Hearing John 3:16 Anew

a sermon based on John 3:16
at Mount Vernon, Ohio on March 15, 2015 *
by Rev. Scott Elliott

During elementary school I attended a conservative Baptist church. A very nice older woman down the block made it her business to see that my older sister and I got there. I say older woman because that is how I perceived her as a six-year old. In retrospect though she may very well have been younger than I am now! So it might be more accurate to describe her as aged-just-right.

Mrs. Harris was this aged-just-right woman’s name; and I am sorry to say that I must have been a disappointment to her. You see, Mrs. Harris was also my Sunday school teacher and one of her great joys was having her charges recite scripture from memory, proudly marking each child’s progress with a colorful shiny star next to their name on a chart on the wall. Students got extra rewards every time they reached a numeric milestone with the stars. I remember that for the first star we got a bookmark. I can’t recall what the other prizes were, because, well, I never made it past one star. Oh, I was there a lot and although others may have perceived my lack of star power as a sign of not being very bright, at the time I saw it a bit different. In fact, I thought I was pretty smart. See I tried it once to see what it was like, but, all that work for a shiny star and bookmark didn’t make sense to me. I had others things that took up my time like, melting army men with a magnifying glass, lobbing walnuts over the roof at my sister and her friends in the front-yard, and dozens of other things to do– with parents completely unaware of any homework due in Sunday school.

In retrospect I wish I’d learned more. The one scripture verse I learned for my pathetic one little star was not “Jesus wept” (I must have missed the day that one came around). No, the only scripture I memorized was one of today’s verses, John 3:16.

I have long thought it quite ironic that the one verse most used by conservative Christians to claim that Christianity is the only way to avoid perishing and gaining eternal life is the one verse I have had in my head for more than fifty years. My guess is that a lot of us still hear that verse as saying you must believe in Jesus to get to eternal life.

Most of us have been conditioned to hear John 3:16 as an exclusionary text, one that if literally true leaves non-Christians perishing and missing out on eternal life. John 3:16, you see, seems to be about asserting not only that non-Christian paths to God are invalid, but are paths to hell. We’ve been taught it’s a threat.

In seminary I spent a good deal of time discussing and debating our need to honor and respect other paths to God, even the need for us to consider other religions as members of the Body of Christ, to the extent that means God, which is actually not far fetched since the Gospel of John in chapter one defines Christ to mean just that.  Even at the somewhat liberal Eden Theological Seminary this sounded to some like heresy, but, I made it one of my rallying cries.

Now I came to seminary not only with a law degree, but sixteen years of lawyering so my rallying cries even as a freshman tended to be formidable just as a matter of course, since I came with well honed arguing skills.

Believe is or not, a number of famous theologians had legal training. While I may not be a famous theologian, as a retired lawyer, legal training has been a blessing in my ministry and at seminary.

Here are two lawyer tricks . . . I mean legal skills, I often used to hold my own in discussions at seminary even with seasoned professors. The first was to find and have precedence for a given position.

In seminary a Bible verse was akin to a Supreme Court decision. I liked to kinda mix in some poker rules and so I made sure to have three-of-a-kind or at least a pair of verses in the tougher debates. I discovered that if I had at least a pair of Bible verses I could hold my own in theological debates and on term papers.

The second legal skill I discovered worked well at seminary was to take verses used against a theological point and do what I called in my law practice a “judo flip” of the other side’s argument.

I’d take a verse that purportedly opposed my idea and show how it actually supported my position. This is particularly effective with people who insist the Bible must be read literally and without interpretation, because the Bible tends to be the be-all-end-all in debates for them.

Alright, for the price of admission to worship this morning, you just got about two years worth of law schooling! Find binding precedence and flip your opponent’s arguments against them.

I am being a bit light heartedly smug about arguing – and it may, perhaps, even sound crass– but it’s really not. Unless you take your theology spoon-fed, testing your’s and others’ notions and understandings of God against tradition, other verses contemporary thinking and different perspectives help you and all of us in the community to grow.

In fact, Jesus does this type of intellectual arguing. For instance in Luke we hear him asked by religious folks how he can work on the Sabbath picking grain and healing people. Jesus goes to the Bible for precedence noting that David broke Torah to eat and then he points out the Sabbath was made to do good not harm.(Mk 2:23-28). Jesus used scripture, a judo flip and wins!

I mention all this, because we are looking at John 3:16 as a Lectionary Text, and I want to suggest a way to flip a common interpretation of this verse completely on it’s head. No matter what you have heard about this verse, take a deep breath and set it all aside for a moment. It won’t hurt . . .

Okay here’s the KJV of John 3:16 that most folks know:

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.

Reading it literally. Who does God love? The World. Not just the Jewish followers of Jesus that John is addressing. Not just Christians who believe as fundamentalists do. Not just UCCers, like us. The whole world. God loves the whole world – literally no exceptions.

And it is a whole lot of God-Love, right? It’s so much Love, what happens as a result of that love for the world? God is understood and experienced by Christians as giving God’s very own offspring to the world, what John calls “the Word made flesh,” which means God incarnate in life.

And so what happens to those who believe in that offspring of God? They shall not perish but have everlasting life.

Now Let me ask this can we literally believe in Jesus, but not believe he is the only Way?

The text asks us to believe in Jesus not doctrines. I believe in, ummmmm, Joan Baez I have seen her live and on T.V., I have her CDs– I believe in her. In the same way I am sure that most Jews, and Muslims and Buddhists can claim they believe in Jesus, in the sense that he was a historic person.  John 3:16 does not literally say more is required than to believe in “him,” it does not say more than that.

