"For God so Loved the World"

"For God so Loved the World"

by the Rev. Christy Laborda Harris, Rector, St. Stephen's, Sebastopol

This piece is adapted from a sermon on John 3:14-21 given on the fifth Sunday of Lent 2015.

The gospel passage assigned for the fifth Sunday of Lent, lectionary year B, contains a verse of fame or infamy depending on your background. Most of us know it well. John 3:16, "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” It’s the verse often written on posters at sporting events. I believe In-N-Out has it tucked on the packaging of either their burgers or fries. When I was part of an evangelical group during high school, it was one of they key verses they had us write on a 3x5 card and carry with us so that we were always ready to share the good news.

It’s arguably one of the most well known verses in the Bible… quite possibly the most known verse in the Bible. It is touted as a verse that says it all, that sums up the gospel. God loved the world so much that God sent Jesus so that all who believe in Jesus will not die but have eternal life. 3:16 doesn’t say what happens to those who do not believe. But a few verses onward, verse 18 says, “Those who believe in him 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.” And I think this is implied on the posters. It’s always seemed to me that the posters and other public affirmations of this verse are an attempt to demonstrate belief and encourage others who don’t believe to do so because otherwise… (dot, dot, dot).

My guess is that you’ve got a pretty strong reaction to this verse one way or the other. Perhaps you are completely on board and at peace with John 3:16 and have your own posters at home and maybe a little tattoo on your ankle. Or perhaps this verse freaks you out just a bit, or maybe even a lot. Perhaps the cultural baggage around this verse, the way it’s been used, and what it seems to proclaim distresses you. Since my high school days, I have mostly done my best to ignore it and move on.

The first thing that’s important in tackling this verse is to acknowledge that whenever we pull out a specific verse and let it stand on its own, we remove it from its context. This verse is part of a larger story, the story of Nicodemus coming to Jesus under the cover of darkness. And beyond that, it’s part of John’s Gospel. Each book of the Bible brings with it its own context—how we understand what is being said in part due to who wrote it, when, with what audience in mind, what were the circumstances of the writing—we can even look at that author’s overarching use of specific words and concepts to understand particular passages better.

And when we remove verses from this context it more easily allows us to apply our own context. I think this unavoidable to some degree. We approach the biblical texts with our own set of experiences and from the standpoint of the culture and time in which we live. The challenge and goal when studying biblical texts deeply is to learn enough about the original context of the passage to allow us to see where our cultural assumptions about it might be in conflict with what the author intended. This doesn’t make our view point wrong so much as it helps us acknowledge that passages are open to more than one understanding, more than one interpretation and allows us to access the richness of God’s word.

Oftentimes we’re not even aware of the lens we wear when approaching scripture because it is as prevalent and assumed as the air we breathe. Probably the most significant way our cultural context affects the way we at this time and in this place approach the Bible and Christianity is through the lens or understanding that Christianity is focused on salvation and that salvation means going to heaven after death and not going to hell. The late Episcopal theologian Marcus Borg calls this “the Heaven-and-Hell Framework.”[1]

He writes, “Words have their meanings within frameworks. Frameworks are large interpretive contexts that shape the meanings of words. Elephant means something very different in the framework of a visit to a game park in Africa from what it means in the framework of a political cartoon. Frameworks matter.”

Borg imagines asking a child, or himself as a child, what Christianity is about. He says that growing up half a century ago he would have answered, “Jesus died for our sins so that we can be forgiven and go to heaven, if we believe in him.” He of course learned over time that being Christian meant more than that, but the core of what it meant to be Christian remained. Borg argues that this understanding is widely shared by Protestants and Catholics and continues to be seen as the core of Christianity by millions both inside and outside of the church. This has certainly been my experience.

Borg then reasons that such a framework gives shape to the language within it. For example, we understand salvation as referring to life after death, when in the Bible it’s seldom about an afterlife but is instead about transformation this side of death. If the framework fits, all our Christian language is understood within this framework: saved, savior, sacrifice, God, mercy, repentance, redeemer or redemption, righteousness, and peace. Our understanding of all these words fits into the framework of “Jesus died for our sins so that we can be forgiven and go to heaven, if we believe in him.”

Within this framework, we hear John 3:16 as declaring that God loves you, but God will send you to hell if you don’t believe in Jesus. Borg breaks down this verse, offering an alternate understanding and framework of the phrases and words that constitute it.

"For God so loved the world”—God loves the divinely created world. Not the sinful and broken world, but the cosmos, creation as God created it.

“That he gave his only Son”—the gospels do not include the concept of substitutionary sacrifice, that is, that Jesus was a substitute for the punishment we deserve. The “giving” of the Son in John refers to the incarnation as a whole and not primarily to Jesus’ death. God loved the world so much that God was willing to become incarnate in the world.

“So that everyone who believes in him”—Borg argues that the modern meaning of believe, as in believing in a statement or theological claim, came into being around 1600. Prior to that time the verb “believe” always had a person as its direct object, not a statement. So instead of believing a statement is true, it meant something more like “I believe in you.” The difference lies in believing in what someone has said, that his or her statements are true, versus believing in or trusting in that person. In a Christian context, believing in Jesus meant having confidence in God as Jesus.

In addition, this pre-modern understanding of believe comes from the Old English be loef, which means “to hold dear.” So to believe meant not only having trust or confidence in that person but also holding that person dear—beloving that person. With this understanding, John 3:16 says that God sent his only Son so that everyone who gives their heart, loyalty, fidelity and commitment to Jesus “may not perish but may have eternal life.”

While we often understand this eternal life to begin at death, in John’s Gospel it is a present experience. If we look at verse 18 again, we read that, “Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already.” In John’s Gospel eternal life is a present experience. This is called a realized eschatology. Eternal life is part of the here and now. For John, it is both a present reality and a future that it is still hoped for. It is already but not yet all the way.

John 17:3 says, “This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” We are invited to know God, to enter into intimate communion with God, now, in this life. Condemnation then is the absence of such knowledge and communion.

When we hear John 3:16 within our current cultural framework of heaven and hell, it’s hard not to understand it as being about believing in statements about Jesus now for the sake of heaven later. But when we expand our view, when we dig into the way that John uses these terms and concepts and the way words were used before our current day, we are able to see that there are other possible ways to understand this verse.
"For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

God so loved the world that God was willing to become incarnate in the world, so that everyone who beloves God, everyone who gives God their heart, loyalty, fidelity and commitment might live a transformed life of knowledge of and communion with God.

[1] Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power—And How they Can Be Restored, 10.



 

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