Not to Condemn But To Love the World – Br. Keith Nelson

1 John 5:9-13
John 17:6-19

As your preacher on this seventh Sunday of Easter, I must confess I struggle with a key concept found throughout the gospel and epistles of John.

“The world” in these writings is a multi-faceted term. Its meaning shifts and accumulates layers of meaning every time it appears.

Sometimes the world is simply the material reality around us, the created order. In John’s prologue we hear: “He [that is, Jesus] was in the world, and the world came into being through him.” This meaning aligns with the most ancient usage of the Greek kosmos, which means “a harmoniously ordered arrangement” or even “adornment.” It is a fitting term for creation as Christians understand it, the material expression of God’s love. This kosmos finds its order and beauty in Christ the Word and exists only through him: “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.”

At other times, it seems as if “the world” is a character in the gospel, a personification of all that opposes Jesus as the Way, the Truth, and the Life. It is the complex web of circumstances, influences, false narratives and outright lies woven by sin and our captivity to sin. It is darkness, the dominion of the Evil One, or even chaos – the antithesis of kosmos in its first meaning.

At still other times, the world as our natural condition of existence is closely aligned with the flesh, which Jesus teaches is incomplete without “being born from above.” It is the two-dimensional life of merely existing here below, skimming the shallows. It is eating bread, drinking water and breathing air that will all perish, without knowing Jesus as true Bread, the one who offers living Water and life-giving Spirit.

Finally, the world is often represented in microcosm by “the Judeans,” the Jerusalem religious authorities who function as the collective antagonists to Jesus and his Galilean disciples. They do as a group what the world does as a system: react to Jesus with hostility and hate, try to kill him, and eventually succeed.

All of those meanings are a lot to hold, and either choose between in context, or read in conversation with one another. This requires knowledge, wisdom, love, and the mind of Christ. What I struggle with most are the ways Christians have often crossed the wires of these meanings. In the process, they (we) have fabricated unholy machines to suit very unchristian agendas.

Christians have often conflated life on earth and life in the world. In that vein, Jesus is interpreted as denigrating the created order or material existence when he says: “I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.” “Not belonging” to the world in this vein has too often meant rejecting the body, sensory pleasure, or sexuality; shunning political or civic involvement; dissociating from non-Christians; or engaging with any form of culture deemed “secular.” The story that “earth is not our true home” and “we are bound for a better place” has left us alienated from the soil beneath our feet.

How does this square with wholehearted belief that God became flesh for our sake, and sends us to the world?

Christians have often projected all evil and untruth in the world onto people who do not profess Christ as Lord. In that vein, Jesus is interpreted as placing narrow and exacting conditions around the love he offers, or even forsaking whole segments of the human family as beyond the scope of that love, when he contrasts his disciples with the world: “They have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours.”

Faith in Jesus is sometimes portrayed in John or the Epistles of John as automatically and permanently shifting the behavior of Christians onto moral high ground. I have simply not found this to be true, in other followers of Jesus, or in myself. In our Epistle reading, we heard, “Those who believe in the Son of God have the testimony in their hearts. Those who do not believe in God have made him a liar by not believing in the testimony that God has given concerning his Son.” I argue with this text, the same text which proclaims: “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.”

How does this square with the world of my experience, and perhaps yours, in which atheist friends often show astonishing love, and Christian neighbors use their testimony to propagate hate speech?

I don’t have easy answers to these questions.

If I did, that would probably be artificial consolation, which is not why we are here.

We are here for the good news of Jesus Christ.

All I can share that fits that description this morning is a pair of stories.

When I was seventeen, in the late nineties, I was holding hands with my first boyfriend while we walked down the sidewalk in Birmingham, Alabama. I was from the suburbs, but my boyfriend was from a rural town known mostly for peach farms and Bible churches. His father, a Southern Baptist pastor, had disowned him for being gay. He had huge grey eyes, a talent for music and foreign languages, and deep courage.

At the end of the block stood a man with a placard around his neck and a bundle of tracts under his arm.

I knew what the placard said from the opposite end of the block:

“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)

I knew that it would not include 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.” Verses I had memorized in (Southern Baptist) Vacation Bible School, and treasured.

I suggested we cross the street, but it was too late.

The man looked us in the eyes and said, “If the two of you died tomorrow, do you know where you’re going?”

We kept walking, as we heard the man answering the question for us in no uncertain terms until we were well out of earshot. A man whose words did little compared to what we had endured. A man who knew nothing about either of our hearts and did not ask.

“If you died tomorrow, do you know where you’re going?”

I heard my interviewer ask the question, and I had to stifle my flashback.

I should have seen this question coming. It was 2009, and I was in my mid-twenties. I was in a second interview for a position at a small, faith-based, non-profit organization. I was inspired by the work the organization was doing, offering non-religious educational and social services to new immigrants. I was a recent graduate from Harvard Divinity School, and I was hungry for a job doing work I could believe in.  I was hopeful that, with some skillful, interpersonal ecumenism, I could stand on common ground with these evangelical followers of Jesus.

I knew that there was a “correct” answer. It is: “Yes. I know that I’m going to heaven because I’ve been saved by Jesus Christ.” I could have said yes. But I knew that for me to say yes in that moment would be to shrink the untamable God I had come to love after years of seeking down to the contours of a theological shoe-box. To accommodate myself to a vision of salvation that strikes me to the core as too easy, too transactional, and too triumphalist. To cast my vote for doctrinal certitude over the transfiguring love I have seen and touched in Jesus, but that far surpasses my understanding.

The Word of God emblazoned on the man’s placard flickered through my mind. For a moment, I desperately wished I could turn back time, sit down with that man, and answer his question in the words that finally came to me.

I took a deep breath, and heard myself say, “I don’t know.”

I continued, “I don’t believe that I can know the mind of God in that way. But I do know that I love Jesus Christ with all my heart, and I trust that nothing can separate me from that love.”

The energy in the room shifted, softened, and opened. My interviewer, who would become my boss, co-worker and sister in Christ, gently closed her eyes and said, “Amen.”

I’d venture that in the final estimate, “the world” is everything that insinuates, intimidates, threatens or pretends to separate us from the love of Jesus.

That is the world to which we do not belong – whose hate has no claim over the mystery of our hearts. That is the world from which we are called, given by the Father to the Son,

and sanctified by the Son in the truth. That is the world to which we are sent. Over and over again. In others and in ourselves. Not to condemn but to love, in Jesus’ name.

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7 Comments

  1. Pete Taft on May 17, 2024 at 16:51

    This sermon is about love. Real love. Thank you. Transformative.

  2. Marilyn Bergen on May 17, 2024 at 14:21

    Br Keith, Thank you for your wise reflection on the writings of John. Such a relief as I love the world in all of its complexity. I appreciate your vulnerability and for trusting us to receive you and your message. Since leaving religious life for a relationship with a woman, I have found a home in the Episcopal church and feel I live a deeper religious life now than when I was in community. Blessed be the God of Serendipity! -Marilyn

  3. Stefan Brodd on May 16, 2024 at 21:19

    What a beautiful sermon—thank you!

  4. Dee Dee on May 16, 2024 at 20:45

    Such a beautiful sermon. As the supportive and loving parent of an LGBTQ young adult I am thankful to have heard it on Mother’s Day. Thank you for that gift and for your vulnerability and wisdom, Br. Keith.

  5. Betsy Smith on May 16, 2024 at 19:05

    What a beautifully written piece! I will reminder what your words and the answer you gave. Thank you for sharing!

  6. Rick Trites on May 16, 2024 at 17:34

    Amen.

  7. David Dismas on May 16, 2024 at 17:13

    I will be 70 years old my next birthday. I am still amazed at how healing it is for my inner gay boy to hear a story that normalizes and validates my experience of growing up gay while being in love with Jesus. Thank you, Brother. I was in tears–healing tears–during your sermon on Sunday and since. Thank you.

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