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  • The Rev. Jessica E. Sexton

The Challenge of John 3:16

For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.

John 3:16 is one of the most familiar verses of scripture in the entire Bible. It’s the first one I learned to memorize and I have been reciting it since I’ve been six. I bet most of you know it by heart too.

It’s usually the first one taught in Sunday School--it’s like the memory verse dujour. And it’s seen everywhere...I kid you not...I have seen poster boards with John 3:16 in bold letters being waved proudly from people visiting the Today Show standing out in the cold. Professional athletes have it tattooed to their skin or written on the black ink under their eyes--I think former football star Tim Tebow led the charge on that.

A friend of mine was telling me the other day that her daughter had bought some clothes from Forever 21, a clothing store for women and teen girls, and as she was taking the clothes out of the bag and began folding the bag up she saw on the bottom of it--”John 3:16.” For those of you who shop there look out for Gospel bags next time you go.

It’s literally everywhere. Why you might ask? Why out of all the verses within our Holy Scriptures has John 3:16 become the staple verse of our Christian Identity? What’s in there that’s so special?

Well, Christian writer, Debie Thomas creatively described the popular verse as “Christianity in a nutshell.” I mean she’s right. John 3:16 has everything in it--in 27 words it’s doctrinal and theological breadth is astounding. It has “a loving God, a cherished world, a self-giving son, a universal invitation, a deliverance from death, and a promise of eternal life.”All in 27 words. Unbelievable. It’s all there--all the big points that make the foundation of our faith in Jesus: love, sacrifice, invitation, deliverance, promises, eternal life.”

Christians throughout the millennia have used this verse as a definition of their faith. It really is again “Christianity in a nutshell.” It even tells us what to believe. To believe in God’s love for us that he showed through his Son, Jesus Christ.

And you could say, that this verse is the best thing to use for evangelism. I mean Jesus tells us that God loved the world so much that he gave us his only son to bridge the gap between humanity and the divine. So that we would always be in relationship with God. That is true love and a hope-filled promise that needs to be shared with others. And that’s why people put it on signs and write it on their bodies. They are evangelists! And why not? It is a verse filled with hope.

But as much as it is hopeful, it hasn’t always been used that way. There have been quite a few interpretations of this popular verse especially the last part where Jesus said that “whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” There has been great emphasis on the word, “believe” by Christians over the years who have been determined to base their own understandings and judgments on what “believing” should look like. Specifically, what it looks like for them to “believe” in God. And based on their interpretation Christians have made some intentional and unintentional judgments on their peers.

Therefore, the word “believe” has been used as a measuring stick of one’s Christian faith. Resulting in attempts to measure how much one believes while making judgments and assumptions on that measurement. Because of interpretations of this scripture, people have easily made judgments like if “You don’t believe in Jesus then you’re not going to heaven” or “you don’t believe in God the right way.” I mean are we the ones to know who is going to heaven or not? And even if we believe in Jesus but are consistently making poor decisions that affect not only ourselves but those around us, then how can we be the gatekeepers of heaven? How are we supposed to know? We can’t.

What I am saying is John 3:16 for some people has been used against them. Christians have used this verse to propagate judgment and condemnation on their brothers and sisters in Christ. Literally misinterpreting the scripture and reading it as permission to be critical of others because they believe in God..

Now not all Christians do this. But it can happen when we develop and continuously work on having a personal relationship with God through prayer and going to church and other practices that connect us to the Holy Spirit. And we talked about this last week during the 8 am service where I focused on how God calls us to be in a personal relationship with him. What does this personal relationship look like for us? It all begins with having faith.

Being faithful means trusting in God because God is faithful to us and fulfils God’s promises. It’s this dual relationship that we are a part of. But sometimes as a result of this personal relationship, human beings tend to think that we are entitled to make judgments on how others are in relationship with God, even within our own families.

Again not everyone does this and not all Christians treat each other like this, but we may have witnessed people act superior--Christians and even ourselves. Where we are measuring others in judgment or criticism because we believe in Jesus and because we believe we are destined for heaven. We also tend to judge ourselves quite harshly as well.

Yesterday, I was working on my sermon at a Panera Bread and two young girls were talking about where they were going for college. One of the girls was accepted into my alma mater, Notre Dame of Maryland University. I couldn’t help myself and I leaned over and congratulated her. We got to talking about and in the midst of our conversation she asked what I did. Well, I told her I was an Episcopal priest, and immediately the poor girl paled. She looked stricken. All of sudden she asks, “Can I confess something to you?” I was thinking “oh no, what did I get myself into?” But the girl looked very genuine so I said sure. And then I got the confession of a lifetime, “Reverend, I ate meat yesterday (Friday during Lent).” And I looked at her for a moment and said “Me too. A delicious steak and potato.” But she was so upset and she went on to say that she only ate half of the Cheesesteak sub.

It is amazing how the interpretation of even half of a verse can affect the way we are with one another, with ourselves and even with God.

But was this the expectation of Jesus? To have people think because they believe in God they can critique other people’s relationship with God. I don’t think so. How has a verse that promises so much hope be used to judge? Is this how Jesus wants to believe?

Unfortunately because of the theological weight of this one verse and all that it contains everything before it and afterward it has been either ignored or forgotten, but really John 3:16 is not a stand alone verse. Maybe that is why it has been used incorrectly. It actually fits within a theological discourse between Jesus and the Pharisee, Nicodemus, who knows Jesus is not of this world--that he is something special. Where Nicodemus is trying to figure Jesus out and trying to believe. Within this discourse Jesus is trying to explain his purpose and verse 16 is why he is came:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son.”

But it is verse 17 that explains what he will do: “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.”

If God did not send Jesus to condemn the world through judgment and criticism and punishment then what gives humanity the right to think that we can judge one another? That we get the right to decide who goes to heaven or not? Who gets eternal life or who is sent to the other place?

“Eternal life” in this scripture passage of John’s Gospel does not mean immortality or a future life in heaven like other parts of the bible. But rather it's a metaphor for living now in the unending presence of God. Where God so loved the world that He sent his only begotten son that whoever believes in him shall not spend this life in darkness but will live in the light of Christ (God’s presence through his son).

But if we don’t use the word “believes” as a measuring stick and we live into the saving light of Christ, what does this look like for us?

When exploring John 3:16 as “Christianity as a nutshell,” writer and blogger Debie Thomas talked about different translations of the word “believe.” She talks about Historian Diana Butler Bass who points out in her most recent book that the English word "believe" comes from the German "belieben" — the German word for love. Therefore for Thomas “to believe is not to hold an opinion. To believe is to treasure. To hold something beloved. To give [our] heart over to it without reservation. To believe in something is to invest it with [our] love.”

What does it mean for us to believe in Jesus? It’s not a measuring stick of how much we believe and trust in God. It’s when belief and action, two separate entities coexist and work together to live out Christ’s mission in the world. Where belief in Jesus as the son of God, the one to save us from the darkness works alongside our actions grounded in love and trust in God. Therefore, belief is when our actions are filled with God’s love in the world. Jesus did not come here to condemn the world and neither did we. Jesus is calling us to so much more--to let go and to love. “Why is belief important to God? Because love is. To believe is to be-love in the world.”

This fourth week of Lent let us ponder in our hearts that because God loved us he did not send Jesus to condemn the world but to save it and how is Jesus saving us? How is his love redeeming your life? How can you see the light through him being the center of your life?

We may never forget the theologically filled verse of John 3:16 but may we always be aware of how it’s misuse can cause darkness and let us share the light of this verse with others. A verse filled with hope to believe, to love, because God loves us.

For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.

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