Jesus Comes for Life! Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines

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Read John 3:14-21

Almost every extra point in American football is kicked toward a sign in the crowd that reads “John 3:16.” Even if most viewers no longer know the words of the verse, they know it matters to Christians.

I wish someone would hold up a sign that says “John 3:17.” Alert viewers might notice the difference. The curious might even Google the text to see what it says. I think they might be surprised by what they find.

Indeed,” John writes, “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Even the clunky NRSV translation makes the point clear.

Jesus comes for life!

This is not the message our curious football fans hear in popular culture – or in most Christian churches in America. What they hear is that God punishes. Obey the rules or get punished. Assent to certain propositions or get punished. Stop asking questions or get punished. Vote in a particular way or get punished.

Even the more popular forms of culture Christianity are just the mirror image of this punishing God. If you do the right things, believe the right things, vote the right way – then God will reward you with health and wealth, with peace and privilege, with straight teeth and thick hair. If you obey, then God will give you your best life now.

Of course, if you are struggling, that must be your fault.

People who see the John 3:16 signs have been conditioned to expect the God who Punishes. The Christian message seems to be that the beatings will continue until morale improves.

But that can’t be right!

Jesus comes for life!

Even the beloved verse on the signs is experienced as much more stick than carrot. “For God so loved the world that God gave the only Son…” So far, so good. Then comes the hammer – “so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.

The second half of the verse is like an iron fist inside a velvet glove. People read the reverse of the verse and shudder. Those who don’t believe in Jesus will perish, they read, and have eternal death. People aren’t making this crap up. That’s what they hear from lots of American “Christians.”

So much for the verse Martin Luther called “the gospel in miniature.”

But that can’t be right!

Jesus comes for life!

Perhaps we ought to spend some time on the verse most Christians think they know. If you want the full scoop, you can read sixteen hundred words in last Monday’s post on how to translate John 3:16. Otherwise, I’ll give you the executive summary.

God so loved…” The word translated as “so” doesn’t mean “so much.” John writes about the method of God’s love, not the intensity. That love is the self-giving, other-regarding love which reveals God’s very heart. This is the love which wants nothing for self and everything for the Other.

God loved the world in this way…The “world” to which John points is the cosmos, all of Creation – from quarks to galaxy clusters and everything in between. God’s love is cosmic in scope and depth.

The way God loved the cosmos is by giving. This is the fundamental character of God. God is the Giver. We can speculate about all the divine “omni’s” – omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient. But that’s not where Christian scripture focuses. God is the Giver – for free, without expectation or condition, fully.

God loved the world in this way: God gave the Only Son… This isn’t Jesus’ genealogy. This isn’t a story about the inner workings of the Trinity. This is a testimony to God’s gift. In John 1:18 we read, “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made [God] known.” God gives God’s very heart for the life of the world.

Jesus comes for life!

Now we are thirteen words into the Greek rendering of this verse – halfway home! Why did God do this? God gave “in order that.” God gave God’s own heart to make it possible for each and every member of the cosmos to embrace the gift of God’s love. Yes, I trust that’s God’s desire to give life is universal. I trust that because that’s what Christian scripture says.

In the second half of John 3:16, things sound a bit iffy. There’s this talk about “may not perish” and “may have eternal life” in the NRSV translation. It could sound like there’s some doubt about God’s love. The grammar here doesn’t indicate doubt. Instead, it simply means that the action hasn’t yet been completed.

God’s gift of God’s loving heart to the whole cosmos is accomplished in Jesus. The response to that gift is not completed but continues. The cosmos is not yet saved but is indeed in the process of being saved.

That’s true for me each and every day. As Bishop Kallistos Ware has often said, “I can’t say that I have been saved. But I can say that I am being saved each and every day.” The details of that “saving” will get more attention next week. So, stay tuned for that.

Jesus comes for life!

The opposite of being saved appears to be “perishing.” But that’s not a helpful translation. The opposite of being saved is being “lost.” In fact, that’s the term Martin Luther uses in his translation of the New Testament. The word can mean “lost” in the way that a sunken ship is lost at sea. But it can also mean “not yet found,” as in the way a wandering lamb is separated from a flock.

