Sermon at Saint Matthias’ Church on 17th February 2008
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16
It is a bible verse that is so familiar that we probably no longer think about what it means. One encounters it in almost every Christian tradition, whether it be a cathedral choir singing ‘For God so loved the world’, from ‘The Crucifixion’ by Sir John Stainer, or a wee man handing out tracts at Cornmarket in Belfast city centre on a Saturday afternoon. It would be one of the best known verses from the Bible, some writers have described it as the Christian Gospel expressed in one sentence. What I want to think this morning not about the whole verse, but about just one word at the heart of it, ‘whoever’.
This one single word, ‘whoever’: it tells us much about God; it tells us much about the Church; and it tells us much about ourselves.
‘Whoever’, you, me, the man in the street, the lady on the bus, the most unlikely, the most ungodly, God will relate to any of us directly. When we think about God it maybe as a powerful, terrifying figure, but he is also a God who is immanent, a God present, a God there, at all times in all places. ‘Whoever’ is a statement that this is an accessible God, that this is an approachable God. ‘Whoever’ is a statement that God does not discriminate: whoever responds to God, God will respond to them. The story of Jesus is the story of God being present to anyone who chose to listen to him, ‘whoever believes’ has God alongside them.
If ‘whoever’ tells us about a God who is near and who is prepared to be a close friend, it tells us about what the church should be like and what it shouldn’t be like. The first Christians had trouble with this idea of ‘whoever’, they were Jews and they expected anyone who wished to join them to become Jews. ‘Whoever’ was not an idea that fitted in with their Law, they were the chosen people and as far as they were concerned membership of God’s people was not open to ‘whoever’. Paul has to write to the early churches a number of times to make the point that they couldn’t carry on with their old attitudes. He writes to the Christians in Rome in this morning’s Epistle telling them that being one of God’s people wasn’t just for those who followed the law of Abraham, it was also for those who had the faith of Abraham, no matter who they were.
What we see when we look at church history is that as the centuries passed the church slipped back into the old ways of thinking, the church liked to have power, it liked to have influence; bishops were like princes. They weren’t going to accept that whoever believed in Jesus would have a place in heaven. Far from it, to have a hope of a place in heaven you had to be subject to the rule of the church, you had to receive the sacraments, you had to accept everything the hierarchy said. If you refused, it wasn’t just a religious matter, it was against the law of the land and you could end up being burned at the stake for heresy. So much for Jesus saying that whoever believed would have eternal life.
The church’s official teaching was that outside of the church there was no salvation. In times when people lived in daily fear of death, the idea that you would face eternal damnation if you were not on good terms with the church was a very powerful threat. It made the Church very influential and very, very rich.
What happened in the 16th Century was that some people started reading the Bible and saying, ‘hold on, Jesus didn’t say all these things’ . .Jesus said, ‘whoever believes in him’. Jesus didn’t say you had to do and had to believe all these extra things’.
At the heart of the Reformation there was this one simple point, is being a Christian open to whoever believes? Or is being a Christian a matter of accepting all the rules and regulations of the Church and accepting the authority of Church teaching in every part of your life? Jesus says being a Christian is open to whoever believes.
“Whoever’ tells us about God. ‘Whoever’ tells us about the church. ‘Whoever’ tells us about ourselves. Being a Christian is not about belonging to the church; it is about our own personal faith in this God who takes on our flesh and walks among us and dies and rises again. ‘Whoever’ does not refer to the church, ‘whoever’ refers to individual people. ‘Whoever’ tells us that we are responsible for our own decisions.
‘Whoever’ is a troubling word in Irish society where the church has been used to handing down its verdict on anything and everything and having people accept that verdict. The flurry of letters on the Irish Times letters page about Catholics and individual conscience shows there are still many people and clergy who think things should be as they were in the past. But we’re in a society that is changing very fast—twenty years ago, no-one could have envisaged Ireland being as it is today.
Much of our society has had to grow up very quickly. For so long church teaching was accepted without question. Morality was whatever the church said was moral. Authority was not challenged. Now it’s all changed, the church is just one voice among many and people must choose for themselves.
The problem is that being a Christian has meant to most people being a church member, not what Jesus expected. Jesus looked for people who took their own decisions, who responded to him and who lived their life in the light of their faith in him.
‘Whoever’ is a statement that God recognises our dignity as individual people. ‘Whoever’ is a sign that God. respects our right to make our own decisions. ‘Whoever’ is an indication that we are going to be called to account for our own lives.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” What we each have to ask of ourselves is, ‘am I one of one of the whoevers who have believed? And, if I am, what difference is it making in my life?’