I wrote this piece a while ago but it seemed worth revisiting on this 4th Sunday in Lent with the text once again the Gospel du jour!
“For God so loved the world …” John 3:16 is arguably one of the most familiar, most memorized, most quoted, most beloved, most likely-to-be-held-up-at-a-sporting-event passage in all of Christian Scripture. It is also the passage that a homiletics professor threw down like a gauntlet in my senior year in seminary, declaring “it is not possible to preach this text in a post-modern, multi-cultural context.”
A very literal reading of John 3:16 -- and the verses which follow -- would seem to agree with him. Believe that Jesus is the Son of God and you'll go to heaven. Nothing else matters. And I suspect that this is what those who hold their John 3:16 banners up at baseball playoffs and in football end zones mean to proclaim. I would feel a little better about it if they would occasionally hold up something else: maybe Mark 10:21 ("sell what you have and give it to the poor")? Or Matthew 5:43 ("love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you")? Or even Micah 6:8 ("What does the Lord require, but that you do justice, and love mercy, and walk humbly with God")?
If they would once in a while do that, then I might assume that they had a broader interpretation of the meaning of John 3:16 and of Christian faith -- that it involved living a life and not just believing. But unfortunately, I have been disappointed in this, and so I’m sticking with my assumption that they mean John 3:16 to be taken in a literal, and thus exclusivist, way. And yet this first verse I ever memorized in Sunday School remains near my heart and so I remain as committed to reclaiming today as I was when I preached my seminary senior sermon on – you guessed it: John 3:16.
To me, arguably the most important part of the verse is right there at the beginning: "God so loved the world...." Rather than being a stand-offish creator, who simply set things in motion and went away, God is involved in an ongoing relationship with the creation, remains a part of it, and passionately cares for it. This is seen throughout the Biblical story, as God calls creation good, and through relationship with the people of Israel, leads them to the Promised Land. And through the prophets God speaks to the people, and seeks to get them to respond by living in the right way. God so loved the world ... that God did all this, and finally, in the great act of love gave it Jesus.
And in John's understanding Jesus was given so that we might believe in him and thus receive the gift of eternal life. OK – but what does it mean to believe? Is it to ascent to certain facts, or as John A. T. Robinson once put it, "swallow nineteen unbelievable things before breakfast?"
If so, then I fear Christianity is reduced to what one colleague has called “The religion ABOUT Jesus, rather than the religion OF Jesus.” Rather is it possible that to believe in Jesus is to believe in the things he taught and the way he lived, more than to believe certain things about him?
Stacy Sauls, Bishop of Lexington, shared a great insight into the whole “believing” thing at a retreat we were part of last spring when he talked about the difference between believing IN and believing THAT in reference to his decades-long marriage to his wife, Ginger. “To say I believe that we are married is to assent to a certifiable set of facts that are as easy to verify as checking with the hall of records for our marriage license or the parish register for the service record. To say I believe in our marriage is a whole different thing: it is to name not facts about our relationship but faith in it.”
To believe IN is to take belief out of the realm of facts and into the world of faith; and to have faith is to trust. To say "I believe in" is to say, "I trust," and then (perhaps the biggest leap of all) to live as if I do trust. It means living life in trust that God is good, that God cares, that God is love, that God surrounds us with love, that we are called to love and serve others. It is placing trust in God -- not in all the things we usually trust for our security and well being: money and status, power and politics, stockpiling weapons of mass destructions and beefing up border patrols. Rather it means trusting Jesus' vision of the realm of God in our midst, and claiming both the possibilities and responsibilities this sets before us. Believing means trusting means doing. It means taking to heart the words of Verna Dozier: “Don’t tell me WHAT you believe – tell me what difference it MAKES that you believe!” That’s eternal life.
The point of Christian faith is not "believe in Jesus now for the sake of heaven later", but "trust in the vision that Jesus proclaimed and live eternal life now." Or, as I heard my friend Kristi Wallace once say, “It’s not about pie in the sky when you die but about making sound on the ground while you’re around!” That kind of eternal life is the life that is lived in the awareness of God's presence, life lived in the manner of Jesus, life lived in the realm of the spirit, life that is full, whole, abundant. Eternal life is about quality, not quantity.
So – in a nutshell – here is how I have come to understand John 3:16 ... God loves this world so much that God enters the world, is in relationship with us, comes to us in the person Jesus, calls us to trust in the vision of life that Jesus proclaimed, and bids us give our hearts and lives to following and seeking and serving, and thus experiencing that quality of life called eternal.
It is, as Luther said, the gospel in miniature: the good news bigger than any end-zone picket sign – wider, broader and more inclusive than any narrow set of doctrines or dogmas. It is the good news I want us to reclaim and to proclaim – and toward that end offer these words of Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis written while on a spiritual retreat with some monks at the foot of Mt. Sinai after meditating upon a crucifix.
"I kept gazing at Christ's virile, ascetic figure in the gentle glow of the candles. Perceiving the slender hands which maintained a firm grip on the world, and kept if from falling into chaos, I knew that here on earth, for the full span of our lives, Christ was not the harbor where one casts anchor, but the harbor from which one departs, gains the offing, encounters a wild tempestuous sea, and then struggles for a lifetime to anchor in God. Christ is not the end, he is the beginning. He is not the welcome, he is the bon voyage! He does not sit back restfully on the clouds, but is battered by the waves just as we are, his eyes fixed aloft on the North Star of God, his hands firmly on the helm. That was why I liked him; that was why I would follow him!"
May God give us grace to follow in the footsteps of the One who loved us enough to become one of us to show us how to love one another. O Christ, as much as question as you are an answer, as much as prodder as you are a comforter, save us from too much gazing into the clouds in hopes of your return ... lead us instead to recognize you as already present in the face of our neighbor ... that by sharing your love, we may declare with our lives that you are indeed with us always. Amen.