Scripture: John 3:14-21
There seems to be some very good news in our Scripture reading for today. “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.” (3:16).
Well, that seems like some pretty good news.
And perhaps the even better news is that “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (3:17).
Wow! Great! God’s plan is not to condemn the world. Whew! That’s a relief!
But wait, there’s also some not-so- good news – a small “fly in the ointment,” or conditional clause, in lawyer speak. There seems to be a fairly significant condition placed upon the good news: In order to be “saved,” one has to “believe” in the “name of the only son of God,” or otherwise be “condemned already.” (3:18).
Oh oh … I’m not sure what to make of this. So maybe God did actually send Jesus to condemn the world after all? Or at least some of us … at least those who don’t
“believe?” Is that why there are people who “do not come to the light,” as the Scripture notes, so that their “deeds are not exposed?”
Hmmm. Hard to say. And I’ll confess that I’ve been really struggling with this text. It’s been a real challenge to reconcile what seems to be a beautiful message of unconditional love – “God so loved the world” – with what I, at least at first, perceived to be a threat of condemnation designed to enforce conformity with a particular viewpoint. The two didn’t seem to flow together very well. Far from it. And the notion of condemnation certainly did not seem to mesh with my experience of the Divine as a
loving, supportive, and peaceful Presence.
So – what to do with this passage? How might we interpret it?
Well, since the promise or the “good news” of this text seems to hinge on belief in the “Son of God,” otherwise known as Jesus Christ, maybe that’s a good place to start.
What does it mean to “believe” in Jesus Christ, and what does it mean to be “saved” though Jesus?
Well, I know that there are some who would say that believing in Jesus Christ means believing that He died for our sins. And if you believe this, then all is good. You are
“saved.” If you don’t, then God’s gonna get ya! You are condemned, end of story. I’ve heard and read this interpretation of the passage many times. It is sometimes referred to as “atonement” theology. A-tone- deaf theology, maybe, if you ask me. There’s a lot I could say about this particular “brand” of theology. I imagine you could, too.
But let’s not go too far down that road today. Instead, let me just say that this particular viewpoint has never really rung true with me. The idea of a Divine presence who is so rigidly judgmental and angry with humanity that a human sacrifice is the price of salvation just does not mesh with my experience of the Divine as a loving, just, merciful, and peaceful Presence. And maybe even more to the point, reducing Jesus Christ to a symbol of blood atonement, of a sacrificial lamb dying for our sins, seems to contradict any notion of God’s unconditional love and grace. So, how do I make sense of what it means to “believe” in Jesus Christ as the Son of God? Isn’t it what Jesus says and does in the Gospels what matter? Think about it. I know that I believe in the Jesus:
- Who inspired with his message of peace, love, and justice;
- Who brilliantly discerned and taught spiritual truth and wisdom though parables;
- Who healed those afflicted with illness;
- Who encouraged and comforted during times of anxiety and fear;
- Who dined with “sinners” and “tax collectors;”
- Who, as Rev. Dr. Rebecca noted last week, stood up for the poor at the temple
when the money-changers were cheating them and taking advantage of them;
- Who unashamedly stood with the oppressed, defying empire and willingly giving
himself up for execution;
- And who communed with his disciples in that last supper – and communes with
That is the Jesus I can believe in. That is the Jesus I can and do give my heart to. That is the Jesus I can be in covenant with as the head of our Church. That, for me, is the Jesus who “saves.” That is the Jesus, who I experience as the face of God. Not a “condemning” God. Not a judging or shaming God, but a God of unconditional love and grace that affirms all of us – all of creation as beloved. A beautiful divine presence of light that shines in the darkness – and the darkness cannot overcome it. (John 1).
The way I see it, God’s judgment isn’t judgment as a verb, it’s a noun. It’s saying that this is the way the world is. And if there is any “condemnation” at all, it is only when we “condemn” ourselves by separating ourselves from God’s unconditional love, because we forget, in the words of the poet John O’Donohue, to “view ourselves with the same delight that God sees us.” It’s much easier to believe that we are inherently unworthy, and to feel shame and guilt, than to believe that we are a reflection of God’s light. That’s why we run from the light – and hide in the darkness.
And it’s easy to understand why we might do that sometimes. It can be very difficult to see ourselves “with the same delight that God sees us” when we are grappling with our own personal struggles, or witnessing the struggles of others. It can be difficult to walk on the path of light when so much of the world seems to be moving into darkness. And it can be hard to stay on the course of justice when doing so often feels like an exhausting swim upstream against the current. These are very difficult times, to be sure.
And yet, they are also inspiring times, because the light shines in this beautiful, beloved community as we stand together in solidarity. As Rev. Dr. Rebecca noted last week, we know how to do that. Throughout it all, we can follow Jesus’ example of love, hope, justice and peace. We can affirm and support each other and our world. And while this does not mean that there’s no pain, trouble, illness, grief, sadness, or injustice along the way – it does mean at least one thing:
May it be so.