"For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life."
John 3:16. The most popular, most well-known, most quoted text in scripture: For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.
It’s on bumper stickers on signs. It’s worn on sports jerseys. We’ve seen it etched into the black grease paint underneath football player’s eyes. Advertising that verse is doing…..what?
Sharing a personal belief? Evangelizing? Proselytizing? Starting an argument? I saw it regularly in my NYC commute through Times Square subway - a sandwich sign with 3:16 painted on it next to a man yelling. Sadly, I think that’s how many people come in contact with this scripture – and in that context I think it’s interpreted like this:
God loved the world so much that he sacrificed his son Jesus and if you don’t believe in Jesus you are going to perish in eternal damnation – while all the Christians are going to heaven. So there.
Martin Luther said 3:16 summarized the entirety of the New Testament. I can’t believe he would think such a transaction-oriented theology was saving grace.
I was reading a Lutheran pastor’s blog this week and he talked about a sermon where he said, when we do baptism – the priest should add four words to the Trinitarian blessing. We should say, “In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit…like it or not!” Baptism being the outward sign of an inward reality – that no matter what – God loves us – me and you – and all those people I don’t like, too – no matter what, like it or not. There is nothing I can do that would ever get God to take God’s love away from me. (David Lose, In The Meantime, Lent 4B, 2015)
We can’t take away God’s love – because God is the one who gives it.
Apparently there was a dad in his congregation who took the sermon to heart. He was putting his 5 year old son to bed one night. The child didn’t want to go to bed. He was mad, he wanted to stay up. Been there, done that. And he said, “Good night, I love you.” And his son replied angrily – “well, I hate you.”
“Well, I’m sorry you feel that way, but I love you.” His dad said.
“Don’t say that!” – which surprised his dad, who said again, “I’m sorry, but it’s true, I love you.”
“Don’t say it again!” his son yelled – and the dad remembering the words of his pastor’s sermon said, “I’m sorry, son but I love you – like it or not!”
Why was his son getting so mad at his dad for saying he loved him? Because he realized he couldn’t control his dad. Saying “I hate you” to his dad didn’t do what he wanted – he wanted his dad to say, “No! Don’t say that – ok, ok, I’ll let you stay up and eat ice cream and go to bed whenever you want.” The child wants to believe that he can manipulate his parent’s love – by rejecting it. But – as I hope every parent would say – we love our kids, no matter what, right? It’s unconditional.
We don’t have power over that kind of love. We can choose to reject it – or run away from it – or deny it by pretending it isn’t there – but we can’t manipulate it – we can’t control it. Nor does it want to control us. It’s an offering, a true gift.
God loves the world in this way – another way of translating that beginning part – God so loved the world. You can also hear, say, read – God loves the world in this way – like it or not.
So, I read the New York Times and the Washington Post pretty regularly – and I’ve noticed a trend. A number of op-eds lately where people are writing about their own death. Just a few weeks ago, Oliver Sacks (book, “The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat”, movie “Awakenings”) has been given a terminal diagnosis – he wrote a piece about how he will be spending his time, now that time has irrevocably changed. And then just this week I read two pieces, one in the Post, a neurosurgeon Paul Kalanthi, he died on Monday only 37, wrote about the incredible joy he felt every minute he spent with his infant daughter – a joy he did not think he would’ve known in the same way if he wasn’t dying. And then one in the Times written by a retired grief therapist, David Melham (don’t know him) who has ALS. His article was entitled “Momento Mori” – Latin for “remember that you will die.”
And he wrote this – which I found particularly beautiful – “The awareness of premature or unexpected endings can motivate us to routinely demonstrate our love to those important to us. Let’s not save our affection, as if a rare wine, for special occasions. [Let us] Give and receive it as essential nourishment. (3/11/15 NY Times).”
We start Lent on Ash Wednesday with those familiar words as a sign of our mortality – remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.
I don’t believe we are to remember our mortality so that we focus on the life hereafter, that’s not all eternal life is. I think we are to remember our mortality so that we are motivated to love the world the way God does, right now. The way we do when we’re aware of how fleeting life is – at that time we don’t ration our love, doling it out for special occasions – it pours out, as the essential nourishment it is. We participate in God’s eternal life, now.
God loves the world in this way – like it or not. Jesus did not advertise this verse to evangelize, proselytize or start arguments. He was having a conversation with one man, late at night who came to see him. And it was a religious man, someone who had already given thought to God, and God’s relationship with him.
Perhaps Nicodemus is seeking something deeper than a religion built on a “if you believe this, if you do this, than you get some reward.” Maybe that childish theology isn’t working for him anymore – just as it stops working for most of us at some point. Is Nicodemus more aware of his mortality than most? Could that be why he sneaks out late at night to secretly talk to this guy who has stirred something in him? We’ll never know. But he is searching for the eternal. Nicodemus seeks Jesus out. He is knocking on doors – asking to receive. Isn’t there something Jesus encourages us to do when we want answers from God?
And in the conversation, Jesus references this passage from Numbers to show God’s healing power isn’t easy, it isn’t the love of greeting cards and cheap sentiment. The Israelites had to look up and gaze upon the very thing that hurt them to be healed. Now, all the people (not just the Israelites) will have to do the same thing, in a deeper and more profound way. They will have to look up and gaze upon the pain of love – the love that can dash expectations and disappoints, the love that foolishly proclaims strength in weakness, the kind of love we have no power over because it is more powerful than us. We need to see that “no matter what love” in order to be healed.
For God loves the world in this way. And we may – Jesus tells us its a choice – look up and see – or look away. Like that child who says – don’t say that – don’t show me that you love me no matter what.
And if we chose not to see, are we punished for that? Would the dad punish his petulant child? No. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn, but to save. Our judgement is our decision. God loves us all no matter what. And, I think most of us in our own way know that when we choose the darkness – and all of us have at various times, right – that in and of itself is its own punishment.
John 3:16 is a very important verse and I think the way we understand it - is the way we understand God. And the way we understand God, determines the way we are in the world. Is your God one who doles out rewards and punishments based on actions? With the cross being a symbol to invoke guilt for sacrifice? Or is it a symbol of God’s power in love, lifted high to show all the world the kind of love that saves us whether we like it or not?
And which God do you think would return, resurrected without one word of condemnation towards those who rejected and killed him - but instead sharing the same, familiar words he always had – remember I love you, I forgive you and I am with you always. Amen.
The Rev. Arianne R. Weeks