It’s one of the best known Bible verses of all time: you see it on billboards, at sporting events. Anglican Archbishop Thomas Cranmer included it in the Book of Common Prayer. Lots of us memorized it as children. It’s 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 has been described as ‘the gospel in miniature’. And if it is that, the question is this, “What is this gospel we proclaim?”
Now to get at this question in relationship to this text from John 3, one of the keys is to understand a little word–and that word is ‘so’.
Catholic theologian James Alison[i] reminds us that the ‘so’ in ‘God so loved the world’ isn’t telling us about God’s emotional state.[ii] It’s not like the author of John’s gospel is speaking like a valley girl saying, “I so worry about that….or I so wish he’d call me.”
Rather, the ‘so’ in ‘for God so loved the world’ means ‘this is how God loved the world—it was in this way that God loved the world.’ And what is that way—what is it that the ‘so’ refers to?
To get there we have to assume a kind of theological double vision: seeing the cross—the focus of today’s celebration–and the resurrection together at the same time. So let’s start with the cross.
On the cross, Jesus was executed. He occupied a place of shame and violence. The crucifixion of Jesus is the central feature of the gospel narrative—all of the gospels have as their destination the suffering and shame of the crucified one. That’s the first part of our double vision.
The other part of this theological double vision is the resurrection.
On the third day, Jesus disciples experienced him risen and whole. And here’s the extraordinary part that changes everything—the risen Christ returns as a forgiving victim, returning to his friends—his friends who had betrayed, denied and abandoned him—without a word of judgment or revenge. In the resurrection of Jesus, something in the universe shifted. Jesus has stood in the place of the victim and returned bidding peace to his disciples and commissioning them to imitate him in his mission of ending violence and bringing peace to the world. Jesus occupied the place of shame and detoxifies it forever—and the hope of the world—quite literally, the hope of the world is in our encountering this amazing and life changing reality—that the victim returns to us without blame, forever forgiving, forever proclaiming that there is no violence in God and there need be none in us.
In James Alison’s words, “Here we have … the discovery of the absolutely vivacious and effervescent nature of God leading to the realization that behind the death of Jesus there was no violent God, but a loving God who was planning a way to get us out of our violent and sinful life. Not a human sacrifice to God, but God’s sacrifice to humans.”[iii]. And this is the good news.
The good news is simply this—we no longer need to be captive to the forces that demand that we figure out whose fault it is—whatever has gone wrong—and instead, we can lean into the presence of the one who returned to us as a forgiving victim and know the freedom that comes from being the children of God.
To live not bound by the patterns of violence and retribution is eternal life.
John 3:16 is too often interpreted as a text to demonstrate the superiority of Christian religion over all others. Christian religion, it’s argued, is the only one that promises to get believers into heaven while anyone who doesn’t believe it, will be punished forever. And this interpretation misses the point in two ways.
First, it assumes that the term (found so often in John’s gospel) eternal life is used, it means what happens to us after we die. But Jean Vanier, in his commentary on the 4th gospel, is quite clear that this is not the case when he writes
“Eternal life does not refer to something we will live after death, it is the life of God given to us today. It is the life of the Eternal One that is in each of us, blowing in and through us, given to us as we are born from above in baptism and through our trust in Jesus.”[iv]
Eternal life then is a quality of life we live now. It is God’s great gift to us in Jesus Christ that those who believe into (a better translation of the Greek that usually gets translated as ‘believe in’–) those who are drawn to lean our lives into the story and presence and power of Jesus Christ are given a gift that does not perish—but springs up within us as living water, a different way of being human that eschews the ways of violence and revenge toward a life lived in love.
The second reason I reject the notion that it is only through Christian religion that eternal life is given is found in the 17th verse of John when the author writes:
“For God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but rather that the world through him might be saved.”
The whole purpose of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection is to save the world—to save the world from its habitual patterns of violence and revenge and lead us to ways of peace and justice that enable the flourishing of human life and the whole created order.
But it is to us, the baptized, that this beautiful message of eternal love is given. Those who hear and heed this text are called into the new life of grace—a life characterized by acts of loving service towards others.
Again, the words of Jean Vanier from his beautiful commentary on the 4th gospel—I’ll read them to you twice, and then lets talk together about how this gospel reaches us today:
The seed of the Spirit has been planted in us.
We must learn how to nourish this seed
so that it can grown and bear much fruit.
This journey, our pilgrimage of love, begins and deepens
as we hear God murmur within our hearts:
“I love you just as you are.
I so love you that I come to heal you and give you life.
Do not be afraid. Open your hearts.
It is all right to be yourself.
You do not have to be perfect or clever.
You are loved just as you are.
As you become more conscious that you are loved,
you will want to respond to that love with love,
and grow in love.”[v]
Preached by Dean Peter Elliott
St. George’s Church, Vancouver
September 13, 2015
[i] A good video introduction to James Alison can be found at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8PsBTGKoOEs
[ii] Alison, James. Broken Hearts & New Creations: Intimations of a Great Reversal London: Continuum, 2010. From the article Strong Protagonism and Weak Presence: the changes in tone for the voice of God. p. 125 and following
[iv] Vanier, Jean. Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus through the Gospel of John. Ottawa: Novalis, 2004. p. 85
[v] Ibid. p. 87