In the Gospel of John, a respected religious leader came to Jesus by night. Why the clandestine meeting? Because the religious leader, a man named Nicodemus, could hardly risk his reputation among his peers by being seen with the rabble-rousing rabbi from Galilee. It would have ruined him, so he came secretly.
Under the cover of darkness the two men had a conversation – captured in John 3 – that provided for us one of the most practical and beautiful explanations of Jesus’ life, work, and mission. Picking up at verse 16, one of the most well-known verses in the Bible, Jesus said, “God loved the people of this world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who has faith in him will have eternal life. God did not send his Son into the world to condemn its people. He sent him to save them!”
This confounded the curious Nicodemus, for the prevailing concept of his day was that any divine messenger would be an enemy-crushing, judgment-casting, punishment-meting, iron-fisted oligarch who would bring the most severe condemnation from above. This interpretation prevails today, as we love for our gods to burn with anger toward those, ironically never we ourselves, who deserve righteous indignation.
“Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord,” Julia Ward Howe penned a century and a half ago. “He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored. He hath loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword; his truth is marching on.” Thus, we continue to shout, “Glory, glory, hallelujah!” with delight in our vengeful deities.
But that’s a problem in light of what Jesus told Nicodemus. This God, as known and revealed by Jesus, is a lover, not a fighter. He’s a reconciler, not an exterminator. He’s a savior, not a condemner. He’s a healer, not a killer. He is a redeemer, not a destroyer. He forgives, he doesn’t accuse. He welcomes, rather than excludes. He is a God of grace, not cruelty.
Louis Evely, the late Belgian priest who had a controversial reputation for being funny, audacious, and irreverent (so much so that the continued censoring by his superiors finally drove him from the priesthood altogether), most often wrote about the one subject that can so irritate angry, religious people: The vast, infinite love of God for people.
He wrote, “The paradox of our time is that those who believe in God do not believe in the salvation of the world, and those who believe the world has a future, do not believe in God! I often say to myself, God must feel very much alone: For is there anyone besides God who believes in salvation? God seeks sons and daughters who resemble him enough, who love the world enough, that he can send them into it. For to believe in God is to believe in the salvation of the world.” To this, I can only add, “Amen.”