John 3:16. Who doesn’t love this one, right? If any random person on the street knows one bible verse, chances are pretty good, the one they know is John 3:16. For God so loved the world . . .
In fact, John 3:16 is so common it almost feels as though we’ve exhausted its meaning. Like there’s not really much left to be gained by hearing another sermon on this one. I don’t mean it’s a bad verse, but, I mean, come on, it’s pretty tired, don’t you think?
And so, the preacher reads, “For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only son, so that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” And it’s so easy to say, “Yeah, God loves me. I believe in Jesus, and I get to go to heaven. Easy peasy.”
But people who say that this whole John 3:16 thing is their favorite passage of Scripture aren’t usually paying attention to the fine print. Otherwise, they might not be so happy about the story Jesus is spinning in our Gospel this morning.
It appears as if Jesus is telling us that God so loved the world that Jesus came to save it—at least for those who believe the right stuff.
Now, we tend to focus heavily on the last part—inferring from it that God doesn’t love the world enough to save everyone . . . only those capable of managing to pull off the right kind of belief. And that’s not such an easy thing, is it?
Have you ever tried to believe something? Pretty tough thing to manage on your own, isn’t it?
Read this way, it’s almost as if what John has to say to us is that “God so loved the world that Jesus came to save all the cool kids, the spiritual head cheerleaders and captains of the football team, that exclusive group of folks who can manage to get all the appropriate boxes checked in anticipation of obtaining God’s good graces.”
And that reading would be even more persuasive . . . if it weren’t for the next verse: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
But notice that God loves the whole world, that God’s intention is to give everybody a winning lottery ticket. Jesus, according to John, isn’t here for the purpose of sorting out who gets to sit at the cheerleader and football player table at lunch. When Jesus pulls up a chair to the table, everybody is invited to take a seat.
Now, at this point, you might be wondering to yourself, “Yeah, but what about the stuff right after that? What about all-those-who-don’t-believe-are-condemned stuff, those who love-darkness-rather-than-light stuff?”
There’s got to be a catch, right? There’s got to be some way God’s figured out to trip us up, right? That’s how a lot of people think. God can’t just love us. There has to be something more to it.
This passage has tended to be read from the perspective of those who are already at the table with the cool kids, looking back wistfully on those who are not. And from that perspective, what we hear Jesus saying is, “Look, I want to make things right, but you don’t believe in me, so . . . sorry to say, you’re toast. I tried, but you’re just going to have to sit over in the corner with all the other kids nobody wants to be caught dead with.”
But think for a minute: Aren’t there a lot of people who never got the invitation to sit at the table with all the “winners?” They didn’t hear about this Jesus character, or what they did hear was so helplessly muddled by some of the knuckleheads who claimed to be on his side, that they never paid too much attention.
Jesus says he came for the uninformed and those put off by hypocrisy too, right? “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
But then we get that whole part that has traditionally taken the ultimate responsibility for the salvation of Jesus and put it squarely back on individuals: “Those who believe in [Jesus] are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”
In other words, it’s not God who saves you, but you who save yourself by managing to believe the right stuff. Or perhaps, put differently, God can’t save you unless you get your beliefs squared away.
But that doesn’t sound right when you say it that way, does it?
There’s an emerging school of interpretation in New Testament studies that suggests that we’ve been reading that whole “belief in Jesus” or “faith in Jesus” stuff incorrectly, putting too much emphasis on the individual’s ability to believe all the right stuff. Grammatically and theologically, it is perhaps better read “faith of Jesus” or “faithfulness of Jesus.”
Try it out: “For God so loved the world that God sent the only Son, so that by the faithfulness of the Son no one may perish but have everlasting life.” In other words, God sent Jesus for the whole world, not just for those who happened to have found themselves born in the right place and the right time, capable of managing to believe correctly.
Let’s put it another way. Let’s say that a mother took her children out in a big boat—(she’s got a lot of children). And the kids start monkeying around. She tells them to knock it off, or something bad might happen.
