For God So Loves The World

A sermon based on John 3:14-21
at Mount Vernon, Ohio on March 11, 2018
by Rev. Scott Elliott

In seminary I tried to be very careful and prayerful about what theological matters I focused my education on. If I felt particularly drawn to a topic I gave it the serious attention you might expect, but I also made sure to give attention to the topics that I felt particularly drawn away from. If something repelled me I wanted to make sure I faced it and understood it and could speak to it. So I took classes or focused work on theological areas (including scriptures) that troubled me. My thinking was that the repulsion evidenced the topic was a problem for me and if it was a problem for me, it was very likely a problem for others whom I would encounter as a minister. So I wanted to get a handle on the particularly troubling issues to help me and hopefully others get through them.

As a former agnostic, as a rational thinker, as a fan of Darwin, and as a passionate advocate for women, LGBTQ, People of Color and other faiths, the topics on my list of troubling issues was, as you might imagine, a bit long. Today’s famous verse, John 3:16 was one of the issues, and it relates to others like the notions of taking the Bible literally, God asking for the sacrifice of Jesus, hell, damnation, salvation and a type of belief being the only way to eternal life. I could write a pretty dense book on that short list alone, but if you are lucky, and my calculations are right, what I have for you is a 17 minute or so sermon.

The list I just read of my troubling issues all have in common the appearance of being in opposition to the one thing I was certain about before, during and after seminary (and actually right up to today). That one certain thing is that God is love. I have no doubt whatsoever of that truth.

Since “Love” is at the heart of most religious debates in our culture it is important, I make sure to define it. My Westminister Dictionary of Theological Terms (p 164) defines love as a “Strong feeling of personal affection, care and desire for the well-being of others.” Because I have perceived a “[s]trong feeling of personal affection, care and desire for the well-being of others” in the universe, I now accept the theological assertion that we can choose name that perception love, and name the nature of that love, “God.” As my theological dictionary definition of “love” also points out love is the primary characteristic of God’s nature . . .” And it is no small matter to me that the definition then ends by noting that Love “is the supreme expression of Christian faith and action.”

A high school classmate and friend, Rick Muchow, is a famous modern Christian song writer in the mega-church tradition. One of Rick’s most famous Christian Rock songs is called “It’s All About Love.” It’s a great uplifting song and I agree with the assertion in his title. Jesus Way is all about love. I’ve written a much less famous song we are going to sing a few minutes called “Love Love and Be Love.”

I do not claim to even be a good lyricist, but, the lyrics and the tune for the refrain came in a dream and then would not go away, so I told a friend who is a tune writing genius and we created a song with verses and more music. The title Love, Love and Be Love pretty much sums up what I am convinced was Jesus’ most important call to his followers. (“Love, love and be love”). Only the full refrain that came to me was “God is love, believe in love, love love and be love.” That is a solid summation of Jesus’ theology, his core teachings and HIS Way, as I understand them.

Which brings me back to the things that troubled me in seminary: Love, you see, makes me have doubts around the issues I listed. Love is incompatible with reading the Bible literally. Love is incompatible with God asking for the sacrifice of a human being. Love is incompatible with creating hell. Love is incompatible with condemnation to hell. Love is incompatible with salvation and eternal life being conditioned on any belief, Christian or otherwise. If it is all about love then Jesus’ Way can never ever be about heaven and hell theology which is by its nature incompatible with love.

For me–and no one has to agree with me– this leads to the logical conclusion that Love is incompatible with John 3:16 being understood to mean – as it typically is– that God so loves the world he gave Jesus to be sacrificed so only those who believe in him will not perish, but get eternal life. John 3:16 is held up by heaven-and-hell churches and pastors and sports fans because they read it to validate their theology that God’s love is conditional, it is conditioned on believing as they do.

I know from experience that many people beside me are troubled by this, the common modern interpretation of John 3:16. There is a complete disconnect between God being love and God requiring the sacrifice of a human being and requiring any type of religious belief to not perish or to have eternal life.

The Bible is full of stories from start to finish expressing how God loves the world– creation. One could even say after allowing for ancient ideas and concerns and prejudices that the Bible is full of chapters of God’s love story for creation as told by humans. I would even argue that it is that love center that resonates for us and continues to make the Bible story relevant throughout the ages. We find great hope in hearing that God is love, believing that the ultimate power of the universe desires its well being, especially our well being. The thought alone can be uplifting and hopeful.

“For God so loved the world” is good news. Our individual and collective desire for well being is bigger than us! It is embedded in the DNA of the cosmos. The many and varied states of not having well being are desired to all be transformed to well being . . . and not just by us, but by the cosmos’ Creator! That leads us to want to believe God is love. That leads us to want to believe in love. That leads us to want to love Love. That leads us to want to be love. “For God so loved the world . . .” that part sings for us. We desire it to too. God loves the whole world. Me. You. All of it.

