4 Lent B—3/11/18
Numbers 21:4-9; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21
Pr. Scott Kramer
Three weeks ago I drove down to The Landing movie theaters in Renton. I was hoping to be among the first to see Black Panther, the latest of the Marvel superhero movies. I couldn’t get in; it was sold out! Apparently, this movie is not only a big deal here. In only three weeks, worldwide Black Panther has grossed $1 billion. I read in the paper this morning that it is now the all-time greatest superhero movie, eclipsing even Batman, The Dark Knight!
What’s especially interesting about this movie is that the comic book character Black Panther has been around since 1966. And yet, it’s taken over 50 years for Black Panther to make the big screen. Over the decades, Hollywood has cranked out endless superhero movies: Superman, Batman, The Incredible Hulk, Captain America, Thor, Spiderman, Zorro, Flash Gordon, Ironman, Dr. Strange, Wolverine, Ant Man. And what do all these superheroes have in common? They all look like me. They’re all white guys! (Well, the Hulk is green, but Bruce Banner isn’t!)
We live in interesting times. Just when our nation’s leaders and their followers seem determined to roll back the clock to the 1950s or even the 1930s, some of us are experiencing a surge of new hope–not hope in Washington, DC, but maybe at least in Hollywood and Broadway. It’s not just Black Panther. It’s Wonder Woman. It’s Coco. It’s Hamilton (couldn’t get tickets for that, either!). If you are a woman or a person of color, all of a sudden it’s possible to go to the movies or the stage and see not only a superhero but almost an entire cast that looks like you! The gay and trans communities, too, over the past few years have been prominently represented in the story-telling of our culture, including television series like Modern Family, Will and Grace, or Transparent.
Today’s reading from John’s gospel is one of the most beloved verses in Christian teaching. 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. It’s one of those “golden oldies” in which many people through the ages have found comfort and assurance of God’s love.
John 3:16 is our superhero story. It’s what superheroes do, right? They save the world!
But I wonder if John 3:16 would be quite such a source of comfort if we were to actually hear what this verse is saying. I fear that what most Christians have focused on is the last part of the verse in which “everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” But for Christians, to “believe” is not about saying yes to rules and doctrines and ideas. To believe is to take the life of unconditional love in the example of Jesus Christ and try to live it. In other words, we are the cast supporting our superhero by doing the same work as our superhero. We could even go so far as to say we ourselves become superheroes.
Sound impossible? Of course! That’s why we need the power of God. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works—[for love]–which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.
All of us have been raised to believe not in God’s unconditional love but in a merit system. By following the rules and doing good deeds we gain favor in the world. It’s the way the world works. But followers of Jesus, at our best, acknowledge that any good we do is simply the natural response…of a grateful heart…for the incredible gift…of God’s unconditional love.
The difficult part of John 3:16 is that God so loved the world that he gave his only son. What we hear, what we expect, what we want to believe is something like: God so loved the Christians…or, God so loved the Lutherans…or, God so loved the Americans… Instead, God so loved the world…whether or not a person believes in Jesus, or even in God. Whether or not a person does good deeds. The most important part of John 3:16 is the verse that we tend not to remember, which is John 3:17: 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.
Saving the world is what Jesus Christ is all about. We as the body of Christ therefore do likewise. We are called to save the world. We, the body of Christ, are “superheroes”—not because of anything we are or anything we have accomplished or any religious beliefs we hold, but because saving the world is what superheroes do. Black or white or brown or yellow, rich or poor, gay or straight or trans—regardless of religion or language or nation of birth–wherever love is practiced, there is Christ. There is a superhero at work!
In the weeks ahead, I am looking forward to seeing unexpected superhero stories in movie theaters and on stage. But you and I don’t have to go to the movies. You can look around you and find that you are surrounded by superheroes, and you can choose to get on board with that: saving the world for the sake of love!
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