GOD LOVES THIS WORLD, NOT ONLY NICE PEOPLE
Numbers 21:4-9, Psalm 107, John 3:14 – 21
March 9, 1997 by Tad Mitsui
In early years of the church, there were many rumours about Christianity. Some people even accused Christians of practising cannibalism. Disturbing and incredible as it may sound, there were many good reasons for outsiders to misunderstand some Christian customs. You see, Roman authorities banned this new religion because it did not recognize the divinity of Caesar. Even those, who did not like the Romans, the Jews and the Greeks alike saw Christians with suspicion. So Christians had to often meet secretly at night in places like underground cemeteries called "catacombs". When people met, they often observed Communion in which they broke bread saying, "Take eat. This is my body. Drink of this cup. This is my blood." Remembering the broken body and spilt blood of Christ is the essence of communion, which to this day is the most important and cherished sacrament of our faith. Of course, cannibalism was a totally false and unfair accusation. And yet the wording of the liturgy could sound upsetting to many people who did not know the Christian faith. We too have to come to grips with the language of sacrifice in our faith.
In order to understand the meaning of sacrifice, it is necessary for us to remember the ancient Hebrew belief about God”s justice and love. People of the Old Testament believed, as we still do, that God was just and loving. However, often justice and love, or righteousness and mercy could run into conflict with each other. What do you do when someone you love is unjust? Do you forgive and condone evil? Or would you fulfil the requirements of justice and deny the impulse of love? The notion of sacrifice emerged to solve this dilemma. To commit sin is like owing God a debt. The idea that someone could pay the debt for another person evolved into the idea of sacrifice. In the old Hebrew traditions, animals without blemish were sacrificed to pay that debt to God, so that injustice was properly dealt with. The innocent animals gave up their lives for the sinners. This was how the debts were paid and the books were balanced. The innocent one who was merciful paid a huge price. But through its sacrifice, justice was done. This is how the notion of Jesus being the ultimate sacrificial lamb evolved, to explain the love of God expressed in the death of Jesus on the cross. It was an first theological attempt to explain, in our limited human vocabulary, the mystery of God”s amazing grace in Jesus Christ.
When the Gospel says, "For God so loved the world, he gave his only begotten son.", it said "the world" without qualification. God loved the world of nature and human beings, the world where good and bad, material and spiritual, beautiful and ugly, are all co-existing. It does not say that God separated them and loved only the good people, only the one belonging to the spiritual world, and only the beautiful things. It says that God loved them all, as though they were all mixed up as one entity. This is a constant reminder for us who come to church. Yes, God loves us. But God loves those who are not in the church, also. Not only do we need to remind ourselves that we are not the only ones who are loved by God. We have to treat those outside of the church also as ones who are equally loved by God. We must never hold an "us v.s. them" attitude, because God doesn”t.
One of the difficult situations I, as a minister, face from time to time is the expression of guilt on the part of people who don”t come to church. Whenever people see a minister, inevitably some people begin to explain why they don”t come to church. I always have an urge to say to these people, "I don”t care. I like you anyhow." I understand some people don”t want to or can”t come to church. I did not go to church for a period for different reasons. For many of you, and for me, going to church is extremely important like breathing and eating. We get to show our faith in a safe place, and get fed with spiritual nourishment. But we do not have right to say that other people must feel the same as we do. God does not make a distinction between church goers and non-church people. God loves us all.
I like the attitude of medical doctors and nurses in this respect. They don”t judge people for their conduct. They treat saints and sinners alike. They do their best to treat a person even if the patient is ethically a hopeless case. Doctors and nurses do not discriminate about patients nor pass judgement about them. Likewise when God loves the world, and he does not discriminate. The difference from the medical people is: God is also the God of justice, who hates evil. In this context, it becomes all the more important to remember the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. The cross of Jesus Christ was the God”s way to love the world without compromising the principles of justice. When justice demanded retribution, God paid off our debts through Jesus Christ once and for all.
When I was a child, I heard a story of a dedicated and caring government official in Taiwan. Let us call him Mr. Song – a common Taiwanese name, because I forgot his name. He was sent by the central government into a remote region where mainly Aboriginal people lived to oversee its governance. He was a good man, and people came to love him dearly. Over the years, people came to regard Mr. Song as though he was the father of the tribe. But there was one problem even this good man could not solve. This particular people used to practice human sacrifice in times of great distress. They raided other tribes when plagues struck or crops failed, captured a prisoner, and made a human sacrifice and dedicate the head of the prisoner to appease angry god. The Government, of course, prohibited the practice of such a cruel custom, and meted out severe punishments whenever this happened and was discovered. But the barbaric practice never stopped. Once there was a great famine, and Mr. Song could tell that people were again ready to go back to their old barbaric custom. So he decreed that the government would overlook the practice of human sacrifice one more time – but henceforth after that, the practice would be met with an unimaginable and severe punishment. There was also a condition. Fir this last sacrifice, they would not be able to stage a raid into another people”s village: they would have to take whatever stranger who happened to pass the village. So the villagers captured the first stranger who came into the village. It was only after they beheaded him that they found this human sacrifice was their beloved Mr. Song in disguise. People wept for many days regretting their stupidity. As the story goes, from that day forward the barbaric practice of human sacrifice was never repeated in Taiwan.
For us, Christ was the final and ultimate sacrifice who paid the price of all of our transgressions once and for all. All we need to do is to believe this, and pledge to be forgiving and charitable to all of our neighbours. The sacrament of Holy Communion is our symbolic act to remember Christ”s final and ultimate sacrifice that paid off all our debts of past and future. Let us celebrate it joyfully and go out of this place as happy free people.