"Crosses and Flagpoles" – John 3:16-17
For God so loved the world that he gave his only son that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 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.
I was out to dinner on vacation a couple weeks ago and it didn’t go well. The Indiana Havels were out with the Arizona Havels – my brother and his family – in Phoenix, where they live, and we were dining with some of their extended family, who shall remain nameless.
As you might imagine, oftentimes the fastest way to kill a conversation with someone you’ve just met is to tell them you’re a Pastor. Sometimes, though, that revelation has precisely the opposite effect – it leads to more questions and more conversation and lots of interesting ideas – especially if a particular person has spent the ENTIRE day drinking many beers, in the sun, by the pool, and has also just sucked down a $38.00 glass of bourbon. (Just to be clear, I’m not a fan of bourbon, so I’m not describing myself in this instance.)
The short version of the story is that I was asked several questions about the existence of Hell; about who gets into heaven and how; about forgiveness and salvation and so on. And the others at the table knew enough about me and about my inquisitor so that no one was particularly optimistic about how my responses would be received. Everyone was trying to change the subject to anything but the topic at hand. It was that kind of dinner: when neither the food nor the check could get there fast enough; when, had I driven myself or had another way out, I would have taken a pass on the whole thing.
See, what started out as cordial turned surprisingly ugly, surprisingly quickly. And the straw that broke the camel’s back came when I suggested that, while it was admittedly hard for me to swallow or understand or accept a lot of the time, I am pretty certain that God will make room in heaven for all of us: for bigots and homophobes; for terrorists and murderers; for gay people and straight people; Republicans and Democrats; for conservatives and liberals; for criminals and for cats and dogs, too.
Yeah, the dog thing really got to him. I’m pretty sure that’s what ended the conversation actually. When he asked if dogs went to heaven and I said, “Yes. Even dogs. That God means to redeem and save all of creation – bigots, racists, homophobes and even dogs.” At that, my questioner stood up, threw his napkin on the table, called me something that starts with “a” and rhymes with “flagpole,” grabbed his drink and stumbled away.
And, believe it or not, the more I reflect on that conversation the more I realize that my justification for everything this fellow Christian found so unbelievable, so hard to swallow, so offensive, even, has everything to do with what we’re up to tonight.
See, I don’t pretend to be certain about a lot of things. But the assumption I bring to the foot of this cross – the faith that calls me here – is my belief that God is God; that God, being the God of all things, has the power to do whatever God desires to do; that if God sets God’s divine Mind and Will and Heart to accomplish something, then I’m pretty sure – and my greatest hope lies in the expectation – that God can and will do what God wants to do.
And, as the story goes, God so loved the world that God sent Jesus into it so that everyone would believe and have eternal life. And, as the rest of the story goes, “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
In other words, what God did in Jesus – what God does, in Jesus – is take our capacity to save ourselves out of our hands. We have proven time and again that we are not equal to the task. We have shown, over and over that none of us is worthy or capable of accomplishing it – for ourselves or for anybody else. And what’s more, God loves us so much God doesn’t want us to concern ourselves with this work; God doesn’t want us to be burdened by the weight of something that’s beyond our skill-set or above our pay-grade. God wants us to leave the dirty work and the heavy-lifting of our salvation up to Jesus, so that we can get on with living different, liberated, transformed sorts of lives, as a result.
And this has implications that are as cosmic and other-worldy, as they are common and everyday.
What I mean – and what my friend at dinner wasn’t having – is that this Good Friday cross impacts how we imagine the far reaches of God’s eternity in heaven – whenever and wherever that might be. And this Good Friday cross also means to impact the way we live and love in this world right where we are. And, if we believe this…if we buy this…if we accept and put our faith in the power of God to redeem and to forgive and to save through Jesus Christ – then let’s let God do God’s thing – for us and for others.
Let’s stop asking who’s in and who’s out. Let’s stop worrying about who gets saved and who’s doomed or damned. Let’s stop trying to decide what is forgivable and what just can’t be overlooked. Let’s stop pretending God’s love and grace and mercy can be for “us” and not for “them.” Let’s stop qualifying some sins – like ours – as more forgivable than other sins – like “theirs,” whoever “they” might be.
And I would say we need only to look to the Jesus of Good Friday’s cross for the Truth in all of this. Because on the cross of Good Friday we see the Jesus who had dinner – broke bread and drank wine – with Judas, his betrayer. On the cross of Good Friday, we see the Jesus who promises paradise to the criminal hanging there beside him. On the cross of Good Friday, we see the Jesus who washed the feet of Peter, knowing full-well he would deny him and desert him in his darkest hour.
On the cross of Good Friday we see this Jesus who loved and served all people – saints and sinners, alike – and who, I have to believe then, died to redeem and to save all people, just the same.
Because God so loved – because God so loves – the world, that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him might have eternal life. And because God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
As I was leaving the restaurant after dinner that night in Phoenix a few weeks ago, I vowed to my wife and to my brother and to anyone who would listen that I didn’t care to ever spend another minute with the guy who caused such a scene. (I might have even called him something that rhymes with “flagpole,” I’m not sure.)
What I really believe, though, is that God’s going to have the last laugh somehow. Whether I’m big enough to let it happen in this life or if it will have to wait until the other side of eternity, Good Friday’s cross tells me there’s hope… and potential… and probability, even – because of God’s grace – that, like it or not, reconciliation happens; redemption comes; forgiveness can break through even the hardest of hearts, even the numbest of skulls, even the darkest of sins. Even mine. Even his. Even yours. Even “theirs.”
And if none of that’s true, then Good Friday’s cross was a colossal waste of God’s time.
But the coming of Easter tells me that just can’t be the case.