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A letter to John 3:16 TV ad converts

January 25, 2012

Dear New Christian,

So, you saw that John 3:16 ad during the game, and now you have decided to accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior. Well, I’ve got to admit, that is pretty cool. I’m always amazed at how the Spirit moves, drawing people to the divine. Welcome to the community!

Oh, you didn’t know you joined a community? Well, of course, how could you know!?  Don’t worry. Life will be full of surprises for you as a Jesus-follower. In fact, God is always doing a new thing, and that’s what I wanted to talk to you about – this adventure that we are on, trying to discover how we can get in line with God’s will.

You’re not the first person to hear the voice of the Lord through scripture — particularly John 3:16. I am sure it was the first verse I memorized in Sunday school. Of course, later, I recall this crazy-looking guy wearing a rainbow afro who would pop up on TV during sports events displaying the verse on a sign. I was reading the other day that even a lot of atheists know something about that verse – perhaps because of that same crazy guy!

Anyway, however it is that you came in contact with these ancient words, isn’t it great how God  speaks to the present through something written in the distant past? You’ll see a lot more of that. In fact, you will find there are a lot of other verses in the Bible besides John 3:16. In fact, it would be nice, just to avoid any confusion, if the sign-wavers and ad-buyers went ahead and routinely included the next verse, which notes that Jesus wasn’t sent to condemn the world (John 3:17).

Here’s the deal: We Christians – some more than others – are pretty good at telling you about how to take a simple step to accept Christ. We’re not so good at telling you what to do next. We just tend to leave you hanging. Sorry about that! I don’t hold all the answers. (In fact, no one does). But I do have some experience at trying to be a follower of Christ, and maybe some things I have found out along the way will help you get started. If so, I’m glad.

I wouldn’t blame you at all for thinking that now that you have assented to John 3:16, or perhaps even prayed something called the “sinner’s prayer,” that you’re done.  Part of that is due to our cultural religious understandings, and what it means to believe something.  You see, in Jesus’ time, believing did not mean walking the aisle on Sunday morning at the First Church of Jerusalem or coming forward to make a profession of faith after an inspiring weekend at Camp Wikiwiki.

No, words like believe and love were action words. To believe meant to do something, particularly in regards to the plight of the poor and oppressed. The Biblical writers speak of God’s favor toward the poor hundreds of times. Jesus quoted the words of the prophet Isaiah in making the claim that he was the fulfillment of God’s mission to anoint someone who would  bring good news to the poor and set the oppressed free (Luke 4:18).

What I am about to tell you may come as a shock, but hopefully it will also be a relief: It’s not about you. Or me. It is not even possible to be a solitary Christian. Christianity is all about community, and that community is lived out in a flawed institution called the church. The church is an organization made up of broken human beings like you and me who look to Christ for leadership but frequently make a mess of things. (Despite that, God somehow seems to keep using this institution, and changing it.) You will be baptized into this community of faith and take part in something called the Lord’s Supper, a meal of reconciliation that mysteriously strengthens you for this journey and joins you with believers in every time and place.

You will want to find a church home where you can ask lots of questions about the Bible. Talk to the pastor. Does the pastor carry an air of superiority or seem to know all the answers? This is a red flag telling you to keep looking! Biblical meaning is elusive, and, unfortunately, some preachers will want to give you certain, easy answers as a way to hold onto their authority. Run, don’t walk. You cannot understand the Bible without the help of the Spirit. And the Spirit is present in the midst of open, no-holds-barred discussion among its readers.

By the way, what do I mean, you ask, by saying that biblical meaning is elusive? Good question! These words were written a long time ago by people who lived in a different kind of world. Sometimes folks may tell you that they just accept the plain meaning of scripture, but, in many cases, it’s just not so plain. For one thing, meanings differ according to background, experience and motivations of the particular reader. During the period of the Civil War, slaves and slaveholders read the same Bible (the slaves secretly). The slaveholders proclaimed a biblical message legitimizing forced servitude while those who were bound found the promise of  hope for their ultimate freedom.

You will want to spend some time learning about a church before jumping all the way in, and you should take time to learn more about the faith before becoming baptized. (In the early church, it was a lengthy process leading to baptism. This is a serious thing. There’s no hurry.)

Oh, and one other thing before I go, and this is the really good part: I have mentioned that this is a journey that includes mystery. One of the greatest is that none of these steps I have suggested will make God love you any more or any less than God already does. You cannot earn the love of God. You can only live faithfully, in response to that unconditional love, knowing that Christ is with you through thick and thin. Now is that cool, or what?

Today I was reading the words of a very fine minister who is getting ready to retire after a long career of serving others in the name of Christ. He put it this way: “God loves us apart from anything we have done or neglected to do; God loves us apart from our theological sophistication or lack of it …. God loves us not because of anything about us other than the fact that we are, we have being and we bear within us the image of the One who created us.”

Hope to see you at church on Sunday,

Matt

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