Biblical Celebrity: John 3:16
A Sermon by The Rev. Barbara Mraz
St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
St. Paul, Minnesota
March 18, 2012
Numbers 21:4-9 Ephesians 2:1-10 John 3:14-21
I grew up learning that John 3:16 is the most important verse in the Bible, the Gospel in miniature, but only recently learned of the celebrity of this little piece of Scripture.
Evangelistic fans hold up signs at professional football games saying “John 3:16.” A popular New York-based chain of clothing stores called “Forever 21” prints the word John and the numbers 3:16 on the bottom of their yellow shopping bags. A popular West Coast burger chain In-NOut Burgers prints John 3:16 on the bottom rims of their cups. John 3:16 is on billboards, cocktail napkins, and the new television series “GCB” (“Good Christian…” Rhymes with Witches), as star Kristin Chenoweth launches a wicked plot while the auto shop puts a “John 3:16″ license plate on her car.
And appearing right here today at St. John’s in our Gospel reading is the one, the only — John 3:16, giving us a chance to see what it really says – and doesn’t say.
Let’s start with John 3:14:“Jesus said to Nicodermus…” Nicodemus was a scholar and a member of the Jewish elite, the Sanhedrin. He comes to Jesus at night, in secret, to ask him about his teachings. His earnest search for answers– even though he was afraid – endears Nicodemus to many of us.
John 3:15: Jesus begins by referring to their common Jewish scriptures, specifically a story from the book of Numbers that was our first lesson today. In the wilderness, the Israelites are impatient again, complaining about the food and everything else, and God sends serpents to bite them. Moses prays, and God tells him to make a bronze serpent, put it on a pole, and people will be healed if they look up at it.
God doesn’t take away the snakebites, but provides the means of healing. Then Jesus, foreshadowing the Cross, says, “So must the Son of Man be lifted up.” Again, it’s what we look up to that can heal.
Now — John 3:16: “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.”
What we learn here is that the Creator has a relationship to this world, and it is one of love. Enough love to send to us what is most precious: the equivalent of a treasured, only child as a message about the breath and depth of this love.
And now the crunch….”So that everyone who believes in him (this son) may not perish but have eternal life.”
The criteria for eternal life, the ticket, the passport to salvation, is belief in Jesus.
What does it means to “believe” in something?
To believe might mean that we agree something exists. Most of us believe that Math exists, and that the Spanish language exists. So, when we say we “believe in” Jesus, we may only be saying that we acknowledge that a person called Jesus of Nazareth existed. Various non-Christian historians such as Josephus confirm this, so this part isn’t hard.
But what do we have to believe about Jesus to be “saved”? It doesn’t say here, but John 3:18 says exactly what the condemnation is for those who do not “believe”:
”And this is the judgment: that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil … Those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen their deeds have been done in God.”
Notice that the judgment is because of actions, not belief. Judgment and condemnation occur when we turn away from the light, when what we look up to and follow after is darkness and the forces of evil. And we know from experience that when we turn from light to darkness, and insist on staying there or can’t get out, it is its own hell.
There are those, however, who insist that hell is a literal place of eternal punishment we go to after we die. Recently, in response to a popular book called Love Wins, the Southern Baptist Convention found it necessary to pass a resolution to “affirm the reality of hell as a place of eternal physical torment.” Nothing like a resolution to settle things (or a constitutional amendment)… Many of our fundamentalist brothers and sisters argue that this hell is where all are sent who do not “believe in” Jesus.
If belief is the litmus test for our eternal souls, certain questions arise: How much belief is required to get into heaven? How much doubt keeps you out? Can you will yourself to believe? Will God know if you’re faking? Wouldn’t it almost be better to have lived before Jesus existed, or never hear of him at all, so we can’t be held to this requirement?
Anyone who has ever tried to pass an English course by writing a paper on a single line from a book that is contradicted by dozens of other things in the book as well as by the major theme of the work knows the futility of this path. And I remain astounded by the failure of the John 3:16 people to reconcile their exclusive take on a single verse of Scripture with all of the other things Jesus not only says, but does. We see Jesus exasperated with the disciples’ cluelessness and lack of faith, but he doesn’t send them away, let alone condemn them to eternal hell. He is patient and gentle with doubting Thomas. He is a tireless advocate for women, the poor, the ill, and the disenfranchised, even if they have never heard of him – which by the way is true for the vast majority of people who have walked this earth.
