The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at:

s101g12  Lent 4  18/3/2012

'their deeds were evil'   John 3.19

John 3.16 is arguably the most quoted passage of scripture, yet when I hear this, the person doing so seems to be saying ‘God so hated the world that in desperation he sent Jesus to die to give himself justification to condemn anyone who doesn’t believe in MY terms to eternal damnation and I don’t need to concern myself with them.’  (I use the masculine pronoun for God deliberately if unwillingly.)   This seems quite opposite to the way Jesus lived his life, mixing with the tax collectors, prostitutes and sinners and being opposed by the devout and the orthodox.

We hear Jesus talking, not about sin, but about evil and 'evil' can conjure up in our minds graphic and gruesome scenes such as those in the film ‘The Exorcist’.   But, as I have pointed out before, Jesus often talks about evil in contexts like this - quite different from his curing of demon possessed persons typified by the healing of the demoniac and the demise of the nearby herd of pigs.   For me the classic example is: 'If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!   In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.'   Matthew 7.11-12   So, for me, we do not escape the charge of being evil when we only give good things to our children.   And this surely applies to the church corporate as much as it applies to you and I personally.   Indeed, of course, every little effort you and I do to fulfil this law will be negated a million times over when the church herself does not observe this law.   And the church does regularly give good things to her children, things like the holy communion - things that are reserved for her children alone.   And in doing so the church doesn't escape the charge of being evil.   The church continues to deny to others' forgiveness for being different or blessing of others' relationships, and in doing so are acting no differently from the Mafia.

The church often seems more concerned about how others live their lives, forbidding contraception and condemning millions to live in poverty, illness and premature death.   I wonder how many clergy would want to live lives like this, so why condemn others to such an existence?

In my previous sermons I have talked about Jesus opposing those who rigorously obeyed the law - exemplified by the Pharisees and those who faithfully observed the ritual - exemplified by the Sadducees.   Today we see that Jesus opposes sectarianism whatever authority is used - even when that sect claims to be 'catholic'.   It was the orthodox and the devout who Jesus charged with being evil, not the tax collectors, the prostitutes and the sinners with whom he associated.   It was the orthodox and the devout who were evil, because they were offended that Jesus associated with people other than themselves.

So, for the church to escape the charge of being evil our generous giving has to extend to those we don't consider our children, those who don't believe like us, worship with us, and who are intimate with people who might offend our theology. 

For the conjunction of the sayings about 'doing unto others' with the word about not just giving only to your children surely implies that we are to do unto others - especially those who don't hold the same faith as us, those who don't worship with us, and those who share their intimate affections with people we might not traditionally approve.   If we do not, we are no less evil than the Mafia.   So if we wouldn't want someone to question our calling, why would we question the calling of someone who happens to be female?   If we wouldn't want the sincerity of our affection for our beloved questioned, why would we question the sincerity of the affection a gay or lesbian person has for their beloved?   If we wouldn't want the devotion we have to our Lord questioned, why would we question the devotion someone else has to their Lord, even when they might call that Lord by a different name, or worship their Lord in a different manner?   We certainly wouldn't want others to suggest our devotion will condemn us to eternal damnation so why would we suggest this about others?   

The conjunction of the sayings about 'do unto others' with the word about not just giving only to your children, surely would rule out all forms of religious terrorism.   And surely the world would be a happier place if this were so.   But 'doing unto others' means that Christians have to take the initiative, not expect others to change first.   And taking the initiative means a fundamental change in our doctrine.   We have to be, to use modern terminology, transparent.   With the level of literacy, education and communication that the internet brings, our society will instantly recognise when the church is not practicing what they preach.

If one listens to what the church seems to be constantly saying, one might assume that the sinful and evil people were those who don't come to church, those ignorant of theology, those who don't measure up.   It is precisely these sorts of judgmental attitudes that Jesus labels 'evil', and I trust Jesus' assessment of evil rather than the church's.

And the ones who didn't believe were precisely the ones whose positions of superiority over others was threatened.  

So if our belief in any way makes us superior to others, separates ourselves from others, marginalises, alienates or condemns others, it is us who have got the faith entirely wrong, it is us who crucify Jesus anew, it is us who do not believe and it is us who condemn ourselves rather than anyone else.

We have, in the church, some ways to go before we can escape Jesus' charge of being evil, for giving only to our children is enshrined in parts of our scripture, parts of our tradition, and parts of our culture; as St Paul himself had to learn.   Like him, we have learned our lessons too well.

I started this sermon speaking about how John 3.16 is often used to justify considering 'christians' of a particular sort as being saved and others condemned.   It is precisely this use that Jesus describes as evil.   There is no point in saying that this is what scripture says, if we use the name of Jesus to condemn others surely our own condemnation will be the greater.   We have to believe, not in the Jesus we make in our own image, but in the real Jesus who loves people other than baptised, white, straight Anglo-saxon communicants like us.

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