That None May Be Lost

Going to the furthest reaches of time and space — "to infinity and beyond"— with the Gospel! A sermon for Easter 6a.
SJF • Easter 6a • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSGWhile God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness...

Some of you may remember the old Bible quizzes that contained questions such as, “What is the shortest verse in the Bible?” The answer, at least as far as the King James version has it, is — how many know? — “Jesus wept.” — You all score! Very good. That is surely the shortest Bible verse, but not the one best known. For there is a verse of Scripture so popular that it is known by its number: John 3:16. But how many who know the number really know or understand the verse?

They may be like the man who was sentenced to jail and on his first night in the lockup was confused when one of the other inmates yelled out “37” and all the other prisoners laughed. Another prisoner whispered, “248” and that brought a round of chuckles. Yet another then said, “22” and raucous belly-laughs echoed down the corridor. Finally the prisoner asked his cellmate what was going on, and he explained that the prisoners had told the same jokes for so long and over and over that they had assigned them numbers to save time. The next night the new prisoner thought he’d give it a try and in the midst of the amusement he yelled out “147” —— only instead of laughter there was dead silence. His cellmate leaned over the edge of the bunk and said, “You just don’t know how to tell a joke.”

Well, I wonder how well people who hold up those John 3:16 reference on posters at football games, really know how to tell the Gospel. Do they understand the message they blazon, or do they think the passage will get through to the throngs of people who may have no idea what that famous verse says, and may not have a Bible at hand or in their home to look it up —— if they even know it is a Bible verse? Such is the state of things in a world that has grown as ignorant of God’s word and God’s message as were the Athenians to whom Paul made his exposition of the faith in front of the Areopagus.

You, of course, know the verse very likely by heart, and probably from the King James Version: “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” The next verse, number 17, is perhaps a bit less well known, which is a pity, as it completes the thought: “For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.” And, as I mentioned a few weeks ago, where the English says “world” the original language speaks of the cosmos. The point is that God did not love just the planet earth, or just the people living on it, or even just the Jews, or just the Christians, but the whole universe, and intends salvation, as Paul told the Athenians, for everybody everywhere. This is a message of cosmic hope and the possibility of literally universal salvation. For God wants nothing to be lost.

In our reading from Acts —— Paul’s address to the people of Athens —— and in the passage from the 1st Letter of Peter, we see the extent to which God will go to see that no one misses out on the message of salvation, that none is lost due to failure to hear the word of hope and salvation. God has a work in mind —— to combat human ignorance.

Now, ignorance is a word likely to be misunderstood. People will sometimes use it for someone who is foolish or stupid, but ignorance is not the same as these(though it always accompanies them.)Ignorance is the state of not knowing something. Even the smartest person on earth is ignorant to some extent —— for no one knows everything. The opposite of ignorant is not smart but informed.

Paul informs the Athenians that God has overlooked their former ignorance, the fact that they did not now God in Christ —— after all, how could they know about Jesus Christ until someone came and told them about him, filled them in, informed them? He even gives them credit for having an altar in honor of “an unknown god.” Until they were informed, they could not know the unknown God, the one who made heaven and earth and everything in them, the one who formed the entire cosmos, the who is the great King of the universe in whom all things live and move and have their being —— and they certainly could not know that God had just paid a visit to this particular planet, incarnate in human flesh that was put to death in the provincial outpost of Judea across the Mediterranean Sea, and most importantly by the hand and power of God raised from the dead. But once Paul tells them, the Athenians are no longer ignorant of these things —— they are hereby informed.

Our reading today stops short of recording their reaction. But the text goes on to say that on hearing of the resurrection of Jesus, some of them just say, “Whoa!” and others, perhaps intrigued, say, “Let’s hear more about this at another time,” and a very few are moved to join the Christian community. But many or few, convinced or intrigued or perplexed or even amused, they can no longer claim ignorance: they have heard the preaching of the Gospel of the resurrection, and they have been given a chance to accept it. No one is too far away not to be given the chance to hear God’s word of salvation.

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Nor is anyone too far away in time, at least according to Peter. Just as Paul traveled all over the Mediterranean spreading the Gospel, Peter says that Jesus, in the Spirit, even went to proclaim the Gospel to the generations who in former times did not obey. This has traditionally been understood as a reference to what Jesus was up to between his death and resurrection, and that is one possible understanding of what was incorporated in the Apostles’ Creed as “he descended into hell.”

But that is not likely what Peter actually means. Peter says that Jesus did this proclamation when he was “made alive in the spirit” — which is exactly what happened at his resurrection, not before it. So this preaching to the prisoners likely refers to a time after Jesus was raised from the dead, made alive in the Spirit. During that time you may recall he spends very little time with the disciples —— dropping in on them through barred and locked doors —— and similarly he may well have been making other rounds to other even more secure prisons —— such as hell itself, where the disobedient of the former generations had been so long imprisoned. They too are given a chance.

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The point of this is that salvation brought about by Jesus is cosmic —— as John 3:16-17 says. It is not bound by time or space. It reaches not only to the ends of the earth, but ripples out in time. This is partly the work of evangelists such as Peter and Paul —— who began spreading the word of salvation from Jerusalem through Greece and to Rome and beyond. It was also the work of the other apostles and evangelists: Thomas is said to have brought the gospel to India; Phillip, the Scripture records, passed the word along to an Ethiopian who no doubt brought the word back to the first Christian church in Africa; The later evangelists sent and brought that word to Europe —— Gregory the Great and Augustine sent from Rome to set up shop in Canterbury; Boniface who went to Germany and Anskar to Scandinavia; Cyril and Methodius who spread the word in Eastern Europe. And let us not forget those who in more modern times brought the gospel to China and Japan, and the South Pacific; and the evangelists who ventured to Africa and the Americas. Truly the word has gone forth around the globe —— not always well received, in fact sometimes not all that well presented: for the Bible sometimes came along with the sword and the rifle; some people just don’t know how to tell the Gospel!

And yet the Gospel, the Good News, was and is told —— the message gets through even though the messengers are sometimes not all they could or should be. And this is in the end a likely evidence that the message has a power and a truth of its own, for even when badly delivered, even through the static or the mispronunciation, even in spite of the cruelty or injustice that sometimes wrongfully accompanied it, the Word of God, the message of God through the Spirit of truth, is proclaimed. God so loved the world that he sent his son to save it, to the end that all who believe in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. That is the Gospel preached to the folks in Athens and to the ends of the earth, in the prison of hell where the departed spirits huddled in darkness, and to the end of time, and beyond. It is a message that we are called, each and every one of us, to preach to the ignorant of our present world, and to do so by more than merely holding up a sign with a Bible verse reference on it. Rather let us, as Jesus said, keep his commandment to love one another as he loved us, and then the world will see and know that our love is a gift which they too can share, as the Spirit of God abides with us, until Christ comes again in glory. It is that love we share, my friends, that shows the gospel most clearly. May we, in the power of God’s Spirit, proclaim with lips and lives the Father and the Son, who lives and reigns now and for ever.+