“John 3:16.” You have no doubt seen that on signs held up at sporting events or other occasions on TV, or on billboards in states that allow such things. You may have had to memorize this verse in Sunday school if you are of such an age when you were taught to memorize things. John 3:16. Do you know it? It’s usually recited in King James language. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him might not perish, but have everlasting life.” For many Christians, that is as good a summary of the Christian faith in one verse as there is. That says it all for them and they believe it should say it all for any who might hear it. That’s why I chose the sermon title I did–“Too Big to Ignore.” We probably ought to be able to identify the verse, first of all, and secondly, be able to say something of what it means to us. People who know little else about Christianity may at least have seen or heard of “John 3:16.”
Let me see if I can “unpack” this verse in terms of what traditional, or maybe popular, Christianity means by it. First of all, it starts with the love of God–“God so loved the world…” Amen. Then “….that He gave His only begotten Son…” Jesus is the one and only Son of God (as opposed to Caesar, by the way, or any number of other world rulers, who were said to be “Son of God.”) The Eastern or Orthodox Church split from the Western or Roman Church over how he is the son– Is the Son of the same substance as the Father or is he inferior? This was part of the huge “trinitarian” conflict in the 4th century, but the western church held fast that the Father and Son were of the same substance. Further, the traditional or popular understanding of “gave” is that God “gave” this Son to be killed for the sins of the world.
“…that whosoever believeth in Him…” Believe is the critical word here. “Believes what?” Believes that Jesus is the Messiah. Question-answer. Do you believe it? Yes or no. This is a true statement that you either believe or don’t. And if you do, the verse goes on–“whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish”–we’re talking hell here. If you believe that Jesus is the Messiah, you shall not go to hell when you die, but rather “will have everlasting life,” you’ll go to heaven. What more needs to be said?
Jeff Bethke, the young man whose YouTube video we saw at our church retreat– “Why I Love Jesus and Hate the Church”– has gone viral, speaks to all sorts of groups of young adults ages 18-29 who largely resonate with his message. He actually is a member of a church–the mega church Mars Hill in Seattle–and freely admits that he formerly was addicted to pornography. In one video I watched briefly, he told the crowd that he was sure some of them were carrying sexual sins with them, like he had, some of them very serious. “So serious, in fact,” he said, “that God had to be murdered for them. But the thing is, God loves you so much that He was willing to do that.” I have to admit I clicked him off at that point. It’s a real failing I have–close-minded I admit–but I just have very little tolerance for talk of necessary murder–of God or anyone else, and especially by God of Jesus. But it’s not just Jeff Bethke who said it, it’s an extremely common way of talking about the death of Jesus. In fact, I checked the Mars Hill website and one of the sermon titles was, “How I Murdered Jesus Christ,” with plenty of scriptural references to back it up. In fact, we all “murdered Jesus Christ,” just so you know.
Now, I understand that this awful thought, this chilling statement of our sin and depravity, makes the love of God all the more amazing, all the more generous and awesome. “Love so amazing, so divine,” as we sing in the hymn “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” “demands my soul, my life, my all.” Otherwise, hell awaits us. Heaven is lost.
God’s love is so amazing, generous and awesome, and in response to that love, we are called to love as well–with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength–and our neighbors as ourselves (whom we also should love). But let me suggest some other ways to understand John 3:16 and the verses around it which we read this morning.
First of all, we ought to know the context of this verse, as it’s very dangerous to lift verses from the Bible out of their context, as though each one were simply a separate pearl strung together with others on a string. This is part of that multi-layered and almost dream-like conver-sation that Jesus had with Nicodemus, one of the Jewish rulers who came to him at night. “Rabbi,” Nicodemus addresses Jesus, “we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do, apart from the presence of God.” And then Jesus replies with that confusing statement, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above [which can also mean born again].”
John talks about Jesus having come down from God into the world and then being “lifted
up” to return to God. He is “lifted up” beginning on the cross and then in the resurrection and finally in the ascension. Only after all that will you understand what you’re seeing when you see Jesus, John says. We may not buy the triple decker universe–the ups and downs–of the ancients, but we need to understand that this is how John talks about Jesus “coming from God” and then returning to God.