Sure enough, the kids don’t knock it off, and they find themselves having fallen overboard and awash in the stormy seas. The skies blacken. Little heads are bobbing up and down.
So, let me ask: If you’re the Mom, what do you do?
“I’m coming to get all of you out of the sea. First, though, I need to make certain you believe I’m your mother and that I can do it. If you can’t believe that, well, I guess you’re out of luck.”
And so Mom has a private interview with each of the imperiled children before she pulls them back to safety. Finally, she says, “I’ve got all those I’m going to get. The rest of you are evil and you’re just going to have to stay in there, and . . . well . . . I hate that for you, but I can’t save you until you get your beliefs sorted out.”
If you’re a Mom and those are your kids in danger, don’t you just, you know, pull ‘em out? Maybe work out your relationship problems later.
And can’t we assume that if God is a parent, then God’s at least as good a parent as we are?
Jesus says that God so loved the world that Jesus came to yank that world up by the collar out of the angry sea.
Are you sure Jesus meant the whole world?
Yeah, I’m pretty sure he did.
And that’s where I think the real problem lies. I like the idea of Jesus going the extra mile to snatch me from the drink. But, I mean, come on, there are a lot of other people out there still who love the wrong people, who have the wrong color skin, who live in the wrong part of town, who didn’t have the good sense to be born to citizens of this country, who deal with mental and emotional demons most of us can’t imagine even in our worst nightmares—and we’d just as soon not have to make room for them.
Do you know what I mean?
I like the idea of being invited to the party with the cool kids. But you can’t just invite everybody.
If everybody’s got a Tesla, then driving a Tesla ceases to make me part of some exclusive club.
Have you noticed how many people think the table is too big—that we’ve got no business telling everybody they’re welcome? They say, “Well, of course everyone’s welcome . . . just as soon as they get their beliefs straightened out”—which, translated, generally means: “just as soon as they promise to believe all the things we believe, to hate all the things we hate, and to exclude all the people we exclude.”
I’m not quite sure how to put this, but no matter how systematic your theology is, that’s not Jesus. And this is what I think Jesus is getting at when he starts talking about those who hate the light, who love darkness because their deeds are evil.
I don’t think he’s talking about all those folks still drowning in the stormy sea. I think he’s talking about all those “winners” already up in the boat, who are grumbling that the people not yet in the boat are drowning because they’ve made evil choices, hollering at the people in the water that they’re not welcome in the boat without a rigorous program of self-improvement meant to make them finally acceptable.
Because there are people who are pretty well convinced that if those people are invited to the party, it can’t be much of a party worth going to.
Remember the story of the Prodigal Son? Remember what happened after the son came home after completely disrespecting his father, and the father threw a party for him anyway? Remember his steady, reliable older brother, the one standing behind the wheel of the boat, remember how he reacted?
He stood outside in the dark pouting, refusing to go to any party where he didn’t get to have a line item veto over the guest list. Remember that? In fact, Robert Farrar Capon once said that hell is standing outside the party in the darkness, while the host stands eternally begging you to come inside where it’s light. Here’s how Jesus says it:
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. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God (3:19-21).
The good news of the gospel is that Jesus announces that a party’s being thrown in the light, a party the whole world’s invited to—even those people the cool kids are convinced don’t have any business being there.
Are you sure he meant the “whole” world? That seems unnecessarily generous, don’t you think?
The whole world.
And no, I don’t think it’s unnecessarily generous. I’m just going to tell you, it’s a good thing for a lot of people that God doesn’t let me exercise my understanding of just who God ought to be showing generosity to.
But here’s the thing, I also know that it’s a good thing for me that a lot of other people don’t get to have a say over God grabbing me by the back of the neck and yanking me up out of the angry sea. If it were up to some people’s conception of God’s generosity, I’d be in a lot of trouble. I read the comment threads; I know.
To people who love to be the only ones sitting with the cheerleaders and the football players, God’s generosity will come as either a depressing announcement.
But if you happen to be wandering through life always forced to sit with the other outcasts at lunch, this just might be the best news you’ve ever heard.