Lent 2 A: Just One More Verse!

John 3:1-17

Dear Partner in Preaching,

There’s a lot going on in today’s reading from John’s Gospel. And I mean A LOT! This passage, filled with images both familiar and odd, can be a lot to take in. St. Augustine chose an eagle to represent St. John because he felt the theology of the Fourth Evangelist soared so high above the other gospels, but sometimes it reaches heights that can be hard for many of us – both in the pulpit and in the pew – to follow.

My guess is that amid the imagery of water and Spirit and the serpent lifted up in the wilderness and all the rest, our hearers’ attention will be drawn to two places in particular. The first, depending on your translation, may be the language about being “born from above” (NRSV) or “born again” (NIV). Popularized by American Evangelicalism with its emphasis on “believer baptism” and the importance of personally accepting Jesus into one’s heart, the language of being “born again” is pretty recognizable and, unfortunately, in some circles has come to represent a litmus test of whether one can be truly Christian apart from an emotional experience or public acceptance of Christ.

The second – and probably more reliable – touch point for our folks will likely be 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 have eternal life.” Luther called this verse “the gospel in a nutshell” and it has served that way for so many of our people, signaling God’s profound love for us and indicating the depths to which God would go to convey that love. It too, however, has sometimes served as a wedge between those who believe and are saved and those who do not and, some conclude, must therefore perish and not have eternal life.

Because of the way these verses have played out in the popular religious imagination of our time, it may be tempting to use this week’s sermon to offer a corrective to what we may experience as inadequate or damaging theology. While I sympathize with that urge – indeed, I’d really like to reclaim words like “evangelical,” phrases like “being born from above,” and verses like John 3:16 – the challenge is doing so in a way that doesn’t unintentionally validate less than helpful theology by making it the focus of our sermons. For this reason, I’d suggest not getting caught playing defense but instead offering a robust proclamation of the expansive and surprising love of God this passage invites.

And perhaps the key to doing that is making sure we read to the end of the passage and highlight verse 17, the verse that comes just after “the world’s most famous Bible verse.” (Indeed, one might even consider starting there.) Reading just one more verse offers a larger context and indeed elaborates on the “motive” for God’s sending of the Son. In particular, lest we be confused that God sends the Son out of love – which is of course where v. 16 begins! – in verse 17, we hear the clear explanation, affirmation, and indeed repetition that the Son was not sent to condemn but to save. So it’s not about who’s in and who’s out, but rather about God’s consistent intent to love, save, and bless the whole world.

Along these lines, it may be helpful to remind folks that the Greek word for “world” – kosmos – designates throughout the rest of John’s Gospel an entity that is hostile to God (see, for instance, John 15:18-25; 16:8-10, 20, 33; and 17:9-16). Which means that we might actually translate these verses, “For God so loved the God-hating world, that he gave his only Son…” and “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn even this world that despises God but instead so that the world that rejects God might still be saved through him.” Really – God’s love is just that audacious and unexpected. (Which is why, according to Paul, it probably seems both scandalous and a little crazy – see 1 Cor. 1:18-25.) And that audacious, unexpected, even crazy character of God’s love is probably why it saves!

This more expansive sense of Gods’ saving love might come across as a particularly timely and even poignant word given the threats of late made against Jewish brothers and sisters whose cemeteries have been desecrated and community centers threatened and amid the increased animosity directed toward Muslim brothers and sisters in the years since 9-11 and more recently. If God’s love is for all, then we who have experienced that love in Christ are called to see persons of other faiths (and no faith) through the lens of that profound and surprising love.

Recently I came across the text of a 1790 letter from George Washington addressed to a Jewish synagogue in Rhode Island. Recognizing that Washington’s faith was shaped by both 18th century Deism and the creedal Christianity of his day, I found his words both stirring to me as an American and deeply resonant with the faith I profess as a follower of Jesus:

It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

What a grand vision for this nation in its first years and as it nears its two-hundred-and fiftieth: that ours will be a government and people that “gives bigotry no sanction and persecution no assistance.” It is a vision, I think, that corresponds well with Jesus’ words in the 16th and 17th verses of this important chapter of John’s Gospel.

In this week’s passage, we find a bold declaration that God loves us… and that God loves the whole world. And in that affirmation we also find a calling to extend that love to everyone we encounter. There can be and will be, I believe, no better way to witness to our faith and invite others to our fellowship. Thank you for your part in opening up these profound – if at times also complex! – passages, Dear Partner, and for giving voice to our faith in the love of God we know in and through Christ. It is a timely and important message, and I am grateful for your commitment to sharing it.

Yours in Christ,