throughout history by faithful and well-meaning disciples without reaching consensus.
Just in time for this week’s gospel lesson, evangelical pastor and Christian author Rob Bell’s new book Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, is at the center of controversy over just this issue. I’ll admit I have not yet read the book; I’ve only watched Bell’s promo video and read scads of reviews. The book, just released this week, has engendered passionate commentary on both sides of the theological fence. One pastor felt so strongly about the book that he wrote a 21-page treatise in response. A former colleague of Bell’s at Mars Hill Church wrote also posted a thoughtful editorial that you can find here.
I wonder—why all this fuss? What do we feel is at stake in flying to get a word in about one man’s thesis and attempt to understand and explain the nature of God? What is essential and what is adiaphora? Who appointed any of us judge and jury? Would Bell be hanged for suspected heresy in a different age instead of lambasted in cyberspace? How low can we go in this debate about divine love? Do we really want there to be no winners at all? It sort of seems that way to hear some people talk about it.
In case you are not acquainted with the book in question, click here for Bell’s promo video and here for a review from mlive.com. Be sure to scroll down for the MSNBC interview with Martin Bashir. When I Googled “Rob Bell Love Wins” 163,000 hits popped up, and it’s one of Amazon’s top sellers. I suspect that means this question is worth exploring right now, especially in light of our Gospel text and Lenten journey.
How do we handle these two verses from John’s gospel? What do they mean in light of the entire story of Nicodemus’s night time visit to Jesus, his secretive quest for truth? Is there anything new to even say about them? Exactly what is at stake when we speak about the love of God, or for that matter about the nature of God? These are questions each one of us would do well to ponder this week and to discuss with one another respectfully over coffee or around tables at Bible study. There will likely be a range of answers and perhaps even more questions. This is a good thing. Faithful dialogue in community is helpful and productive.
It is important for us to wrestle with these questions, not so much to establish who is right and who is wrong or who is in and who is out, but rather to help the people with whom we serve and worship to effectively live out their faith in the world. One of the aspects I appreciate most about my own (Lutheran) faith tradition is a willingness to live into the tensions and paradoxes of faith. Limbo doesn’t have to be terrifying when the love of God surrounds you.
I don’t pretend to imagine that I can stand before a congregation and define the limits of God’s love and desire for the world to be saved through Jesus. Nor would I ever try to do so. What I hope and pray is to simply share the good news in a faithful way that ignites a spark of hope, faith, and love in those with whom I worship so that they in turn are empowered to tell the story and spread the word, letting their lives speak and the Spirit handle the details. You know, I never was much good at that limbo game. I was usually among the first few players out. I sure hope God is more generous with divine love! What about you?
Blessings on your preaching and teaching!
Why not show Rob Bell’s promo for Love Wins from YouTube? The images are excellent and the questions compelling. If you are looking for something simpler focusing only on John 3:16, try this short video clip.
Ask youth what they think about John 3:16-17. How do we live out this love for the world? Consider talking about the current crisis in Japan or the ongoing difficulties and Haiti. How do we help share and show this love to our brothers and sisters near and far? Visit www.livinglutheran.com for some good ideas. Another option is this weeks Faith Lens study for youth: http://blogs.elca.org/faithlens/. Check out this week’s gospel reflection.
Consider using the Old Testament lesson (Genesis 12:1-4a) and talking about how God calls all of us to follow, even though sometimes the way isn’t clear. How do we gain that clarity? We listen to the voice of God. For a visual example, ask one of the children to volunteer to be blindfolded and then follow the sound of your voice around the sanctuary. If you have children’s church, you can pair the children up and allow them to try following each other’s voices. What happens when many voices start talking at once? It’s difficult to focus on the one voice calling you. So it is with the many voices in our world that call to us. We have to work to listen for God’s voice. Be sure to practice good safety measures for this exercise and have plenty of adult help.
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