I can still remember the day I was told that the ultimate goal of Christianity was not getting to heaven when I died.
It was in the parking lot of a brewpub in Grand Rapids, Michigan after a long day attending a conference on Christianity and Globalization, and it hit me like a ton of bricks. I had traveled with a prof and some classmates to this conference, not quite knowing what I was getting myself into. I didn’t know I had come to start rethinking everything.
And so it came as a shock when I first heard those blasphemous words, words that called into question everything I’d come to understand about Christian faith. What could this mean? It was that moment that both planted seeds of doubt and seeds of faith on a journey to embracing a gospel far bigger than I’d ever dreamed.
That night was a starting point. A starting point for a newly reinvigorated faith, one that challenged me to learn ever more about who Jesus is, what he was on about, and what all of this means for the way we Christians ought to live.
Fast forward to a conversation that took place years later in a workshop room at another conference, this time in suburban Oakville, Ontario. It was there that I attended a workshop facilitated by National Anglican Indigenous Bishop Mark MacDonald, meeting him for the first time.
For the life of me, I can’t remember how we got on the topic. I can’t remember whether he was speaking about it, or whether someone asked him the question that got us there, but suddenly we were talking about John 3:16.
As folks who’ve been to Beer & Bible know, I’ve got a bit of baggage attached to that verse. I deflect conversation about it by asking what verse others would put on a poster at the FIFA Women’s World Cup – or whatever.
It’s John 3:16 that Luther was fond of referring to as “the Gospel in Miniature.” But John 3:16 is also the same verse I had both used and experienced as blunt force trauma. This was the verse trotted out to entice people to accept Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Saviour, lest they end up in eternal fire.
For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have eternal life.
Growing up, I must have had that piece of scripture memorized by the time I was five. We clung to it deeply, knowing that it could only mean one thing. God love the world so much that he sent Jesus to die in my place, allowing me to go to heaven (and not hell) when I died. That was the gospel in miniature for me.
And yet, looking at it now, it seems such a small gospel. It’s good news for almost no-one at all. That so-called gospel was used as a foundation for writing off unbelievers and for doing whatever we wanted to the earth, because one day I’d leave it all behind.
But there in the workshop room with Bishop Mark, we began to speak about this gospel text. Mark reminded us of the gospel’s cosmic reach and vision. It was in that room that my attention was drawn to the clearly stated fact that God so loved the world. The whole damned thing.
That God loved all of God’s good creation.
That God created all things, and called them good.
That God made this creation in an act of gracious, self-giving love.
John’s gospel, is both profoundly personal, and profoundly relational. It places us in a web of relationships with God through Jesus, with others, and with the whole of God’s good creation.
John 3:17 goes on to tell us:
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.
For whatever reason, growing up – whether taught, caught, or completely misunderstood – I heard this global world-wide salvation through an individualistic, anthropocentric lens. That is to say, that God sent Jesus to save individual humans, and not the whole of God’s good creation.
But that isn’t the point Jesus is making to Nicodemus at all.
From the beginning, God’s vision is global. From Genesis, the very building blocks of the Jewish and Christian story, God calls all creation into relationship with God’s self, with one another, and with all of God’s good creation. This includes the land on which we depend for our existence.
This is about a web of relationships. God, People, and All of Creation.
From the beginning, the story of God’s salvation has been about returning a balance to the relationship amongst these three. And this salvation is described throughout the Hebrew scriptures using the concept of Shalom. Shalom, a deep, abiding, holistic peace.
This is the peace the prophets preach, reminding Israel of its call. This is the peace that Jesus preached, giving focus to his disciples, and fuel for the church to embrace this very same call. God continually calls us to embrace the way of Shalom, to be a sign to the world of the peace that passes all understanding, the peace that is possible with God.
But let’s be honest. We haven’t done so well on that front.
Here in Vancouver at St. Andrew’s Wesley this morning, and in the Walk for Reconciliation in Ottawa, people of all stripes marked and observed the reality of how things have gone wrong. Of how the church has gone wrong. Of how we as a people in Canada have gone wrong.
And over the next 22 days, from today to National Aboriginal Day on June 22nd, we Anglicans will continue to mark the truth of this history. We will mark the truth of our complicity in colonialism, especially through Residential Schools. We’ll be posting some facts about the Anglican Church’s role in these things on Facebook and Twitter over the next 21 days, so you may want to take a look.
While God has called God’s church to be a sign and sacrament of God’s reconciling love, Christians took Indigenous people from their homes, we sent them to Residential Schools in an attempt to remove them from their cultures, and to take their cultures from them.
And what we did, what we continue to do through the various individual and institutional forms of racism present in our society is to deny the humanity, the God-given personhood of Aboriginal people.
When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission made its stop in Vancouver back in 2013, I was given the opportunity to sit with a First Nations elder who told me a part of her story. I sat with her for an hour as she told me horrendous stories of her own abuse, and the abuse of her brothers at the hands of the teachers. I walked away wounded. And my experience of her story had been filtered through decades. At no point was it my personal reality.
Another scene is etched permanently in my memory, as a young mother spoke to the circle, “I tell my children I love them every day,” she said, “because my mom couldn’t.” Schools set up by the church and government stole love and peace, stole language, and culture, and life itself from thousands upon thousands of Indigenous children across the country.
Which is why we have to grapple with last week’s words from Canada’s Chief Justice, and echoed by the commissioners of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission who have declared this whole mess an attempt at cultural Genocide.
Genocide is about as far from shalom as I can imagine. Which means that the walk towards reconciliation may take some time.
And so this week I found myself turning to a book written by Indigenous Christian theologian, Randy Woodley. Dr. Woodley is a Keetoowah Cherokee, and the director of Intercultural and Indigenous Studies at George Fox University in Portland, OR.
In his book, entitled Shalom and the Community of Creation, Woodley says this:
“The industrial age and neocolonialism, following the era of colonialism, have written a check to our world that has insufficient funds. We are doomed if we don’t change our course. Only a worldview encompassing the interconnectedness between Creator, human beings, and the rest of Creation as one family is adequate. Such a worldview is fundamentally indigenous and biblical.”
And this morning at St. Andrew’s Wesley, the speaker Douglas White, pointed us in a similar direction:
True reconciliation for all of us, will be driven by people turning hearts and minds to issues that matter, and turning our collective minds and hearts to places where interconnectedness prevails.
And so tonight, we continue the journey towards interconnectedness and God’s shalom.
And we embark on this journey in the spirit of Jesus. The one who offered himself in self-giving love for the sake of truth, and reconciliation of all things.
That this might be good news. Not just for you. Not just for me.
But for the life of the entire world.