So, John 3:16. What do you think of when you hear those words? I think of football games with people holding up big signs that can be picked up by the tv camera. I think of judgment. It makes me roll my eyes and squirm.
“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.”
For this verse has been used by many Christians to declare that those who have the right belief and say the right words are saved, and those who do not will spend eternity in hell. I detest this message. It goes against everything I try to embody as a Christian. It goes against everything I try to teach as a priest. And yet, there is a small part of me that is afraid that it might be true, because after all the next few verses are pretty harsh:
3:18 “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. 19 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. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 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.”
It all kinds of fits in with the theology I absorbed somewhere sometime in my childhood (I am vague about this, because I really don’t know where and when it got into my head). And basically the theology is this:
God created us and the whole world, but that first woman, Eve, was a seductress, and she ate an apple she had been told not to eat and she seduced her partner, Adam, into eating it too. As a result, all humanity, indeed, all creation, is broken for eternity. Because of the sin of Adam and Eve, we all are unredeemable sinners who need to be punished. Now God loves us, but just has to punish us, God has no choice. And God has a son, who he loves dearly, but who he has to kill, because Adam and Eve, and everyone who followed them, broke the rules. To put it in the words of Nadia Bolz-Weber: “Because you stole a candy bar, or lied to your mom, or felt up your girlfriend or maybe you used swear words or looked at dirty pictures. . .” God had to kill his son. “The important thing for you to know is that God killed his little boy rather than punishing you, because let’s face it, someone had to pay and you should feel so grateful about all of this that you believe and (most importantly) you behave. But the good news is that if you believe all of this and if you try really hard to be good then when you die you get a special all-inclusive vacation package called Eternal Life.” Yeah that is all in there, and all or some of it might be in your head too.
But fortunately I have the wisdom in my middle age to know that just because something is in my head doesn’t mean it is true. So what if we’ve been reading these verses all wrong? The Greek word that is translated as “believe” is pistis. It can also be translated as “trust.” For me this all makes much more sense, in light of verse 16 “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.” And it makes much more sense in light of the Jesus I have come to know through the rest of the Gospels. I was taught to always remember a quote from St. Augustine when reading the Bible, “So anyone who thinks he has understood the divine scriptures or any part of them, but cannot by his understanding build up this double love of God and neighbor, has not yet succeeded in understanding them.” In other words if the conclusion you come to after reading and interpreting a particular Bible passage doesn’t lead you to greater love of creation, humanity and God, but instead leads you to judgment, then you might want to rethink your interpretation.
So let’s read this again using trust instead of believe. “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever trusts in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who trusts in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 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. Those who trust in him are not condemned; but those who do not trust are condemned already, because they have not trusted in the name of the only Son of God.”
If I think about the times in my life that I most regret, or of which I am most ashamed, I can see that every single time of regret and shame came about because I didn’t trust in God. I didn’t trust that God really loved me. I didn’t understand that I am a child of God and I am enough, just as I am.
I’ll give you an example. When I was in seminary, I really did not like my suitemate. We were like oil and water. She was loud, outspoken, opinionated, and just plan strange. And in my judgment and dislike I gossiped about her in public. I was standing in the mailroom of the seminary and unbeknownst to me she was standing on the other side of the mailboxes and heard everything I said. She called me out on my bad behavior. The reality is that part of me was envious of her ability to speak her opinion, her comfort with being noticed and seen. I was not satisfied with myself. A part of me wanted to be more like her, because I didn’t understand that I was enough just as I was. That God loved me just as I was. And so I said things that may have been true, but I shouldn’t have been sharing with others and I hurt her and I hurt our community. I didn’t trust in God enough.
Now, I don’t think I’m going to hell because I did this, but I was in darkness. My actions separated me from my fellow human beings and from God. For a moment anyway, I was lost, I was condemned by my own actions. God did not need to condemn me, I condemned myself. Now, fortunately, I did not remain in the darkness long. I lived with this woman after all, so neither she nor I could escape each other. I found her and apologized to her. She accepted my apology. We were never great friends, but reconciliation did happen. The light was regained. God was present with us.
So I would like to take a stab at re-writing that story that I absorbed as a child, I hope that you will get something from this rewriting too.
God was love and God’s love overflowed from God. In this overflowing the world was created, and the world that was created was love. It was love and it was loved. And God breathed life into a particular form of creation, a piece of creation that God made in God’s image, human beings. And God loved and was loved by them. Because these human beings were made in God’s image, they also had the ability to choose—to choose to love or not to love. They had the ability to create—to create things that were in synch with God’s love and things that were not in synch with God’s love. These humans had their own voice and they could choose to join their voice with God’s or to sing their own song. And sometimes they did just that. Adam and Eve did that. You and I do that. We forget from time to time God’s song of love and we create songs of violence, of greed, of domination, of power.
And yet God keeps singing God’s song of love. Through the years God has sent prophets, martyrs, and sages to help us better hear the divine song. And finally God realized that the best way for us to hear the divine song was for the divine to sing the song to us directly, and God became human. God loved us so much that God took on all of our limitations, all our frailties, all or our pain, that we might reconnect to the song of God’s love.
And people did connect. Throughout the millennia people have connected, and they have passed this love song on. Of course even those of us who have heard the song can from time to time forget to listen and join the song. We too create our own song in the belief that it will bring us the peace and fulfillment for which we are searching. And when we do, we find ourselves in the place of darkness, not because God put us there, but because we put ourselves there.
But God does not condemn us. And God’s song never ceases. No matter what other songs we create. No matter how far we get from God. God’s song continues drawing us back into the love of God. We simply need to trust and listen. It is there, and there is nothing we can do to make it go away. We don’t have that kind of power and control. And I thank God for that. Amen.