That seems to fit much more with the Jesus we meet in the Christian scriptures. “The Son of Man came,” we read in Luke 19:10, “to seek out and to save the lost.” Luke uses the same word for “lost” that shows up in John 3:16 as “perish.” Jesus comes so the lost may be found.

This is how Jesus defines his own faithfulness in John 17. In John, the disciples are a microcosm of the faith community to come. “I guarded them,” Jesus prays in verse twelve, “and not one of them was lost except the ‘son of lostness’ so that the scripture would be fulfilled.” On the one hand, Jesus guards his little flock. On the other hand, the son of lostness (Judas) walked away into a deeper darkness.

Perhaps I’ll address the mystery of human rebellion, embodied in Judas, another time. But I hope my point is clear.

Jesus comes for life!

Perhaps now we can read John 3:16 in the life-giving, good news, way it was written. Here’s my feeble attempt at a translation.

“So, you see, God unconditionally loved the cosmos in this way – God gave the Only-begotten Son, with the actual (but unexpected) result that everyone who continues to actively trust in him might not be lost but rather might have life that does not end.”

I know it doesn’t trip lightly off the tongue in the way we expect. If, however, we want to use this verse as the “gospel in miniature,” we ought to know what it actually says.

Jesus comes to give life to the lost…and to keep on giving life to the lost…and to give life to the lost some more. If that’s what you hear from a Christian, from some preacher, from a church service online – well, that’s the Good News of Jesus Christ!

If the message you hear is that the beatings will continue until morale improves, then run in the other direction as fast as you can! That’s not the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Jesus comes for life!

Now, what about John 3:17 – the verse I would rather have on those end zone signs? As a result of this Good News of Jesus Christ, we Christians know that God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world but rather that the world might be saved through him. Anyone who uses the Christian faith to judge and condemn people has gotten it wrong.

The NRSV translation struggles with a Greek word group here. From this word group we get the English word “crisis.” The NRSV gives us “condemn” and “judgment” as translations from this word group. But that’s not helpful. We like judging and condemning other people far too much for these translations to do us much good.

“Distrust all in whom the impulse to punish is powerful,” Friedrich Nietzsche wrote in 1885. We love hierarchies. We love to be “better than” someone else in order to feel good enough as we are. We love to penalize those who are different, often simply for being different. In the headlines today, for example, are instances of laws that make “walking while trans” a crime.

Oh, how we love to punish those who make us uncomfortable!

Jesus doesn’t come in order to penalize difference. He doesn’t come to punish those who make us uncomfortable. Instead, he comes to challenge our desire to do that. He comes to overturn systems that abuse and exploit. Perhaps you remember the Temple Incident from last week?

Jesus doesn’t come to judge or condemn. We can do that quite well enough on our own. Jesus comes to provoke a crisis that will expose the powers of sin, death, and the devil. Jesus comes to provoke a crisis with the human faces of those powers – corruption, violence, and empire. Jesus comes to judge…judgment itself! Jesus comes to provoke a crisis that tramples down death by death and opens a path to life – abundant life!

He comes to offer the whole cosmos the invitation to trust in God the Giver. That’s what it means to “believe” here in John’s gospel.

“Believing” isn’t some kind of intellectual assent to a checklist of doctrines. “Believing” isn’t some kind of behavioral to-do (or to-not-do) counsel of perfection. “Believing” isn’t some kind of imperialist, colonialist, hierarchy that rewards us by penalizing those “below” us.

“Believing” certainly isn’t something we can control or contain. It’s not something we can define or determine. The Spirit blows where it wants to blow, Jesus says. Don’t be surprised if it shows up where you least expect it. And stop trying to put limits on how that Wind of God works.

“Believing” is our halting, day-by-day response to God’s offer of abundant life. Next week, we’ll talk more about the shape of that life and how it works out for us.

Jesus comes for life – abundant life! If you get a chance, maybe you want to make a new Bible verse sign to hold up for people to see…

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