I have always been intrigued by John 3:16. As a child, the idea that God loved me, my family, friends and neighbors was good news. Every year during Mission Week I would hear stories and watch slide presentations about how God loved people who lived a long ways away from me. I’m not sure that I ever said this out loud to anyone, but I always knew that there were people beyond the reach of God’s love. These people were the big time sinners. I was pretty sure the rock bands Kiss and Led Zeppelin were included in this list. Kiss because they were ‘Knights in Satan’s Service’ and Led Zeppelin because playing Stairway to Heaven backwards a subliminal message strong enough steal a person’s soul was inserted.
Over time I became comfortable with the idea that I could define the world that God loved and sent His one and only Son to save. Although I hadn’t studied the original languages I was reasonably sure that the original Greek allowed for this re-definition of the world God loved. This understanding served me well through high school, college, and even seminary.
Cracks began to appear in my world view a little over 20 years ago. I attended a Christian Community Development Association (CCDA) gathering in Denver. John Perkins, the founder, had just written a book emphasizing the three “R’s” of urban ministry - reconciliation, redistribution, and relocation. It was his thought on reconciliation that challenged me the most. For Perkins reconciliation had something to do with expanding my concept of the world that God loved.
Again, on paper this sounded good. There was no question that my ideas of God’s world were filled with all manners of stereotypes and prejudices. God had much to teach me about race, gender, economics, theology, and national origin. This journey into a more diverse understanding of God’s world has been both terrifying and liberating.
Sometimes I can relate to the prophet Jonah, sitting on the outskirts of the city, waiting for God to destroy Jonah’s enemy but knowing deep down that God is merciful and forgiving. Other times it is freeing to not let my faith journey be defined by friends and enemies.
This journey into an ever expanding understanding of the world Jesus died for is not without controversy. I grew up in a small denomination, so it was somewhat natural to be afraid of people and faith experiences that understood God differently. When it came to understanding who was and was not included in God’s world I always new there was a place for me, but could not always extend my understanding of grace to those were different. Especially if I understood that difference to be sin.
In the past few weeks many have witnessed one well-known family asking forgiveness for the inappropriate sexual behavior of one of their children, while at the same time condemning others for their sexual orientation. Isn’t it interesting that grace and forgiveness is demanded when a wrong is committed by a family member and condemnation is leved for just being different and outside a particular understanding of who God is?
Like me people of faith and the church cannot have it both ways. We can either have a myopic understanding of God’s world or we can take the more interesting road and assume that the world God loves includes everyone, no exceptions. Theology, class, gender, orientation, race, nationality, or any other way of dividing we can come up with simply isn’t important to God.