Today we get one of the most beloved passages of Scripture. Most everyone knows the line, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” But even for those of us who do not know the words by heart, we have seen the marker “John 3.16” all over – at sporting events, on road overpasses, on tattoos, and on Tim Tebow’s face. Even Episcopalians, who can rarely quote scripture citations, know this one.
What is funny about the popularity of this scripture verse is that this particular verse is one of the more complicated verses in scripture. On the surface, the verse sounds full of promise: God so loved; God so loved the world; God gave; So that believers should not perish; Everlasting life. All those words sound wonderful. They make God sound loving and generous. They make life seem full of promise. Why would you not want to parade John 3.16 around in celebration?
John 3.16 sounds wonderful until you really start to dissect the verse. John 3.16 makes God sound loving, generous, and caring. Until you read that one pesky clause, “everyone who believes.” So God will love, be generous to, and give everlasting life to anyone in the world – as long as they believe. But what about those who do not believe? We all know lots of people who do not believe in Jesus Christ. They are our neighbors, friends, family members, and classmates [colleagues]. Do we really believe God does not love them too? All we have to do is read John 3.18 to learn that “those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”
Now I do not know about you, but although this scripture lesson is known worldwide, and is beloved by many, I have never really felt comfortable with the implications of this passage. I think two things either happen when we really start to look at this passage. One, by recognizing that we are the “believers” of this passage, we both feel a sense of pride and acceptance and a sense of pity for the non-believers. We feel bad for the non-believers, but we do not really know how to console them. So we secretly just feel grateful and blessed, and wipe our hands clean of the non-believers. They will have to fend for themselves.
The other way that many of us approach this text is that we sweep the verse under the rug. We know a lot of other verses about God, and those verses tell us of a God whose love is much bigger. We might imagine that there is hope for all the faiths of the world, and even for those without faith. We prefer to focus on the part that says, “God so loved the world,” knowing the vast diversity of that world, preferring to imagine that our God is not a judgmental one, but a loving one. And even if we concede that there might need to be some form of judgment, we will leave that judgment up to God. We will let the business of who is in and who is out be God’s business, and we will just go on loving everyone anyway.
Either of those ways of thinking – the one where we pity the non-believers or the one where we brush aside the text – ignores the fact that those approaches come from the assumption that we are the insiders in this situation. As Christians, we know that we believe in Jesus Christ. So we must be the ones that John is talking about – the ones that God loves and saves, and to whom God gives eternal life. But the problem with that underlying assumption is that the assumption puts us in a place of comfort, when, in fact, I think John 3.16 is supposed to put us in a place of discomfort.
In John 3.19-20, Jesus says, “…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.” Instead of sitting on our comfortable “believer” cushion, I think what this passage is really inviting us to do is to recognize how we are in fact the people in the darkness. We have been talking a lot in this Lent about our sinfulness – our separation from God and neighbor. Our Lenten disciplines are meant to be ways for us to contemplate our sinfulness, to repent, and return to the Lord. None of us is spared from being sinful. We have all fallen victim to pride, envy, and hatred. We have all had malicious thoughts and done hurtful things. We have all forgotten about God, making our lives about our own wants and desires. And I am sure many of us have had something in our lives that we have wanted to hide in darkness. None of us feel entirely comfortable exposed, being bathed in light. Like that makeup mirror that is just a little too bright, not many of us are ready to be seen under the bright light.
There is a book and movie series out called “Divergent.” It is a dystopian, futuristic series that captures what happens when the world destroys itself and the society that is rebuilt to prevent such destruction from happening again. Though the premise is a bit complicated, one of the pieces about the series I find fascinating is the presentation of one group who believes that the truth is the answer to solving the world’s problems. So all the members of that particular group must take what is called a “truth serum.” When they take the serum, they must then be asked a slew of questions before all the members of the group, including extremely personal and private questions. The idea is that if all your secrets are exposed, there is nothing left to hide behind. Everyone is on equal footing and no one can hide their true selves.
I imagine the world in that group from the Divergent series as being like the one that Jesus is talking about today. We are people who would avoid a truth serum – who would avoid the light – because we do not want all of ourselves exposed. There are some things – those really dark, embarrassing, or shameful things about our lives – that we do not want the world to know. We like the dark, if for no other reason than we can hide those ugly parts of ourselves there. In fact, we like keeping a little bit of darkness in our lives. And I imagine most of us would quite quickly decline a truth serum.
If we can admit that truth – that part of us that prefers there be just a little bit of darkness for us to hide in occasionally – then we might be able to see why John 3.16 is so brilliant. If we can be humble about our own darkness and our own sinfulness, and approach God in that way, then Jesus’ words are much more meaningful. For those of us who have a bit of darkness in us, God so loved us that God gave up God’s only Son so that we might have eternal life. In this way, John 3.16 is refreshing. When we realize that we are the ones in darkness, John 3.16 does not make us feel self-righteous, pitying others.[i] Instead, John 3.16 is a harbinger of light. In fact, John 3.16 calls us into the light with the promise of love, forgiveness, and grace. Once we get ourselves out of the “insider’s circle” this passage becomes much more redemptive and much more full of hope. And perhaps that is the point. Not to make us relieved because we are on the inside looking out, but to make us relieved because we are on the outside looking in – and being beckoned in by our Lord and Savior. If we can come to see this passage in this light, then I say go ahead and get that tattoo, embroider that wall hanging, and even make that poster for the big game. Perhaps your artwork will remind you to keep turning from the darkness and turning into the light. Amen.
[i] This idea shaped by the conclusions made by Paul C. Shupe, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 120.