Sermon: “No Condemnation”

John 3 17

Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you,
no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

~ John 3:3, New Revised Standard Version

First Congregational Church of Santa Ana
May 27, 2018
John 3:1-17

“No Condemnation”

When I was preparing this message I opened a commentary on John and found a handmade bookmark I was given at church some years ago. It included this quote from Scottish poet Alexander Smith: “Love is but the discovery of ourselves in others, and the delight in the recognition.” That seems like a good starting point to talk about a passage that includes probably the best-know scripture in all of Christianity: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”[1]

I’m uncomfortable when someone asks if I’m “born again” or identifies as a “Born-Again Christian,” and not only because I learned that Jesus’ words would be more accurately translated as “born from above.” No, it goes deeper than that. Right or wrong, I hear it as a value judgment indicating that “Born Again” Christians are somehow superior to other Christians. That sounds like the opposite of what Jesus taught.

[I often say that Jesus cares more about what we do than about what we believe. In the other three Gospels, he healed people indiscriminately, not asking for a declaration of faith or quizzing them on their theology. He fed the multitudes without asking why they were there. He healed the servant of the Roman centurion[2] and the daughter of the Syrophenician woman.[3]] [4]

Jesus said, “the last will be first, and the first will be last.”[5] He said, “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.  For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”[6] That doesn’t sound like exclusivity or hierarchy to me.  No, it sounds like an inclusive, egalitarian, dream. It sounds like the love of God.

I wanted to understand what people actually mean by the phrase “Born again” so I did some research. The late evangelist Billy Graham defined a “Born-Again Christian” as “someone who has repented of their sins and turned to Christ for their salvation, and as a result has become part of God’s family forever.”[7] But he also wrote, “in God’s eyes even one sin is enough to keep you out of heaven.”[8] Wait… what?

All respect to Rev. Graham, but in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus prayed for God to forgive those who executed him.[9] In other words, he prayed for God to forgive the people who killed the innocent incarnation of Godself in the world. “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.”[10] Forgiveness in place of condemnation.

Let me tell you a story. When I was in first grade – either a more innocent or a less enlightened time, depending on one’s point of view – my teacher, Mrs. Tallent, told my mother that I was the most perfect child she had ever seen. Mama was very proud of that. What no one realized was that I was a “perfect” child, and then a “perfect” teenager, because I was terrified. I wasn’t terrified so much of the wrath of God, although that was the teaching in my early childhood church; no, I was terrified of the wrath of Daddy.

I loved him. He’s been gone for four years and I still miss him. Unfortunately,  Daddy was an alcoholic and a very angry, unhappy man… impossible to please. I was a young adult and mother of three when I read an article in the Los Angeles Times that described the “Adult Children of Alcoholics Syndrome.[11] I was devastated to realize that I was an archetype of the adult child of an alcoholic.

Here are just a few examples from “The Laundry List: 14 Traits of an Adult Child of an Alcoholic”:[12]

  • We became approval seekers and lost our identity in the process.
  • We are frightened of angry people and any personal criticism.
  • We have an overdeveloped sense of responsibility.

Being a “perfect” child isn’t such a good thing after all.

I don’t share this story to gain your pity, but to contrast the image of God I learned as a very small child with the image of God I now recognize as the true God. I will never be perfect, but I want to be the best me I can. Unlike my childhood desire to please my dad, my desire to be better is no longer motivated by fear: I want to be the best that I can be because I want to please God, to be worthy of the unconditional love I learned from Jesus Christ.

Unlike the behavior of the child of an alcoholic – an approval seeker with an over-developed sense of responsibility I am not overcome with guilt when I fail. I don’t beat myself up. I don’t have to be perfect. “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus.”[13]

Father Greg Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries – the largest gang intervention program in the world – writes, ““Beyond cure and healing, Jesus was always hopeful about widening the circle of compassion and dismantling the barriers that exclude.”[14] I have never been part of a marginalized group, but Jesus has taught me that there are no barriers – no condemnation – in the love of God.

When Jesus and the Church saved me, it wasn’t my soul that was at stake; it was my life, emotional health, and happiness. As Biblical scholar and author Marcus Borg writes, “to be born again means to die to an old way of being and to be born into a new way of being, one centered in the Spirit of God.”[15]

Rabbi Rami Shapiro wrote this:

We are loved by an unending love.
We are embraced by arms that find us even when we are hidden from ourselves.
We are touched by fingers that soothe us even when we are too proud for soothing.
We are counseled by voices that guide us even when we are too embittered to hear.
We are loved by an unending love.
We are supported by hands that uplift us even in the midst of a fall.
We are urged on by eyes that meet us even when we are too weak for meeting.
We are loved by an unending love.
Embraced, touched, soothed, and counseled,
Ours are the arms, the fingers, the voices;
Ours are the hands, the eyes, the smiles;
We are loved by an unending love.[16]

Maybe some of us haven’t yet been “born again.” Maybe we haven’t “[died] to an old way of being and [been] born into a new way of being.”[17] Maybe we’re still in the darkness of the womb, waiting for the labor pains to end, waiting to be thrust into the light. Weep for those who are stillborn and spend their entire existence without experiencing the love and compassion that God is pouring out for all of Creation.

“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.”[18]

[1] John 3:16, New Revised Standard Version.
[2] Matthew 8:5-13, Luke 7:1-10.
[3] Matthew 15:21-28, Mark 7:24-30.
[4] Mary Jo Bradshaw, Sermon, “Truth and Light,” First Christian Church of Riverside, March 11, 2018.
[5] Matthew 20:16, New Revised Standard Version. Also see Matthew 19:30, Mark 10:31, and Luke 13:30.
[6] Mark 10:43b-45, New Revised Standard Version.
[7] Billy Graham, “Answers,”, April 20, 2005. Accessed May 25, 2018.
[8] Billy Graham.
[9] Luke 23:34.
[10] John 3:17, New Revised Standard Version.
[11] I believe this is the article: Jan Hofmann, “Portrait of an adult child of an alcoholic,” Los Angeles Times, December 17, 1987.
[12] Tony A. “The Laundry List: 14 Traits of an Adult Child of an Alcoholic,” 1978, reprinted at Adult Children of Alcoholics World Service Organization, Accessed May 26, 2018.
[13] Romans 8:1a, New Revised Standard Version.
[14] Gregory  Boyle, Barking to the Choir: the power of radical kinship, (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2017), 10.
[15] Marcus J. Borg, Jesus: uncovering the life, teachings, and relevance of a religious revolutionary, (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 1989), 220.
[16] Rami Shapiro, “We Are Loved By An Unending Love.” Shared by Mary Jo Bradshaw in a sermon, “Truth and Light,” First Christian Church of Riverside, March 11, 2018.
[17] Borg.
[18] John 3:17, New Revised Standard Version.

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