Loving the World
by Robert Hamerton-Kelly
February 17, 2008
Scripture: Romans 4:1-5; 13-17; John 3:1-17
“God so loved the world that he gave his only son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” — John 3:16
When I read this marvelous evangelical text, because of my contrarian mind I immediately think of 1 John 2:15-17 where it seems to be contradicted. “God loves the world,” says our text; “do not love the world,” says our counter-text: “Do not love the world nor the things that are in the world. For the love of the Father is not in the one who loves the world. For everything in the world, the desire of the flesh, and the desire of the eyes, and the pride of life are not from the Father but from the world, and the world is passing away with its desire, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.” John forbids us to do what he praises God for doing. Clearly there are two kinds of love in play here, the divine and the human.
God’s love for the world is different from ours, and where does the difference lie? Before we try to answer that question let us pause to reflect as follows: the suffering and death of God is essential to his loving of the world because he has to overcome such hostility to do it. We are warned against loving the world because such love means death; the human world is a death-dealing organization. God loves the world and therefore suffers that death, and overcomes it in the Resurrection. (Thus we approach at least one of the possible meanings of the mysterious Christian interpretation that Jesus dies in our place, instead of us). Any one who wishes to love the world will die; God loves the world and therefore must die, but because he is God he can go through human death and emerge alive. A strange and wonderful process, you will say, and be tempted to put it put of your mind as fantasy, but before you do so I ask you to hear me out.
The world in this Johannine literature is the human community organized to exclude God. You perhaps remember how Augustine sums up the human world as a world of two communities or cities, one founded on self to the exclusion of God and one founded on God to the exclusion of self. The former community is the one described by the first letter of John, controlled by the desire of the flesh, of the eyes, and the pride of life, whose outcome is death, and the other, described by the Gospel of John, is controlled by God’s love for us and ends in eternal life.
I ask you: “Is there anything in this description of the order of things that corresponds with your experience? Have you seen how desire in the form of the urges that arise in the body, or entrance us through our eyes, desire as showing off and adulating the self, easily corrupts character and degrades us to the level of prisoners of steadily sinking desires? Have you ever noticed how some, nay many, lives are versions of the Rake’s Progress, the long descent through wasted time to the perpetual regret that is eternal death? Have you ever seen or perhaps experienced the break in of the divine love into such a sinking life, perhaps your own, to renew and refurbish it? In short, do you think the Augustine has it right when he identifies two communities in the human world, one based on God and the other based on self, two kinds of people, two possibilities for your life? I have seen and experienced these two worlds so I know that Augustine is right. There is a city of God, and there is a city of self; the former is glorious and fully of deeply happy people, and the other stressed out and full of desperately harassed people. The inhabitants of the former know that they are living eternal life, and the inmates of the latter know they are dawdling through an unsatisfactory life without hope and without a divine destination.
Here is good news! God loves you as dull and despairing as you are; God loves you as you are in this world, a cog in a vast machine of violence that grinds its victims down and out; and God loves the world of this mechanism. Look at the Cross where God is tortured to death by the violence of our world and see how much he loves this torturing world! Without parallel and without compare God gives himself to the violence of our world, a perfect self-giving, a perfect sacrifice – sacrifice not in the archaic sense of a gift given to appease an angry god but in the Christian sense of God’s gift of himself to an angry world, the complete self giving of God to his beloved, violent, cruel and torturing human creatures. Only God has enough courage, enough faithfulness, enough creativity, and enough power to decreate and recreate the world. Decreate by virtue of the fact that the Cross brings all sense to nonsense. After the murder of God, the torture of the gentlest and best, so publicly advertised and so heartily accepted by our Apostles and fellow Christians down the ages as the revelation of the violence of this world and the gentleness of the divine, after that we can no longer deny that this world is a sink of shameful violence and cruelty, and that because he loves it God takes that cruelty into his own self, suffers it and thus drains it out of the world. But we keep on piling up more and more, and so somewhere in the interstices of space-time the Christ is being crucified at this very moment and forever, and if we had the ears we could hear the cry of perfect agony by the only one who ever loved perfectly and therefore suffered perfectly the cruelty of our human violence, ringing around and about the galaxies, the cry, “Father forgive them, they know not what they do!” The music of the spheres becomes the crying of the creator in the pain only lovers can inflict, the pain of cold rejection.
I coined that word decreate, but the phrase I now use is a cliché: “born again.” This is what John demands of us and promises in this passage. Consider the absolute marvel of your birth; it was not the result of moral effort or religious orthodoxy on your part, indeed it was the result of nothing you did or could have done. Birth is sheer gift, sheer miracle, sheer grace, and God so loved the world that he gave us the possibility of a new birth and a new creation, that is another absolute gift, another miracle and another infusion of grace. Because “born again” is a cliché does not mean that it is untrue: rebirth is a metaphor for the experience of the recreating love of God, poured into the world at the cost of enduring the cruelty of our vicious hatred and venomous anger against our creator, who brought us into being because he wanted someone just like you to love.
The absolute foundation of Christian truth and Christian life is that God loves us without reserve, and you can know that by regarding the suffering of God on the Cross, that violence that you and I and this vicious world forge every day and stab into him, and by accepting his invitation and promise to a new life of hope and satisfaction, beyond the fear of death. God loved the world so much that he is willing to suffer our hatred and cruelty every day, just to be near us. The only metaphor of this that I can think of at present is the cruelty of a child by its bad behavior heaping anguish upon anguish on its parents because they love him/her so much.
Let me stop here, so you can hear Christ speaking: He is saying, “You must be born again, and I will perform that rebirth in you, because I have the power to create and I love you so much.” And if you doubt that he loves you look at the Cross and see what it costs him every day, of agony and humiliation, just to get near enough to you to save you from the world of violence and death and plant you anew in the world of peace and life.