I was intrigued by the sign, so I looked up the verse, expecting it to have some kind of indirect reference to field goals or scoring or something like that. I was puzzled to read this instead: “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.” I could not figure out how that verse related to football.
John 3:16 kept popping up at sports events. I continued to ponder what it might mean. Only years later did I finally realize that John 3:16 was not supposed to encourage a team. People held up signs with John 3:16 to share the gospel.
And if you have to choose a single verse that summarizes the gospel, John 3:16 is a good choice. I talked to a couple of pastors this week who said they like to add John 3:17 as well: “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.”
Out of love, God sends Christ in order to save the world. That pretty much sums it all up.
Our reading from Ephesians makes exactly the same point in more theological language. Paul says, “By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”
Paul does not define what grace is. But we can. Grace is the love of God who sends Christ into the world to save the world. Grace is the saving action of God in Christ Jesus.
Paul goes on to give a compelling picture of God’s gracious, saving action in us.
We were, Paul says, by nature children of wrath. We were dead through trespasses and sins. As people who love darkness, as children of wrath, as people dead in sin, we were helpless to please God. It is a depressing picture of human nature. And sadly it rings true.
And then comes the miracle of God’s grace. Even when we were dead through our trespasses, God, who is rich in mercy, out of great love, makes us alive together with Christ.
Into our darkness, God shines the light of His love. God sends Christ to save a lost world. In Christ God raises us, who were dead, up to new life.
God does that out of love and mercy, as a free gift to people who could never make it on our own, who could never pay God back, who could never earn God’s forgiveness and love.
It is easy to forget just how radical a claim that is.
Many years ago, a young man who had been raised in the Church told me that salvation by grace just made sense. But that fine young man was totally wrong. God’s grace does not make any sense at all. God’s grace is so bizarrely generous, inspired by such incredible love, so inconceivably powerful that it boggles the mind.
God loves us because God is love. That kind of love is not something we can know apart from God. NO human relationships work like that. NEVER do we love someone so generously, so perfectly. NEVER do we love someone who appears utterly unworthy in our eyes. NEVER can our love create life where there was no possibility of life.
Probably the closest human beings ever come is the love of a mother for her child. But even a mother’s love has its limits.
But not God’s love. God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, God loved us, who were dead, back into life. That is a gift of God. Thanks be to God!
Sometimes we think of God’s love as having conditions. We think God will love us if we love enough or if we have enough faith or if we do the right things or believe the right things.
But Paul is clear. God’s grace is not the result of anything we do. God’s grace is a gift that God gives us because of who God is. God’s grace comes before we do anything to please God.
Notice the verb tenses in Ephesians. They are all past tense. God made us alive. By grace we have been saved. God raised us up with Christ. God seated us in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus. We are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus.
It is all past tense. God has already done it for us. That is REALLY good news.
I often preach on what the Bible calls us to do. But our reading for this morning reminds us that everything we do is possible only because of what God has already done for us. That is the good news of Jesus Christ. That is the meaning of John 3:16 and 17: God so loved the world that He sent his only Son . . . in order that the world might be saved through him.
Everything that we do, all our efforts to live the Christian life, our faith itself, all that is a response to what God has already done for us. How could it be otherwise? We were dead in sin. And then God made us alive in Christ.
God does that.
And as a consequence, we are changed.
We were dead. We were by nature children of wrath. But no more.
Now, having experienced the grace of God in Jesus Christ, “we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”
No longer children of wrath, dead by nature. Now “created in Christ Jesus for good works.”
But most of us experience that change from death to life, from sin to good works, only gradually. When we look around us, we see people laboring in darkness, children of wrath, dead to God. And when we look around us, we see people created in Christ Jesus for good works, people who are good and loving.
When we look inside ourselves, we see the same mix of sin and goodness, of death and life.
The good news of our readings for today is that God’s grace is at work in us, that God has made us alive in Christ, that God’s Son has come into the world to save the world. God has done for us what we could not have done for ourselves.
The good news is that God makes it possible for us to live as children of God, to live in love, to experience eternal life with God.
And so we give thanks to the God of grace. And as a sign of our gratitude, we commit ourselves to doing the good works which God has prepared to be our way of life.
In Christ’s name, Amen.