And if we believe in him what happens? You shall not perish. Have you ever met a Christian that is, or was, literally non-perishable? All the saints, Peter, Paul, Francis, Teresa, Mary and Joan and most popes and Christian theologians who have ever lived, have died and so have perished. Jerry Falwell died and perished. It is safe to say that literally every Christian who has passed away has literally perished.

If you don’t like that quibbling, let’s say that a non-perishable Christian means their souls live forever– they get eternal life. Okay. Fine. So now what does this famous verse say happens to non-believers? Does it say anywhere that they shall perish in some other way? No, it does not. Does it say they in any way forgo eternal life? No, it does not! It says God loves the world, it says some, those who believe in Christ get eternal life. Importantly it does not say those who don’t believe automatically don’t get eternal life. Nor does it say that they can’t otherwise find a way to eternal life; and it certainly does not say that non-believers are damned to hell.

John 3:16 literally does not pronounce Christians alone as saved– nor does it condemn others in the world. That famous verse held up at ball games and known far and wide on it’s own defeats the argument anyone who doesn’t believe is hell bound, because its plain meaning does not say that. That’s a judo flip. Plus best of all it’s a verse that says God loves the whole world, not just Christians.

Now you may be thinking – as I surmise some in seminary did– something like:“Oh come on all this fancy word play is smoke and mirrors. Anyone can isolate a verse and play around with it.” Well, my response is “Hey, I read it literally and did not add anything to it and it says what it says don’t blame me.” The judo flip is built-in.

And I’ll even dare to go to the next verse John 3:17. Make that I will dare anyone who reads John 3:16 as condemning the world, to go to John 3:17. Here is what that verse says in the NRSV: “For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.” The world is literally not condemned by God’s sending the Son, but rather through him it might be saved. No condemnation. None. The Son was literally only meant to be a way to save the world.

The word translated as “save” in Greek means to deliver or protect, to heal, preserve or make well. Jesus the Christ is a means, a gate, an access, an opening, a portal, in the universe through which the world can be protected and made whole. Now that’s my kind of salvation. Jesus is a blessing to the world not just to Christians.

Literally how could Jesus be a blessing to the world if his coming means those who don’t believe in him are condemned? How could God, whom we are told loves the whole world, have literally sent his Son “not to condemn the world” while at the same time causing the world to be condemned for not believing in him? This is not lawyer’s trick it is literally an impossibility. 1

I am running out of time but Verses 18 and 19 which I cut out of the Lectionary reading to make it easier on the children, go on to indicate that those who do not believe are in Greek “judged” and the judgment is that those who are deemed to have loved darkness rather than light are found to be evil, the Greek word for evil actually means hurtful, but, note that there is no mention of hell!

The Genesis 12 the verse I read at the invocation indicates that Abraham was sent to be a blessing not just to his family or the families of the Jewish people. We are told he was to be a blessing to all families. God did not send Abraham to the world to only work in favor of the Jews, or to condemn non-Jews. God used Abraham as vehicle through which all the world would be blessed. John 3:16 evidences that like Abraham, it is through Jesus that God is seeing to it that ALL families of the earth are also to be blessed. How? Through us. Jesus saves, protects and makes the world whole, not by our belief in him: but in our faithful actions through him. Our good deeds are Christ’s good deeds . . . are God’s good deeds.

We can go out in our community and do good. We are supposed to do that good stuff of everyday reality where salvation can come in the form of hands that help; feet that carry our neighbor’s load; ears that listen; mouths that speak care and comfort; or our otherwise being Christ’s presence in the moment for someone in trouble or in need.

Our belief in God’s begotten Son has led us as a community of faith to take up a number of holy tasks, like providing Hot meals for strangers, and the poor every Tuesday.

Our belief in God’s begotten Son has led is us to take up the holy task of offering support to the Winter Sanctuary to help provide a bed and shelter from the cold for those who might otherwise have no place to go.

Our belief in God’s begotten Son has led us to offer to sanctuary and a wide embrace of equality and love for those often cast off and shunned by the culture, even by other churches.

Our belief in God’s begotten Son has led us to endure ugly mean protests in the newspaper and on our church steps on the way to worship.

Our belief in God’s begotten Son has led us to join with others in creating the multi-church Youth Group that begins it’s meetings today.

Our belief in God’s begotten Son has led us to open our doors to interfaith care and compassion, with plans to host Zen Buddhist Community meetings

Our belief in God’s begotten Son has led us to create an interfaith day camp for children this summer to teach peace.

I’ve listed just a few things our belief in God’s begotten Son has led us to do.
We can so love the world that we give of ourselves to help save it. We can do that without considering ourselves, or our path to God better than others. We can love, we can follow Jesus and believe in Christ without condemning others.

Here’s the thing, I’m hoping we can remember. That today’s sermon was not really about skipping two years of law school, it was about seeing text anew, it’s about understanding that through Jesus we really are helping to save and transform existence in the here and now by doing our part as followers and believers in God’s begotten Son to help make the whole world better.

For God so loved the world he gave us Christ so that we might do just that; be love in the world. And through Christ we are called to take action to save the world and we are doing that in our own community.

If we remember nothing else, let us remember this: God did not send his Son to condemn the world but to save it. And our church through believers are going out to do just that! May we do it more and more! AMEN.

* This sermon was based in part on a sermon I wrote in 2008.
1. John 3:18 does assert that “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.”  “Believe” in these verses does not mean buying into doctrines, it means trusting in God incarnate, the word made flesh, which is what Christ means in the Gospel of John.  See, Borg, Marcus, Speaking Christian, p161-163. Moreover condemnation is not hell in this context. The judgement for those who do not trust God incarnate is as John 3:19-21 tell us:

19 that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 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.”