THAT love by God IS unconditional. As the Psalmist repeatedly puts it, “God love is steadfast and endures forever. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” To hear that as creating conditions to God’s love has to be false. It does not mesh with the Bible’s “God loves us” theme. To think that once God gave his Son, belief became needed to not perish or to get eternal life contradicts the literal meaning of “God so loves the world.” How is giving a Son to be killed in order to condemn people in anyway love oriented? How does such an understanding show God so loves the world? It doesn’t, and that is the rub.

It may help to know that even with a literal reading the Gospel of John defines the Son as the part of God that spoke creation into being in Genesis. Jesus is the Creator’s “Word made flesh.” That definition allows that John 3:16 to literally claim God made anyone who believes God is in the Creation shall not perish, but have everlasting life, meaning any faith in God, by anyone, avoids perishing and gives eternal life. Except that everyone is, well, literally still perishable and eventually loses life. Plus if we think about it, John 3:16 does not literally say non-believers will perish or not access eternal life. It only claims those who do believe don’t perish and get eternal life. And note that there is not a word about hell or damnation for anyone!

So see, even just literally reading it John 3:16 does not pronounce Christians or other believers in God as alone being saved– nor does it condemn others in the world. That literal reading fits with God loving the whole world! And in fact it fits with the next verse. In the NRSV verse John 3: 17 reads: “For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.” God who loves the world and is love itself does not – we are told– condemn the world. The Son is sent to save the world, and the word translated as “save” in Greek means to deliver or protect, to heal, preserve or make well. The Son is a means of well being . . . that’s love!

And so far I have just been discussing a literal reading of “believes” and “perish” and “eternal life.” I keep on my desk a book called Speaking Christian. It is a book I highly recommend to anyone trying to find the loving path Jesus gave us especially in the face of modern unloving versions of Christianity. In that book the author, Marcus Borg, has a short chapter on John 3:16 where he explores the wording in very helpful ways. With respect to the word “believes” he points out that

The pre-modern rather than the modern reading of believe is intended. In that verse, as in the Bible generally, believe does not mean believing theological claims about Jesus, but beloving Jesus, giving one’s heart, loyalty, fidelity and commitment to Jesus. This is a way into new life. (163)

In other words, and this is me speaking, whomever “BELOVES Jesus” is a far cry from whomever believes in the heaven and hell theology of those pushing it. Dr. Borg goes on to address the meanings of “perish” and “eternal life.” He writes:

Eternal life is commonly understood to mean a blessed afterlife beyond death. But in John’s Gospel it is a present experience. The Greek words translated into English as eternal life mean “the life of the age to come.” Within John’s theology, this is still future and to be hoped for. But it is also present, something that can be known, experienced now. Consider John 17:13 “this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ who you have sent. “ Note the present tense. This is eternal life (the life of the age to come); and its content is knowing God and Jesus. To know God and Jesus in the present is to participate already in the life of the age to come. (Ibid)

Marcus Borg presents pretty amazing, eye-opening stuff in his book. This may all be news regarding John 3:16 for many of us. I really like the way he sum John 3:16 up in the chapter’s closing paragraph:

in John, this verse is not about believing a set of statements about Jesus now for the sake of heaven later. It is about beloving Jesus and beloving God as known in Jesus in the incarnation, and entering into “the life of the age to come” now. It is not about people going to hell because they don’t believe. It is about the path into life with God now. (Ibid)

Since WE know God so loves the world, that makes so much more sense. Beloving God and beloving Jesus and wanting to be a part of heaven on earth now is why most of us are here in this church. Like John 3:17 puts it we believe “God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.” That is “saved” in the deliver, protect, heal, preserve and make well theological sense of “save.” That is the loving thing for God to do and for us to believe and to strive for. Like God and Jesus we want that sort of saving for the well being of creation. Because that is beloving of God in creation and in one another.

Jesus’ Way was not, is not and never has been about reading the Bible literally. Jesus’ Way was not, is not and never has been about God asking for the sacrifice of a human being. Jesus’ Way was not, is not and never has been about God creating hell. Jesus’ Way was not, is not and never has been about God condemning anyone to hell. Jesus’ Way was not, is not and never has been about salvation and eternal life being conditioned on any belief. Jesus’ Way was not, is not and never has been about a heaven and hell theology.
Jesus’ way was, is, and always has been all about love. It is about beloving and being intimately involved in bringing heaven to earth for creation – now! Because like God, Jesus so loved the world. May we do so too!