Today’s Gospel lesson contains the single best known Bible passage anywhere in the world.
I didn’t research that sweeping statement, but I strongly suspect that I’m right. The verse is John 3:16. Say it with me – without looking: For God so loved the world that whosoever believes in him shall never perish but shall have everlasting life.
You can get just about any kind of stuff you want emblazoned with it. Not the whole verse written out – just “John 3:16.” License plate frames. Coffee cups. Sweatshirts. Tackle boxes. Car magnets. T shirts. Mouse pads. Scarves. Hats. Tote bags. Wrist watches. Postcards. Key chains. Wall clocks. Stickers. Pins. 3-ring binders. Cup holders. Maps. iPhone covers. Bumper stickers. Pendants. Tiles. I could do this all day. For a lot of folks, John 3:16 is the Bible in a nutshell.
And that’s a problem. It’s a problem because when we take it out of context, when we remove it from the larger conversation, it sounds a lot like what one pastor calls “You gotta” theology. You gotta believe – and then you get your prize.
Where does that leave those of us who don’t believe, or have never had the opportunity to think about whether we believe, or who think we believe but have doubts, or who are convinced that we can’t possibly believe enough to earn that eternal reward?
I wonder how many people over the years have seen the “John 3:16 guy” at sporting events, and actually known or figured out that that was a Bible reference, and looked it up – and decided that Christianity wasn’t for them. It sounds like there’s an entry fee.
Taken by itself, maybe John 3:16 sounds good to us only because we know the code. We know what it means, or we think we do. We are not tripped up by the prerequisite “Those who believe in him” because we count ourselves among that number.
And for those who are new to this Scripture passage, and keep reading, it quickly gets more confusing instead of more clear. “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” So far, so good. “Those who believe in him are not condemned,” again we’re seeing a separation, “but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”
Whoa! So if, for whatever reason, we’re a little hesitant about counting ourselves with the believers, it’s too late. We’re condemned already. This can’t be good.
When we slow down a little to really look at John 3:16 – when we peel it off the ball caps and bumper stickers and examine it in the context of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus – we are left looking for good news. And the good news is right there, in God’s actions in sending his son.
God acted, and because of God’s actions, because of God’s grace, God “sent the Son into the world in order that the world might be saved through him.”
Now what? Well, first and foremost, it means that we don’t decide. Thank God for that!
If we set the boundaries of deciding within our own understanding, we end up with a tragically limited picture of who God is and what God does.
Jesus says that “the Son of Man must be lifted up.” Greek is a strange language, and it shows its unfamiliarity to us in this passage. The word used for “lifted up” (hypsou) also means “exalted.”
Those in charge will clearly mean for Jesus to be crucified, executed on a cross, as a defeat, an embarrassing, commonplace, degrading punishment. But through this crucifixion, Jesus will literally be lifted up. He will be exalted. He will be raised above all others to save our lives – as the serpent raised up on the pole was meant to save lives. Jesus makes a reference to this incident in verse 14. The Jews had to look upon the snake, the agent of death, so they could live. And so we look on the cross, the agent of death, so that we can live.
With this paradox – with this death-by-life image, the snake as salvation, the cross as life – with this strange picture in our heads, Jesus says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever lives and believes in him shall never die, but shall have everlasting life.”
This is hard work. This is a complicated image. This is something that will require us to go back and start all over again, to be born anew, to be completely changed and transformed so that we can enter into a world where nothing makes sense, a world where down is up and dark is light. “Whosoever believes.” We’re being asked to believe in something so life-changing that giving our allegiance to the cross means that we must put the cross and its message over everything else.
“Whosoever believes” means that such a transformation will be hard for Nicodemus. Nicodemus was being invited to let go of his fancy job title and all the respect and admiration it gave him, and to acknowledge that he is starting all over again, that he has more to learn than he would like to admit. It means he has to throw out his beloved traditions and customs and start anew.
And, in a real sense, we are all Nicodemus. To find life in death means that we also must be willing to look at everything in our lives in a new and unfamiliar way. It means that we must let go of our self-satisfaction. It means that we must throw out the way we pat ourselves on the back for going to church, for knowing where in the house our Bible is, for anything that gives us the idea that we’re somehow better than others. It is the Son of Man who is lifted up, the Son of Man who in his exaltation becomes the instrument of life everlasting for you and for
What happens when you and I are willing to embrace the invitation offered to Nicodemus? What happens when you and I find that “those who believe in him” is not an impossible standard to live up to – or cozy, insider language that unconsciously excludes others? Rather, “those who believe” becomes for us, as it becomes for Nicodemus, an invitation to lay down everything by which we judge ourselves and others, and take up the cross, and follow the journey that Jesus leads, wherever it leads.