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. - John 3:16
I've often seen the people at sports games holding signs that say "John 3:16," (or, for insiders, just "3:16"). They are referencing this well known verse in the gospel of John, a favorite 'proof text' for conservative evangelicals, who feel that the gospel is best summed up by these words.
I've spoken recently about how there is a continuum of Christian theology. On one end is what we might call the more conservative evangelical end, where the emphasis is on "salvation theology." On the other end - the end where Episcopalians fall - the emphasis is on a "theology of grace." Sometimes I think of churches as ice cream and each denomination is its own flavor. Each flavor falls somewhere on that spectrum of Salvation/Grace. Those who lean toward salvation theology tend to frame faith in terms of how to be saved, who is saved and who is not saved. Those who lean toward a theology of grace tend to frame faith in terms of the mysterious and abundant love and forgiveness of God. And nowhere in the Bible can you find both of these Christian theologies more strongly proclaimed than in the gospel of John. In verse 3:16 alone, both God's selfless love for us and the promise of salvation are both featured. I feel sorry that John 3:16 has been effectively claimed by the salvationists and is now a baggage filled verse that can sometimes make more progressive Christians uncomfortable
I had an acquaintance from a conservative church (who saw Christianity in terms of salvation theology) who once said to me that he loved the gospel of John because he thought of it as the 'beginner's gospel.' He said that unlike the other three gospels, John lays out his gospel in simple, black and white terms that anyone can understand and follow. I couldn't disagree more! The way I see it (and this gives away that I lean toward a theology of grace) John expresses in often poetic and metaphorical ways the mystery of an unfathomable God who loves us and is with us even when we are lost. There are layers and layers of meaning and nuance in the book of John - not simple or black and white at all!
The Christian faith, which has adherents across the globe, all with their own flavors, has plenty of room for both salvation and grace. It is not an either/or faith, but a both/and rainbow.
This week I had a very long email exchange back and forth with a member of the NH House of Representatives from another part of the state. I had written to him and each of the members of the House Committee for Health, Human Services and Elderly Affairs when they were having a public hearing on HB 478 last month, a bill that specifically adds 'gender identity' to our non- discriminatory policies in NH. I had urged all of them to support the bill in order to protect one of the most vulnerable populations among us. I heard back from only one Republican, who said he believed in compassion and equality for all people and would recommend the bill. And, as it turned out, the bipartisan committee voted to recommend the bill to the full house. The full house vote is coming up this week.
But then yesterday I heard this same representative on public radio saying he'd changed his mind and would now vote to table the bill. So I emailed him. I reminded him of what he said to me last month and urged him to change his mind back. We ended up having an all day back and forth conversation about this. He has legal reasons for feeling that this bill is redundant and has been politicized unnecessarily and is not necessary - he believes that our state constitution already protects transgender people. I told him I believed the House needed to pass the bill for the sake of protecting vulnerable teens and intentionally including this vulnerable group in the list of other groups we've decided to protect. He argued that the bill is about adults, not teens. I wrote back that even though this is so, impressionable teens are watching what the House does. We wrote back and forth all day. We explained our differing positions. We each shared personal stories of the LGBTQ people we know and love. It was a respectful and thoughtful exchange which is something very rare in this day and age. In the end, he did not change his position. I'm pretty sure he will vote to table the bill today or tomorrow when it comes up. I told him I was disappointed, but that I respected his opinion. I thanked him for really communicating with me and told him I would be praying for him and all legislators in this charged and politicized environment. I sure don't envy their job.
This whole thing made me think about how easy it is to take sides in this life and how hard it can be to bridge the gaps between us. But when you do make efforts to understand where someone else is coming from, really listening to why they believe what they believe and have a mutually respectful conversation, you do find out that you share more than you differ. Even though I disagree with him on this bill, after writing back and forth all day I would actually like to meet him. I think he had taken a lot of thought and care in coming to his position as a legislator. I even think he was courageous to try to calm what he sees as highly agitated and politicized waters by focusing on legal details. If I were in his shoes, however, I know I would choose to err on the side of compassion, not reason. I figure he must lean toward salvation theology....
Mature Christians can disagree and can still be in relationship. To do so, we must be willing to stretch out of our black and white thinking (and we all have black and white thinking in more areas than we care to notice), and come out of our battle positions to the center with white handkerchiefs as humble listeners. Life is truly a both/and proposition - and there is a wide range of experiences, options and beliefs. As for Christian theology, our faith has a lot to say both about our ultimate 'salvation,' and the grace of God. Our tradition is full, and rich and beyond our full understanding. As long as we humbly seek to learn and grow, Christians can make efforts to build bridges with those who disagree with them when both parties are willing to recognize that only God knows the full truth.
Looking for a Lenten discipline? I challenge you to ask someone you disagree with politically or religiously to tea. Ask them about their kids, their hobbies, their background. Get to know them as a fellow human being, not just as a label. Take at least a chip out of your heart of stone to uncover your heart of flesh and make hospitable space for them to do the same. Jesus did that. May we become known for doing the same.