John 3.16: One of the Bible’s most widely quoted verses.
Some say, the Gospel in a nutshell; a summary of the central teachings of Christianity. It’s no surprise that America’s Pastor Billy Graham-may he rest in peace-called it his favorite scripture verse, “taught to me” he said, “by my mother when I was just a little boy.”
For God so loved the world he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.
Heisman winning football player Tim Tebow claimed millions of fans googled John 3.16 when they saw it printed on his eye-black.
Evangelizing baseball fans holding John 3.16 signs are still strategically placed behind home plate.
In CA, In-N-Out Burger prints it on the underside rim of their beverage cups.
And in today’s world it will also come as no surprise that there are endless examples and patterns of John 3.16 tattoos to choose from.
Hours before the Super Bowl game, my family bundled up against the cold, and headed to the Nicollet Mall. The spectacle was human beings walking curb to curb on The Mall. Hearty, well-layered Minnesotans along side of underdressed visitors, all navigating the crowds, the extreme cold and the Mall’s icy sidewalks.
On each corner stood street evangelists with tracts, microphones and speakers. Various signs warning passers-by where we’d spend eternity if we did not repent, asking — wouldn’t we rather have eternal life in heaven and not in the fiery furnaces of hell?
One of them handed a tract to my daughter Maggie who turned to me and said—“Here Mom this is for you.” It’s called The Bridge. On the left is a city in flames. In the middle is a huge fiery gorge. The bridge across the gorge is an enormous cross. On each arm are huge nails planted in pools of blood. On the other side are sunlight and green pastures. In the bottom right hand corner of this tract is printed …John 3.16
My family kept looking over their shoulders to see if I was going to say something.
OK, I confess, I couldn’t help myself and said to one young man with a microphone: Please. Stop Scaring People. God is love!
Whereupon he whipped around, microphone in hand and yelled back at me:
HOW DARE YOU CHALLENGE GOD’S WORD!
Here in lies to tension for me with John 3.16.
Richard Rohr reminds us that it’s easier to organize people around fear and hatred than around love, using threats of eternal hellfire to form Christians.
Marcus Borg reminds us that if we ONLY view the Bible’s salvation stories from the point of view of what he calls “the priestly story” the central notions of the religious life will be sin, guilt, sacrifice and forgiveness.
Seen through the lens of “the priestly story” religious life can be politically domesticating—a concept that snaps me to full attention as much today as when I first read it 25 years ago. But that’s another sermon. [Borg]
The introductory notes of good Bible translations teach us the aim of John’s Gospel is found in chapter 20.31: that John was composed to encourage belief among its late first century listeners; to believe that Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of God. [Harper’s Study Bible NRSV]
Who were those first listeners? Should we care about what was going on in their world? Can we even know?
Johannine scholar Raymond Brown thinks so. He directs us to understand John’s Gospel on several levels. Allowing it to tell us the story of Jesus AND the story of the community that loved him and believed he was the Messiah and the Son of God.
It was a community in the last third of the first century expelled from the synagogue for their beliefs about Jesus’ divinity; a time when their insistence on Jesus’ divinity affected their relations with other Christian groups whose evaluations of Jesus, they believed were inadequate by their standards. [Brown]
This community’s evaluation of Jesus was honed and scared by struggle.
Their elevated appreciation of Jesus’ divinity led to antagonisms without and schism within. For to not to believe in Jesus’ divinity was not to believe in God. [Brown]
This quote from Raymond Brown is particularly noteworthy:
“If the Johannine eagle soared above the earth, it did so with talons bared for the fight; …eaglets tearing at each other for the possession of the nest. [Brown]
In those days, the human race had been divided into believers and non- believers; into those who prefer darkness and those who prefer light;
into those who are condemned to death and those who have eternal life;
those who dwell in darkness and those who dwell in the light.
John’s community understood itself to be among those who dwell in the light.
Outsiders dwelt in the darkness.
I experienced a small taste of this late first century tension not only walking down the Mall that cold day but also when I watch the news or sometimes when I listen to someone’s faith story… about why a person left their previous faith community and came to the Episcopal Church or sometimes, why they left the Episcopal Church.
Is John 3.16 about judgment? Is it about grace?
It appears to me to be both; God’s judgment and God’s grace.
John’s Gospel includes an analogy from today’s Old Testament story in Numbers.
“Just as Moses lifted up the bronze serpent in the wilderness so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” [Jn14,15]
What’s the analogy?
In the Numbers story [21.4-9] God sent poisonous snakes among the people who were complaining. The snakes bit the people. Many died. It was God’s punishment for sin. God’s Judgment.
Then: God told Moses to make a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live. God’s Grace
Likewise, John continues, Christ is lifted up on a pole… for the life of all who look to him in faith.
Both Numbers and John are accounts of God’s judgment and God’s grace.
