God So Loved (John 3:17)
by William Willimon
Dr. Willimon, a Century editor at large, is minister to the university and professor of the practice of Christian ministry at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina. This article appeared in the Christian Century March 17, 1982, p. 292. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the at the world might be saved through him. [John 3:17].
And the beautiful part is, the people love it. “You are the overaggressive ones whose culpability made the cross inevitable,” we preach. “All like sheep have gone astray,” we cry, and the people in unison say, “You really stepped on our toes today, preacher.” What a wonderful Lenten litany.
Recently at a worship workshop I noted that the church traditionally forbade kneeling and prayers of confession during celebrative periods like Easter. The assembled clergy were shocked. “Surely you’re not implying that Easter or Christmas takes sin away,” said one. “Confession should begin every Sunday service,” said another. After all, what is Sunday for if not to get those poor fools on their knees? Smoking, drinking, adultery, the arms race, sexism, racism -- the list of Lenten preaching possibilities is limitless.
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, . . . For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him [John 3:16-17].
God loved the world, loved so much that he gave. Not to condemn but to save, John says. Not to condemn.
In the midst of our trivial moralizing, our scolding, supererogation, and scrambling for a few penitential brownie points, John reminds us of why we’re here. We are on the way of the cross not because of what we have done or left undone but because of what God has done. The cross is not simply one more piece of damaging evidence that seals shut the case against guilty humanity.
The goriest work of human sin gets sidetracked into glorious divine redemption. The prophet is sent not to scold but to save. It was out of love that he came among us and stood beside us and chided us and died with us, for us, and saved us. Love.
The cross is heavy and clouds gather, and we shall have more days for honesty, more Sundays to examine our lives again and pray for the courage to be truthful about all, the ways in which we betray so great a love. Lent is only half over; there is still more repenting to be done. But as we turn our steps again in the direction of the upward climb toward Calvary, let us take these words with us, no matter what the preacher says: it was not for condemnation that he was sent to us, but for love. He beckons us on, not to condemn but to save.