Sermon preached at Evensong, Trinity Sunday (22 May 2016) by the Rt Revd. Dr Graham Tomlin, Bishop of Kensington

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12:30pm Eucharist
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5:00pm Evening Prayer
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Sermon preached at Evensong, Trinity Sunday (22 May 2016) by the Rt Revd. Dr Graham Tomlin, Bishop of Kensington

We know how the world came into being - the Bishop of Kensington asks why

When I was a child, I was a regular at a Sunday School at my local Baptist church. They made us learn verses and I was very bad at it. However there was one verse I did remember, one that occurs in today’s reading – John 3.16. I seem to remember they were quite keen that if there was one verse we were going to remember for the rest of our lives, this was it. There was even a fashion in the 1980s for people to hold up placards saying “JOHN 3:16” at the World Cup or the Olympics. So why did my Sunday School teachers and the sports fans want to draw attention so much to this verse? Presumably because it is one of best brief summaries of the Christian faith in the Bible: 

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

Like much of Bible, it has hidden depths. I understood it as a child, but looking at again as an adult, I now see new things in it. 

It begins with the statement: God so loved the world, or as the Greek has it, the entire cosmos – not just this planet but the entire universe. There has of course been a great deal of exploration into the origins of the universe. One account of it reads like this: “The most popular theory of our universe's origin centers on a cosmic cataclysm unmatched in all of history—the big bang. This theory was born of the observation that other galaxies are moving away from our own at great speed, in all directions, as if they had all been propelled by an ancient explosive force.”

Then again there is the theory of Evolution, a very elegant and persuasive theory of how life developed and grew from that initial starting point. 

Of course both the Big Bang and Evolution are entirely compatible with Christian cosmology. But they are strictly speaking answers to the question of HOW the world came into being, not WHY the world exists in the first place, WHERE it came from, or WHAT that force was that propels the world onwards to its future. 

John 3.16 is an answer to those latter three questions. It tells us the world emerged out of LOVE, it exists because of LOVE, that the driving force of universe, the ‘ancient explosive force’ that propelled the universe into being & propels it forward to its consummation is nothing other than LOVE. It tells us that the power that orders the world, that runs through it like words in a stick of rock is none other than LOVE, because God so LOVED the world. 

When you grasp that, the world becomes a different place. The planet we live on is no longer an object, an inert lump of cosmic dust, but a gift of love. The air we breathe, the earth beneath our feet, the roof over our heads, the beauty of trees, mountains, lakes, flowers, cities – they are no longer random physical phenomena, but all are expressions of the LOVE that propelled the universe into being. 

Now this may all be true, yet all this language can seem abstract and impersonal. However this verse takes us further. It says that this love has a face, a body, a mind, hands and feet: “He gave his one and only Son”. 

That word ‘gave’ has two meanings. One is a reference to the gift - the gift of Jesus Christ, God's visible, tangible pledge to us that he is on our side for evermore, that he has entered into our flesh, our life, our history, and as we remembered recently on Ascension Day, has taken humanity into heaven itself. In Jesus Christ we see what the love that made the universe looks like in an ordinary human life, as a pattern for what we were always meant to be like, and what we have the potential to grow into. 

Do you want to know what it was that made the big bang happen? The force so strong it created the universe? Do you want to know what that force looks, or feels like? Look no further than Jesus Christ. Look at his compassion for lepers whom no-one else would touch, for tax-men who were despised by almost everyone, for a woman caught in bed with someone she wasn’t married to, for a rich young man looking for meaning & purpose in life. This love is the power that brought the universe into being, and healed the sick, raised the dead, preached good news to the poor in the life of Jesus Christ. 

Yet there is another meaning to that word ‘gave’ - the meaning of ‘giving up’: God gave up his only Son.

The problem is that the world doesn't always look like a place which is suffused with love. There is another force at work within the world - captured in the word ‘perish’ or ‘destroy’. There seems to be another power at work, a virus which has entered this beautiful gift of a world, that seeks to destroy everything, and send the universe back to the nothingness from which it came. A power that has taken hold not just within nature, but within the human heart - your heart and mine. 

In response to this tragedy, the Love out of which the universe was born not only appeared to enable us to see what Love looks like in human form, it went even further - to enter into the very heart of darkness, to go to the place of pain, sin, destruction and perishing, to take all of human and cosmic darkness and sin upon itself, so that it might neutralise the power of darkness, overcome it once and for all, and open the way to freedom and restoration. 

So how is this freedom found, how does it become mine, yours? “Whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” The answer is not a programme of strenuous moral achievement, or of intense spiritual exercise, although these play a part in the later journey. Instead it begins with something much more simple: Trust. That is what that word ‘believe’ really means. 

The Greek text is quite clear that it doesn't mean simply believing in the existence of God, as if that made any difference. It literally means ‘trusting into God, or into Christ’. It means committing your life to this: believing, trusting and living every day, as if the world really is a gift that came from Love, that this Love out of which the world was born really did become visible in Jesus Christ, that forgiveness and freedom is possible through him, and that all this is true not just the whole world, but for you and for me.

The outcome of such a trust-ful life is ‘eternal life’. This is not just endless existence, sitting on a cloud playing a harp, wishing you’d brought a magazine to while away the time, but a whole new quality of life: literally ‘The life of eternity’. This is a life enveloped in, surrounded by, and living out of the love which brought the universe into being. This is a kind of life that can be lived and experienced now, but which only ever becomes complete after this life is over, on that day when we draw our final breath, when if our trust is in Christ, we enter not into death, but into life, returning home to the love that gave birth to the universe and to you and to me.

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

There is no better news in the world than that.