In John 3:16, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, followers of indigenous religions, skeptics or atheists could not be farther from the mind of Jesus. This is not an interfaith convention; this is a conversation with earnest Nicodemus about the love of God, the power of light, and the seduction of darkness. John 3:21.
There’s a lot of images of Jesus to choose from in the pages of the Christian Scriptures and in our Church tradition: Jesus the teacher, the pacifist, the Friend, the Good Shepherd, the Son of God, the Son of Man, the Beautiful Savior, the anti-capitalist, the ticket to heaven, the Bread of Life, the Cup of Salvation, the Way, the Truth, the Life, the advertising commodity, the standard-bearer for a political cause.
If we fail to choose, if we are unwilling to think seriously and articulate who and what Jesus is to us, others will wittingly or unwittingly, use their Jesus as the basis for who’s in and who will be forever out — and one way they will do this is through using their Biblical references to make the laws under which we live. Religion and politics ARE intertwined in today’s political world, as they were in the time of Jesus, and we can’t afford to be naïve and not understand that the underpinnings for much of our political argument today is religion.
We do not preach or follow an anything-goes Christianity. We follow the actions of Jesus, the path of Jesus. Brian Maclaren says that we should be offering Jesus and not Christianity as a gift to the world. He says that then “we could discover a bigger ‘us’ where people of all faiths can be included.”
The Jesus we follow is the One who loved without exception, so much that he was killed for it, and yet before he died, forgave his executioners. Luke 23:34. We follow this Jesus because he shows us what God is like: “Those who have seen me have seen the Father.” John 14:6.
I am guessing that we are here today in church and not somewhere else – because we have been learned to trust Christianity enough to at least be in dialogue with it. We may be here because God is seeking us. We may not even realize the degree to which our Baptisms “took” and we are marked as Christ’s own forever. Maybe our parents took us to Sunday School or church, or the Christian Church seems like the most accessible and familiar way to explore spirituality. But it may be more.
A couple of weeks ago I was at a funeral for a friend’s husband at a Unitarian-Universalism Church.
It was lovely: A large worship space; stunning floral arrangements: musicians from Prairie Home Companion; heartfelt remembrances from family and friends; a speech by the minister about truly living each day, peppered with quotes from poet Mary Oliver, calling on us each to be “ a bride married to amazement.” I was especially conscious of the large, clear, un-stained glass windows and the lack of any kind of religious insignia exept for a lighted chalice (which really wasn’t referenced or explained) but I was comforted by the small Stars of David imprinted on the end of each wooden pew, since the building had originally been a synagogue.
I left, strangely unsettled, missing comfort, missing any talk of life beyond death, missing Jesus. I didn’t know what I was being asked to look up to. It was beautiful, it was poetic, I was reminded of T.S. Elliot who became a Christian late in his life because as he said, “Poetry will not bear the weight of a life.”
Some days later, I remembered this account from a favorite television documentary:
Matthew Brady was the most famous photographer of the Civil War. In the mid-1800’s, photographic negatives appeared invisibly on clear glass plates and then were later “developed” with chemicals.
After the War, Brady had hundreds of glass negatives that ended up in a warehouse somewhere and were eventually forgotten. Years later, they were sold as plates of glass to a family in New York who was building a greenhouse. The plates were installed in wooden frames on the sides and top of the structure – a beautiful, clean, shining building, that was filled with flowers.
And then one day, “a certain slant of light” filtered through the building. The startled gardener looked up and noticed barely discernible images on the plates: a soldier leaning against a tree; a man shooting a musket; a stretcher carrying a bandaged soldier; an officer astride his mount. At that moment, the greenhouse walls were luminous with images of a long-ago war, images that were only there if you were looking up and the light was exactly right.
In the fragile house of glass in which we each live, there will be days when the light is right and the joy cannot be contained or the pain is intolerable, and you look up and see imprinted on the windows of your soul, not images of a long-ago war but the image of Jesus, the window through which we learn of God and God’s unconditional love.