Where does this leave us on this fourth Sunday of Lent 2018; while
in the middle of the season that calls us to self-examination and repentance;
to pardon, forgiveness and absolution.
I believe we must understand as best we can, the context of John’s community;
to learn from them and wrestle with the profound tensions of their day.
To learn how their witness, their beliefs have influenced and are expressed in our creeds and in the liturgies in The Book of Common Prayer–especially during Holy Week and Easter.
I recognize and respect that John 3.16 is a source of forgiveness, grace and new life life to many who seeks forgiveness, repentance, amendment of life, clearing the way for a relationship with God.
On the other hand I am not comfortable with the convictions of the street preachers, the placard bearers in the stadium or those communities of faith in which only the sin, guilt, sacrifice and forgiveness are preached; whose members only hear—
We are sinners who have broken God’s laws and stand guilty before God, the lawgiver and judge.
John frequently used the metaphor of light to express who Jesus was, who Jesus is. Perhaps light, is the most appropriate metaphor for expressing both judgment and grace.
In his coming is the light of judgment–
in the same way that turning on a light exposes and convicts those who prefer darkness that covers up their deeds.
In his coming is the light of grace and forgiveness—
a gift and the occasion for joy.
The light of Christ is a both a stepping stone and a stumbling block.
If you turn on a light, you will create shadows.
Jesus, the Light of the World, was a man who consistently and publically demanded justice when severe injustice was the daily practice by one of the world’s greatest superpowers.
Jesus, the Light of the World, was man of peace in a time of extreme violence & war.
Jesus, Light of the World, a man of extraordinary courage– who stuck his head up above the crowd at a time and a place when doing so could get yourself killed. [Crossan]
Our Baptismal Covenant calls to follow and obey this courageous man of peace.
When we do…there will be tension and differences of opinion about just what it means to obey him and call him Lord. We know that.
There will be judgment. There will be grace.
The master preachers in the pews will accuse me of preaching two sermons today—But I can’t leave this pulpit without a shout out to the brave high school students from at least seven different metro high schools who marched to the state capitol Wednesday protesting gun violence.
Students who viscerally understand the Baptismal Covenant’s demand to renounce the spiritual forces- the evil powers of this world that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God. They are Bearers of the Light.
Micale [Michael] Stewart- Davis a freshman from Highland was there.
So were Asha Abille and Fadumo Ege, seniors at Central.
Claire Fitzpatrick, a senior from Cretin-Derham Hall was there: She said
“We’ve sat through many school shootings, and we’ve listened and we’ve waited for something to change, and nothing has changed. [STRIB]
Arie Walker a sophomore at SPA was there. Before she comes to school she thinks about what students could be thinking. She said this has made it hard to trust her peers.” And she feels tension. [STRIB]
Ella Doyle a junior at Cretin was there “Parkland showed the world that a line has been crossed, she said. We’re trying to show the world that we, as teenagers, can and will make a change”
These students are learning about public judgment and efforts to stop their actions.
Friday, two days after the March the STRIB published St Paul student Evelyn Lewis’ in Reader’s Write with the title We’re for Real; don’t dismiss us.
Scrolling through the comments [about the articles on Wednesday’s march,] nearly to a one, they call us “brainwashed” ignorant puppets of the liberal agenda”. They say we don’t understand what we’re saying, that kids should stay out of politics, that most students only came because they got to miss school….
I am furious…
We marched because we are tired of our peers being murdered.
We marched because we do not want to be next.
We marched because the only way to end gun violence is better gun laws… [STRIB]
On Wednesday, the day of the march, the Episcopal House of Bishops released a statement on gun violence. There are several copies available at the back of the church if you’d like to read the full statement. It’s also posted on The Episcopal Church web site. It reads in part:
As bishops we commit to following the youth of the United States in their prophetic leadership.
We pledge ourselves to bring the values of the gospel to bear on a society that increasingly glorifies violence and trivializes the sacredness of every human life.
We will walk with the youth of the United States today and into the future in choosing life.
These brave students are Bearers of the Light. Thea Bishoff, one of our acolytes was there. So was Aidan Schmidt. Vivian Scheel has agreed to be the St. John’s coordinator for the March for Our Lives March 23. Stay tuned on how you can participate.
So here’s my prayer today:
Lord Jesus Christ you are the light of the world. You know that just as was true in the first century, among us there are many differences on what it means to follow and obey you as Lord. Sustain us all in these tumultuous times.
Grant to these brave kids— as we pray so often in our prayer book’s baptismal prayer-The courage to will and persevere. [BCP]
May we all learn how to be bearers of your light…and join our bishops pledging ourselves to bring the values of the gospel to bear on a society that increasingly glorifies violence and trivializes the sacredness of every human life. AMEN
- Borg, Marcus. Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time
- Brown, Raymond. The Community of the Beloved Disciple; the Life Loves and Hates of an Individual Church in New Testament Times
- Harper Collins Study Bible NRSV