And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have
eternal life. “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.” 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 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. 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. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 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.
I just introduced my Thursday Bible Study group to the amazing world of TED videos. “TED” stands for “Technology Entertainment and Design.” It’s a
conference in which experts in their fields give short talks before a live audience. They are fascinating. You can go to the TED web-sight on the internet and watch videos of talks on everything from new discoveries in science and medicine to the latest ways of making digital books, and including talks on philosophy, psychology, and poetry.
I just watched a TED talk given by social scientist Jonathan Haidt on the question: could the spiritual impulse that most humans seem to experience have its roots in our biology? He strongly implied a ‘yes’ answer. Haidt suggests that we survive best as a species when we transcend our own selfish interests and work together in a common cause.
I’ll leave it to you to watch the video and learn how this relates to spirituality, but here is why I brought it up: To describe his conclusion, he had to use well-worn phrases like: “we are all in the same boat” and, “we succeed best when we all pull together.” He admitted that these are now old clichés, but that nevertheless, they were completely true.
Hearing clichés, thinking we “get it”
The problem of needing to use clichés is the problem we have when we come to this text from the gospel of John. Everybody who knows anything at all about Christianity, certainly everyone who has been to Sunday School or Confirmation knows the story of Jesus and his night-time conversation with Nicodemus about being born again, which culminates in John 3:16. If you only know one verse by heart, probably it is 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. ”
We know it so well, we stop hearing it. But I want to challenge the notion that we all understand this as well as we think we do. There is a huge
difference between hearing something often and understanding it well. Most of us know that Einstein’s theory of relativity is summed up in the equation E=Mc2 without a clue about what that means.
We will look at this familiar text today and notice the ways in which it has been misunderstood, but we should take comfort first in this: Our failure to understand the meaning of lines we can quote from memory, in the case of John 3:16 is, not a tragedy. If this text means anything, it means that the basis for our relationship with God is not our understanding. Rather, it is based on love.
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.”
Being Loved: basic to who we are
As Joe Small, one of our great Reformed thinkers today says, this is “basic to who we are.” We know ourselves as people whom God loves. This is fact number one. This is foundational. This is so important, that it is, for us, the basis on which we know anything else about God. (Joe Small in “Feasting On the Word” for today)
This is not just theoretical. God actually acted; in fact, he acted dramatically, out of his love for the world; that is, for us; as Jesus says,
“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. ”
The whole point of God sending his Son is that his purpose for us is a loving purpose. He wants to save us:
17 “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. ”
Being Condemned Already
Now here is why I said we may not understand this familiar text as well as we think we do. People often think that being saved here means being saved from hell in the future, but that is not what Jesus says.
The way John recounts Jesus’ words here, being condemned is not about the future, but the present. Being condemned in this text, is the experience of a life lived under the destructive power of evil.
“18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already,
“Already” means now. In fact, in the book of John, “eternal life” also starts now; it means knowing God, in this moment, as Jesus says later (John 17:3).
In the same way, right now, people who embrace evil are already experiencing its destructive effects. They are condemned already. Evil tears apart
relationships; it breaks down social order; it causes suffering for individuals and for groups of people; it’s horrible.
John uses a lot of either-or categories here: light vs. darkness; saved vs. condemned; evil vs. good; love vs. hate. He is trying to draw the sharpest distinction he can between the power of God’s love and the destructiveness of the power of evil.
God’s will has been to thwart the power of evil by the power of love. Self-giving, self-sacrificing love.
“Believing In” vs. “faith that…”
Now, as I said, we have heard this so often we think we know everything about it, but I believe there is another common mistake that people often make here. We think that “believing in the Son of God” is about having faith that a set of facts about God and Jesus are true.
This notion that believing is about the facts is reinforced when we repeat creeds like the Apostles Creed that basically list facts about God we are supposed to have faith enough to think are true.
John’s gospel uses the verb “believe in” many times, but never uses the noun “faith.” This is not about us having “faith that…” something is true. It is about believing in a person.
The Josephus story
I can best explain it by recalling for us a story that the Jewish historian Josephus tells.
Josephus was a commander in the army in a time of revolution. To make a complicated story short, one day he came upon some rebel troops. He wanted them to give up their rebel cause, as he himself had done. He wanted them to know which side was going to be vindicated in the end – which was his side. So he said to them, “change your minds and believe in me.”
“Believe in me” were the same words Jesus used when he encouraged people to follow him. “Believe in me” is what our surgeons ask of us. “Believe in
me” is what we told our children when they woke up afraid in the middle of the night. “Believe in me” is what all the political candidates try to get us to do. (as told by NT Wright in Jesus and the Victory of God, 324)
Believing in = rely upon
This kind of believing is not at all about reciting a set of facts about a person’s biography. It means relying on them to know the way ahead; having confident trust that their way is right and good.
We believe in democracy; we believe in freedom; we believe in the rule of law, and we believe in a loving God; it is basic to who we are.
This is basic to who we are: we have staked everything on God’s love. And yes, it does save us from a world of dark, destructive evil. We believe in, or rely on Jesus to have defeated the power of evil for us when he was lifted up on the cross.
Sent by the Sent-One: to Love
In fact, God’s love does more than merely rescue us from the destructiveness of evil, it motivates us to become lovers too. Later John will show us Jesus giving a mission-charge to his disciples just before leaving them, saying:
“As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” (John 20:21)
As Jesus was sent because of God’s love, so he sends us. Just as God’s love for the world motivated him to send his Son, not to condemn the world, but to save it, so now we are sent by the same power of love, into the same world, not to be agents of condemnation, but to be conduits of salvation. We are sent to love people back from the brink of evil’s destruction.
There is no such thing as loving without forgiving: we are sent to be forgivers.
There is no such thing as loving without caring: we are sent to be people who care.
There is no such thing as loving apathetically; we are sent to be people of passionate personal involvement.
There is no such thing as love that despises, or shuns, or rejects, or excludes; we are sent to be people of radical, inclusive welcoming, which is open as broadly as the love that motivates it:
“For God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son”
This is what we understand: and it is indeed “basic to who we are.”
Hearing a Witness to Love
How do we come to understand ourselves as people loved by God? Everyone of us could tell our own story, and each would be unique. We are encouraged and helped to understand God’s love reaching us as we hear a witness of how God’s love reached someone else. Today, we will hear a witness to God’s love from Russell.