Rev. Peter Faass
At this past week’s Wednesday morning Bible Study, Mark Biggerman reminded me that when I previously preached this particular gospel passage, I held up a sign that read, “John 3:16.” That was six years ago.
You’re familiar with this sign, right? It’s almost impossible to watch a professional football game without spotting at least one of these being held up by a fan in the stands. The verse referred to is the one we heard just a moment ago:
“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.”
John 3:16 is one of the most well-known Bible verses and simultaneously one of the most destructive. Right wing Christians (those holding those placards at sporting events and concerts) define this passage to assert exclusion rather than inclusion to God’s abundant love. These folks say, “If you don’t believe in Jesus exactly as I do, then you are not saved. If you’re not saved, well, get used to a lot of relentless fire and brimstone in the hereafter.”
This use of John 3:16 shows you can’t cherry-pick scripture and use it out of context without rendering great harm. We need to put this verse back into its context. Verse 3:17 follows, stating, “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.”
Jesus came to save the world not to condemn it. Yet, the claim that right wing evangelical Christians make of John 3:16 being a litmus test for religious purity while ignoring John 3:17 and other verses that follow it, allows them to justify damnation for many. Disregarding 3:17’s message that God desires to be in relationship with all people, 3:16 has become a bludgeon in the arsenal used to fight the battle for a theology of salvation that is foreign to John’s Gospel and to the Jesus of the Gospels.
Yes, God will save you, but only if you believe in my right wing, evangelical-dogma Jesus. All the rest of us folks, Christian and otherwise, are, to quote a local evangelical pastor, “dangerous and deluded.” Read between the lines: this means going to hell.
Statements calling others “dangerous and deluded” or condemning people to hell portray a God alien to Jesus’ message. These statements are also alien to John’s assertion that Jesus did not come to condemn the world. The certainties about salvation that these folks proclaim come from claims about God that do not reflect the God we know in Jesus.
The assertion in John 3:16 that God loves the world is not some theory for salvation that can be parsed: God loves the world . . . except those people I don’t like and who I want to condemn.
God loves the world is specific, not ambiguous. God loves the entire world.
- God loves a Samaritan woman.
- God loves the rich young man who could not heed Jesus’ advice.
- God loves a man paralyzed his entire life.
- God loves the Syrophoenician woman who had more faith than the disciples.
- God loves a man blind from birth, even though theology believed either he or his parents were sinners.
- God loves Jesus’ friend dead in the tomb for three days.
- God loves lepers and people possessed by demonic illnesses.
- God loves children.
- God loves Peter, who will deny him three times in his most perilous hour.
- God loves those who scourged and crucified his son.
When we are told God loves the world, we are called to do likewise. We do so by striving to emulate Jesus’ behavior in our lives. This entails radical love and hospitality offered through the care and compassion for the least among us, companionship with all God’s children, and loving one another as we have been loved.
When we read John 3:16, we should understand it as saying this: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him and loves other as Jesus loved them will not perish but have eternal life.”
To love as Jesus loved means that we can never look at any human being and place them in a “God doesn’t love them” category because such a category does not exist except in the minds of severely misguided people. Yet, we still have this great divide between the Jesus of the Gospels and the Jesus created by right-wing evangelicals.
Polls consistently reveal what social scientists have known for a long time: White, conservative, evangelical Christians are least likely to support politicians and policies that reflect the actual teachings of Jesus. It is a dumbfounding irony. Conservative evangelical Christians, who most fiercely proclaim to have a personal relationship with Jesus, are the very people who are most likely to reject his teachings and despise his radical message of love. This is why we have a federal government waging an all-out assault on the lives of so many vulnerable, marginalized, unloved people in our society.
Jesus unambiguously preached mercy and forgiveness, cardinal virtues of the Christian faith.
- And yet right wing Christians are the most supportive of the death penalty, draconian sentencing, punitive punishment over rehabilitation, and the use of torture.
- And yet conservative Christians support easy access to weaponry and little-to-no regulations for gun ownership.
Jesus proclaimed the slavish pursuit of wealth is contrary to the Kingdom of God . . . and that to be a follower of Him means to give generously of one's money to the poor.
- And yet rightwing Christians are supportive of corporate greed and capitalistic excess, and are often opposed to institutional help for the nation's poor -- especially poor children.
Right wing Christians loath any policy that they think is "socialism," even though socialism is essentially what Jesus preached. They despise food stamp programs, support for struggling schools, job training - anything that might dare to help out those in need, even though helping those in need was exactly what Jesus commanded us to do.
This group loathes Obamacare even though it provides essential medical coverage to millions of poor people. They supported politicians who pledged to repeal it, until they discovered that the Affordable Care Act is the same thing - and repealing it would deny themselves health insurance.
You can’t claim to follow Jesus if these are your values.
Why do I tell you this? Well, I believe that everything I hold of value as a human being and as a Christian is under assault today. I tell you this because I want us to hear Jesus’ voice over and against the forces that lead this assault on authentic Christian values. I want that voice to propel us to action.
I want us to raise our voices for:
- Immigrants who fear deportation and having their families rent asunder.
- Our Transgender sisters and brothers being singled out as criminals.
- People whose race is other than white.
- Native Americans whose sacred lands are in danger of being defiled.
- Those who will suffer and die because their health insurance is being threatened.
- Women who suffer from the prejudice of male dominance and misogyny.
- Our Jewish brothers and sisters, hated for their loyalty to the God of Israel, our God.
- Our Muslim brothers and sisters, vilified for devotion and obedience to Allah, our God.
- This fragile earth, our island home, which is dying because of our wanton neglect to be faithful stewards.
I tell you this because recognizing our common humanity with all these peoples, and the earth we share as our home, compels us to understand the sacredness of our being made in the image of a loving God. I tell you this because I believe following the way and the truth of Jesus gives life itself. All this compels me to protect all that is sacred, holy and beautiful in this world. Most importantly, I tell you this because I want you to understand what it truly means when we are told that God loved the world so much he gave us Jesus and his love.
The next time we see someone holding a placard that reads John 3:16, remember John 3:17: “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
That is the way, the truth and the life of Jesus. Now let’s live it ourselves.