God So Loved
(a sermon on John 3: 14-21, delivered on March 18, 2012)
“For God so loved the world He gave His only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” John 3:16… Some of the most familiar words in the Christian scriptures. They seem to be a concise and straightforward summary of the Gospel message, and yet, what do they really mean?
God SO loved the world… An assurance of God’s love for us, for all creation. He gave his only son…God came to the world through Jesus to save us from ourselves. So that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life…and here’s where it gets hairy. What does it mean to believe in Jesus? What does it mean to believe in anything? Is believing different from knowing? Does believing leave room for doubt? And what exactly are we supposed to believe about Jesus?
When I have a question about words in the Bible, lately I always turn to Marcus Borg’s latest book, Speaking Christian to see what he has to say. And in terms of belief, his perspective is very interesting. He writes, “The modern meaning of the word believe is very different from its meanings from Christian antiquity until the seventeenth century…The similarity to the modern English word belove is obvious. To believe meant not only confidence and trust in a person, but also to hold that person dear—to belove that person. Believing and beloving were synonyms.”
“Thus, until the 1600’s, to believe in God and Jesus meant to belove God and Jesus. Think about the difference that makes. To believe in God does not mean believing that a set of statements about God are true, but to belove God. To believe in Jesus does not mean to believe that a set of statements about Jesus are true, but to belove Jesus.”
Now, think of what a difference that distinction makes when we read the Gospel. It opens it up, so that we might read and interpret stories about Jesus in many different ways while still loving him. Reading this scripture this way, the implied threat in John 3:16 is considerably minimized. And what of that threat?
It’s disturbing enough that it often gets left out when we recite this line. Eternal life is promised to those who believe in or belove Jesus, but everyone else will perish! It’s pretty ominous, and it has been used and abused to justify religious intolerance and persecution. But what is it really about?
To begin to answer this question, it is imperative that we remember the context in which it was written. John’s community in the first century had begun to separate from the synagogue, while other Jesus followers had chosen to stay connected to the religious authority. They were a minority community who needed to define themselves within Judaism as well as among other followers of Jesus.
John’s community was a small minority, without power or influence to marginalize others or cause harm by excluding them. This is not the case for modern Christians, nor has it been for much of Christian history. And so, in our hands, the Gospel of John can do great damage, because we live in a much different Christian context. The power tables are turned, and that is important to remember when we interpret this scripture.
Here we have a promise of eternal life, with the alternative of perishing. When most of us hear eternal life, we assume it’s referring to an afterlife. Heaven, perhaps, but in John’s Gospel, it is a present experience. Borg tells us, “The Greek words translated into English as eternal life mean “the life of the age to come.” Within John’s theology, this is still future and to be hoped for. But it is also present, something that can be known, experienced now…To know God and Jesus in the present is to participate already in the life of the age to come.”
Thus, this passage is not about heaven and hell, but about the possibility for transformation in the present through love and connection with the divine. And we are often our own worst enemies when it comes to transformation. John puts it succinctly: “The people loved darkness rather than light.” This passage, then, is also about the choices we make. The choice to see and accept God’s love and the light it brings, or the choice to stay in the darkness of our own egos, our own self-destructive choices.
So…believing, beloving, and transformation. I just happen to have a story about that! Forgive me if you’ve heard it before.
When I was in college, I started to feel a call to ministry. To say this call was shocking would be an understatement. I was not a Christian, and told myself I had only been attending chapel services for the hymns and the friendly faces. But, God is sneaky sometimes, and the more time I spent with the progressive Christians at college, the more I wanted to be like them—to walk the walk, to be open and loving, to trust in the Divine again. The moment I allowed myself to consider coming back to Christianity, the thought popped into my head, “then I could be a minister!” This thought filled me with such excitement that I literally felt my heart swell.
And then, of course, immediately, I tried to talk myself out of it, to discount the call. It was a crazy idea. I wasn’t even a Christian. I didn’t even know what I believed about Jesus, so how could I minister to others? You see, I thought, as many people do, that what you believe about who Jesus was and is is what matters. I thought I wasn’t worthy or called because I didn’t know what I believed.
Thankfully, the call was strong, and was recognized by others, so that soon I found myself even more deeply involved—leading worship and Bible study and fellowship groups, and even preaching occasionally. But I still didn’t know what I believed.
And so, I prayed. I decided that if Jesus was so darn powerful, then he should be able to make me believe in him. It should be that simple. Every night I prayed to Jesus: “Please, Jesus, if you are out there, just make me believe, just give me a sign, just take my doubt away. I know you can do it if you’re real, and if you are I will promise to follow you and serve you—just prove it to me!”
I gave Jesus ultimatums, I begged, I goaded. But Jesus didn’t come. There was no flash of light, no visit in my dreams or picture of his face on my toast. I wasn’t going to get a miracle. And so, I kept going. I kept studying and talking with friends, kept praying and questioning and worshipping. Until one day, I realized that the more I prayed, the less worried I became about what to believe about the deity I was praying to. The more I prayed, the deeper my connection felt to this mysterious Jesus, and the easier it was to relax into his love and guidance and trust in my call.
I didn’t have words for it then, but know I realize I was moving from feeling that believing was necessary to realizing that beloving was all that was required of me.
Now, after three years of seminary and an extensive ordination process, I have had to state my explicit beliefs about Jesus many many times. So, I’m not saying that being able to articulate our beliefs isn’t important. What I am saying is that transformation does not come from believing the right things… Transformation comes from love.