March 14, 2021
Here we are this morning with John 3:16, that passage that everybody knows. “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 seems wrong to read this passage in church and not say something about it. On the other hand, what do you say about a passage that everyone already thinks they understand anyway? In the past I’ve pointed to John 3:17 as a way of countering that claim that we can point to 3:16 as proof that out of some strange kind of love for the world God has decided to condemn all the folks who don’t believe in Jesus. As a reminder, 3:17 says, “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.” Love is God’s intention for the world, and love is the reason the Son is sent. 16 without 17 doesn’t make sense.
That said, there is talk of judgement and John, as we’ve noted before, is all about a realized eschatology – that is, a present end-time – and he does say that those who don’t believe are condemned already. Partly, what that means is that when John talks about “eternal life” he doesn’t simply mean “what happens to you after you die.” He’s talking about a quality of life now. But, to even better understand things it’s important to note that the word commonly translated as “judgment,” isn’t about rendering a sentence. It’s not accusatory so much as it is descriptive. It’s really more of an uncovering and a revealing in light of God sending the Son into the world as the definitive expression of God’s self-giving love.
David Lose translates it this way: “Those who believe that God is love are saved; they look to the One lifted up for healing. Those who cannot imagine that God comes bringing love rather than punishment are lost, lost to their despair, sin, and confusion. The verdict, conclusion, revelation is indeed that we love darkness more than light. That it’s hard to imagine God being different than we are. That we do not want to admit our need and receive God’s grace and forgiveness. That there is something in us that fears being exposed and, perhaps we assume, rejected or, for that matter, transformed.”
John’s big interest for the people of his churches is that last word: “transformed.” He wants them to know life shaped in relationship to a living divine love. And, we get a clearer sense of that when we stop and think a bit about who it is that Jesus is talking to. Of course, we don’t really know who he’s talking to when we start where we started today, or worse, when we pick just one particular verse to focus in on.
But, if you go all the way back to verse 1 you see that Jesus is talking to a pharisee named Nicodemus. Nicodemus has come to him under the cover of darkness with some questions. Unlike with other conversations with the Pharisees this one isn’t confrontational. In fact, Nicodemus seems interested in Jesus and he sincerely wants to know more. But, he’s not ready to let anybody else know about his interest. It might be misleading for some, and for sure his fellow Pharisees would see it as a problem. That’s why he goes to Jesus when no one can see what he’s up to.
But, when the encounter ends Nicodemus is out of the picture and Jesus and the disciples go on with their business. We get the sense from his absence that however his interior world is effected not much has changed materially for Nicodemus.
All is not lost for him though. Did you know that he appears again in chapter 7 (and this is important.) Nicodemus shows up with a team of Pharisees who are angry that the temple police didn’t arrest Jesus for what they took to be blasphemous teachings in the temple. When the police defend themselves the Pharisees turn on them. “Now, you’ve been fooled too!” they say. Except, not all of them say it. Nicodemus doesn’t say it. He defends both them and Jesus, and the Pharisees lay into him for it. “Surely you’re not on his side, are you?” So, here he steps out a bit into the light and reveals an interest that before he’d been afraid to show.
And, maybe that’s what set his transformation in motion. Sometimes, all it takes is a small step and the courage to risk just a bit in order to find what you are looking for – to release your fear, your sense of inadequacy, your need to be right, or whatever it is that keeps you from really trusting.
We see Nicodemus one more time in John’s gospel. This time it’s after Christ’s death, and Nicodemus is armed with 100lbs of myrrh and aloes. It’s broad daylight and Joseph of Arimathea, who had been a “secret disciple,” is taking Christ down from the cross, and Nicodemus is with him with burial clothes and all the ointment needed to lay him to rest.
We don’t get the details on Nicodemus’ transformation, what happened for him between chapters, but we see that slowly things changed. By the end of the story, which of course isn’t the end at all, he’s out in the light and what started as interest in Christ now looks like devotion and love.
I think this is an important detail. I think John wanted his readers to see this progression and understand from Nicodemus that the promise of faith isn’t “fire insurance,” or protection from eternal punishment, but rather, something much more profound and present. It’s the promise of a life transformed over time by a love that always exceeds your apprehension of it. It’s the promise of a life made rich by the hope that a self-giving God of utter goodness and transcendence has decided to hold us close now and forever. It is the promise that God is always patiently at work within us.
From time to time the Christian Century magazine asks respected authors and academics to reflect on how their faiths have changed over time. I love it when they do because I’ve found these articles to be among the most inspiring that they publish. This most recent one by James K.A. Smith from Calvin University was especially dramatic and insightful, I thought. Before I share some of his story I’ll tell you that he references Manichaeans and Pelagians, but you don’t really need to know who those people are. You just need to know that they represented beliefs that were eventually ruled to be outside of orthodox Christian boundaries. They were called heresies.
Okay, so here’s Professor Smith: “As a young Christian philosopher, I wanted to be the confident, heresy-hunting Augustine, vanquishing the pagans with brilliance, fending off the Manichaeans and Pelagians with iron-clad arguments. As a middle-aged man, I dream of being Mr. Rogers. When you’re young, it’s easy to confuse strength with dominance; when you’re older, you realize the feat of character it takes to be meek. I used to imagine my calling was to defend the Truth. Now I’m just trying to figure out how to love.
It’s not that I’ve given up on truth. It’s just that I’m less confident we’ll think our way out of the morass and malaise in which we find ourselves. Analysis won’t save us. And the truth of the gospel is less a message to be taught than a mystery enacted. Love won’t save us either, of course. But I’ve come to believe that the grace of God that will save us is more powerfully manifest in beloved community than in rational enlightenment. Or, as Hans Urs von Balthasar has put it, ‘Love alone is credible; nothing else can be believed, and nothing else ought to be believed.’”
I have a friend and former church member whose faith journey has been similarly dramatic. He’s made a nice career for himself in IT, but his vocation is ministry. He discovered it by volunteering to help out a bit with youth group, but one thing led to another and now he’s the part-time associate pastor at his church, a recent seminary grad, and God knows what next. Whenever we talk I’m always so impressed by how open he is to God’s movement in his life and how much he really loves the journey. He keeps offering himself up and he keeps finding that God uses him. He’s not looking for a destination with God so much as the next crazy thing God has in store, and what I see without a doubt is that he’s living in the kind of abundance that John calls “eternal life.” Each day it seems he finds a way to see how God is shaping him and using him, and he’s sincerely humbled and grateful.
This is exactly what John wants for his churches. It’s why he gives us Nicodemus’ example. Like him, like Professor Smith, like my friend, we’re on a journey with a living, divine love that promises to live and love through us. “For God so loved the world,” ultimately, is an opportunity to live a certain way, to see God a certain way, to trust enough to let God change us, and to let all that be the source of our joy.
 Christian Century, March 10, 2021, page 31.