“So must the Son of Man be lifted up,” he has Jesus say, if he is to return to God. “For God loved the world in this way….” “God so loved the world…” Former UCC President John Thomas said that just as we talk about “a face only a mother could love,” so is “ours a world only God can love.” (Sermon, 3/9/09, in UCC News) You know what kind of a world that is–a world in which innocent civilians are killed in acts of violence and rage and woundedness, a world in which children’s bellies swell with hunger and leftover food is thrown out by the ton and overflows landfills, a world of unbelievable beauty and devastating wreckage and ugliness. The world we see every night on the news and every morning in the papers. The world we encounter in our homes and communities, the world we know is inside us. God so loved the world. God so loves the world.
To show us the nature of that love, God came to live among us, took on human form, in Jesus of Nazareth. In human flesh, God healed and cast out demons, ate and drank with all sorts of people, called women as well as men to a life of service, of community, of boundary-crossing and bread-breaking, loved God and neighbor so completely and fully that he was willing to be executed in the most cruel and humiliating way to expose the powers that be and to manifest the love of God that does not turn away from our suffering but enters into it, hangs alongside of us in the midst of our crucifixions and deaths. God so loved the world. God so loves the world.
Because you see God is still speaking. God is still loving the world and hanging on crosses and breaking bread and healing broken bodies and souls not just for some otherworldly reward but for the quality of life that is eternal right here and now. In John’s gospel, “eternal life” isn’t simply about quantity of life, but the character of our life, the quality of our lives that ring True, that resonate far deeper than just the surface. People perish in all kinds of ways, not just in some hellish afterlife. There are plenty of hells here on earth. Christ descended into all of them. “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.”
“This love costs God dearly,” John Thomas goes on. The light still comes into the world, and people still love darkness rather than light. But this light also costs us, exposing us for who we are as those who do both what is evil as well as what is true. How often have you wished that the bathroom light wasn’t quite so bright? Lent exposes us,” he says, “This, John says, is the judgment.”
Roman Catholic scholar Raymond Brown writes that “The very presence of Jesus in the world is a judgment in the sense that it provokes [people] to judge themselves by deciding either for Jesus or against him.” (Gospel of John, Anchor Bible Series, vol. 1, p. 147), that is, deciding that this way of life is the way to becoming truly human. “The idea is that Jesus brings out what a [person] really is and the real nature of his [or her] life. Jesus is a penetrating light that provokes judgment by making it apparent what a [person] is.”
John’s community may have needed that clarity, that clear distinction between light and dark, overwhelmed and oppressed as they were. For us, it’s not quite so neat, and the danger of verses like this is that they may lead us to moral arrogance. We’re part of the light. They are part of the darkness. We know that sometimes we walk in the light; at other times we’re in the dark, and much of the time in gray middle.
And it’s not just a matter of “what we believe,” not just a matter of the statements we make about God or about Jesus. The word used here is pisteuo, which can mean what you are convinced of, but also what you trust in. “What you are convinced of you ‘agree with,’” one preacher writes (Tom Are, Jr. Journal for Preachers, Lent 2012, p. 6) “It’s an intellectual thing. What you trust shows up not just in your thoughts, but in your living.” “Preach the gospel at all times,” St. Francis said. “If necessary, use words.”
“This is how much God loved the world [Peterson puts it]: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him[–by trusting in him, and in the God who lived and acted through him, we might say]–anyone can have a whole and lasting life.” (The Message)
We’ve spoken of the growing and even predominant number of people who identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” “The dominant thing we have to prove to spiritually-seeking non-Christians in a post-modern world,” writes Brian McLaren, “is not that Christianity is true. We have to prove that it is good and beautiful. And if they are convinced it is good and beautiful, they will be open to it being true.” (Cited by Adam Copeland in Journal for Preachers, Lent 2012, p. 18)
“God so loved the world that God gave the only-begotten Son, that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” We are called to love the world as God loves it–not naively, not nostalically, but as John Thomas says, “with all its beauty and ugliness, its grace and grime, its virtue and violence.” The One Great Hour of Sharing offering that we receive today is but one way that we pledge to stay engaged in the world and not retreat from it. God is still speaking, still becoming flesh in many sons and daughters, the light still shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. This is the gospel of Jesus Christ, and this IS good news. Amen, and amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark