Overlooking Discipleship

Sooooo yeah.

I don’t want to talk about it.

I hope my sermons make up for the fact that I often come off as a complete ditz during children’s sermons.  Here’s today’s!

John 3:14-21

Overlooking Discipleship

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” {King James}

My, my, my – that is a familiar one, isn’t it?

One of my commentaries hit the nail on its head this week when it said the following about the difficulty of preaching on such a well-known passage:

If you grew up going to Sunday school, you cannot remember a time when you did not know this particular verse of Scripture. It is and has been the centerpiece of uncounted Sunday school and vacation Bible school classes (not to mention sermons!) and is frequently lifted up as the perfect and pithy summation of Christian faith. For a few years, references to the passage seemed to be everywhere. In every end zone, in every crowd, in every place that a television camera was pointing, it seemed as though you would find someone holding up a placard: “John 3:16”

This particular trend may have waned a bit of late—and not a moment too soon for most of us—but still it is true: everyone knows John 3:16 or at least knows of John 3:16, including, of course, our congregations, filled with people far more likely to need to stifle a yawn when this passage is read than to limit the urge to leap into any immediate action. How does one preach a text that has become a cliché? How is life to be pumped back into words that are so well known that they can no longer be heard? {Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2, pg. 116}

So where do I even begin to start with a verse that is so well-known, not just in the Christian world, but also in the secular world? We are talking about a verse that was the most googled phrase on the day the Florida Gators won the 2009 BCS Championship because Tim Tebow had it written on his face.

Well, here is where I am going to start: I think we should throw it away. I think we are focusing on the wrong verse. John 3:16? That is not the meat of this particular passage.

When I was a sophomore in college I took a class called The Christian Religious Tradition. We started off the semester by reading the Gospel of Mark. The Gospel of Mark, for those of you who do not know, is the shortest of the four Gospels. It is also likely the earliest written and most scholars believe that it is the most realistic representation of Jesus’ life; it is focused on events that happened, not commentary about them. I have always likened reading the Gospel of Mark to the movie The Truman Show; we are simply observers watching the story of Jesus’ life on earth unfold.

So my class read the Gospel of Mark and my professor asked us what, according to the Gospel, it meant to be a Christian. A boy in the back – a devout Christian – raised his hand.

“You have to believe in Christ in order to get salvation,” he said.

“Where does it say that?” my professor asked.

“John 3:16,” the boy replied without skipping a beat.

“But we’re not reading John,” my professor cut him off. “We’re reading Mark.” The room went silent.

The rest of the semester was kind of a moot point for me. Because in that moment I learned one of the most valuable lessons I have ever learned about the Christian Religious Tradition: It is about far more than just salvation. You see, the Gospel of Mark does not talk about what Jesus meant; it talks about what Jesus did.

When this passage comes up in bible studies and in worship my fear is always that people are going to get to John 3:16 and stop paying attention. Once we hear those familiar words, “for God so loved the world” we stop listening because we have all heard it before. But what about the rest of the chapter? What about the words that come immediately after the 16th verse?

For some reason, I was particularly drawn to John 3:17 when I was preparing my sermon this week.

‘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. {NRSV}

“But in order that the world might be saved through him.” Jesus was more than just the Son of God; Jesus was also a teacher, a preacher, a healer, a crier of justice, someone who reached out to the marginalized. The world was saved not just because of who Jesus was, but also because of what Jesus did – and what Jesus called other people to do. The world is a different place because of what Jesus did during his life and ministry. And the world continues to change (and will continue to change) as more and more people respond to the call to be disciples in their own lives.

I have a version of the bible called ‘The Message’. It was written by a man named Eugene Peterson who saw the need for a bible written in contemporary language. He translated John 3:17 in the following way:

God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again. {The Message}

“He came to help.”

Obviously, Christianity would not exist without Jesus. But we are just as much a part of the Christian Religious Tradition as Jesus was and is. Jesus’ life, ministry, death and resurrection would not mean what it does without men and women, generation upon generation, responding to the call to be disciples.

I am not saying that salvation is not important. It is. But salvation without discipleship does not make any sense. What will make more of a difference in the world: Saying we have a relationship with Jesus Christ or – because of that relationship – actually doing some of the things that Jesus Christ called us to do? We cannot overlook discipleship. The church will not survive if we do.

The end of this passage – John 3:21 – also resonated with me this week.

But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God. {NRSV}

I love the translation in The Message. It says:

But anyone working and living in truth and reality welcomes God-light so the work can be seen for the God-work it is. {The Message}

We are called to work and live in truth and reality. We are called to see the world for what it is – a place that is broken. And while the world is full of many blessings and God’s grace and healing, it is still in need of human grace and healing. We are called to work towards a better world, a better place for humanity – God’s children, our brothers and sister in faith – to live. The world needs us – God needs us – to respond to the call of discipleship.

I am very proud of this church right now. In January the Missions Committee’s Souper Supper raised funds for the Rehoboth Helping Hands Food Pantry. Our neighbors who are in need will now be able to feed their families. In February Morgan and the Youth Group collected an entire carload of coats, hats, scarves, gloves and blankets for the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless. Persons living in homelessness had relief on those cold winter days and nights. Here we are in March and the children have made it their mission to CHANGE the world (and empty your wallets) with the One Great Hour of Sharing offering. With these funds, people around the world will have access to clean drinking water, food, healthcare, refugee and disaster relief services and more.

This is what it means to live the Gospel.

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. {King James}

God sent Jesus into the world to be the catalyst; Jesus started something here on earth – call it salvation or call it something else. But without disciples, that salvation will be lost. We have to continue what Jesus started.

Do not overlook the call to discipleship. Heed the call. Respond to the call. Be part of the call. The world will be a better place when you do.


3 thoughts on “Overlooking Discipleship

  1. The whole thing was awesome !! You have such away with the kids and you can tell they Love you !! You make us Laugh and we need that more than you know !! Just keep being you and thats all we need !! Have a great vacation we will miss you next week but we will be ok just knowing you are resting up for such a great time in the Church !!! Oh what a year can do for the heart !! have fun !!!!

  2. Sarah, you are wonderful, natural, loving, open, fun, self-depracating, funny, kind, endearing…..ditz doesn’t enter my mind at all.
    The sermon was meaningful, insightful, charged. Singing the benediction was beautiful, evangelical….you made me cry….again….whose a ditz? We’ll miss you but you need this time. Enjoy your time with the family. If you need help with Lilly, please just let me know.

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