4th Sunday in Lent (B)
I think I’ve figured out why the gospel of John is sooo not my favorite: there’s so much in it that it’s overwhelming. I prefer gospel writers that take a whole lot of verses to make one point, not take one verse to make a whole lot of points. John is deep, thick, rich, multi-faceted, and operates on several levels at the same time. Sometimes I feel like I’m drowning in this gospel. You just can’t read it quickly or superficially. If you think you understand the gospel of John, take a step back and look again. Because chances are you’re missing multiple layers that God can open up for you.
Which is why I’ve never been impressed by the “John 3:16” craze, which is one of the verses in this text. To take one verse out of John reduce it to a single, shallow, sometimes judgmental rallying cry not only does a tremendous disservice to the complexity of this gospel, but misses almost every layer of what John is conveying here. This isn’t a verse about trying to get people to believe in Jesus; and it’s especially not a verse threatening them if they don’t. It’s a verse that fits into a whole gospel, rich in its own context and overflowing in abundant grace. What was a word of hope and life for John’s little church overrun by Rome can quickly become a word of condemnation in our world where Christianity has long been a dominant institution.
But that’s not the part I’ve been wrestling with. We get so hooked on John 3:16 that we often miss the rest of this section. Verse 18 is the splinter in the bannister for me. 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.
“Those who do not believe are condemned already.” Seems harsh, doesn’t it? I think there are assumptions we make here that are simply too shallow for the gospel of John.
We have to understand that John’s little community was insignificant in its neighborhood. So the author making contrasts between those who believed and those who didn’t had very few consequences because it wasn’t a statement of power. But today, Christianity has been the dominant religion for centuries. From that position of power, we have used these words in John to exclude people, judge them, and coerce them.
John was attempting to encourage his overlooked little community to be faithful, to keep at it, to persevere in the face of overwhelming persecution. There is life eternal with Jesus, so hang in there. Don’t allow yourself to fall prey to the darkness. Don’t let yourselves be separated from the community of faith. What was meant as encouragement for those inside the church has in our day become a word of judgment against those outside of it.
Here’s what concerns me about all this today: that we have settled for a superficial interpretation of this verse, and believe our own hype that we are on the inside track in God’s favor because we believe. If that’s not bad enough, I’m afraid those outside the church have only heard our shallow interpretation of this verse, and based on centuries of church power, have further reason to stay away from the church and the light of Jesus.
If we are to live out the gospel, we owe it to the world to dig a little bit deeper in order to be authentic to this text. We can’t afford to a shallow voice of condemnation and judgment. If the gospel message of forgiveness, love, compassion, and generosity is to be lived by us, we can’t let a superficial understanding of one or two verses get in our way.
What John means as inspiration to those inside the church, we cannot use as judgment of those outside the church. You may has a little bit of an image problem around being judgmental.
In the face of a world power that was focused on destroying them, John encourages his tiny little church to hold on to their faith, to continue to trust in the death and resurrection of Jesus, to band together as believers without giving up hope. We can’t be true to this text when we make it nothing more than a benchmark of who’s in and who’s out.
Instead, John’s message of trust and encouragement is still for us. When faced with insurmountable odds, we encourage one another to continue to trust in the One who brings life out of death. I have a friend whose husband just died of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). What astonishes me about her journey through his diagnosis, deterioration, and ultimately his death is that she continued to trust in the promises of the God of life. This isn’t because she’s so much more faithful than I would probably be, but because she, like John’s little church community, banded together with people of faith and clung to them. For her, these verses in John are not a relief that her husband was “inside,” believing in Jesus and therefore not condemned. Rather these verses are an encouragement that even in the face of death, when all else is falling away, the light of Jesus continues to shine brightly. And she can trust that. It is for her; it is for her husband; it is for us.
Our witness isn’t judgment of those outside the church. No, our witness is that no matter what we face, no matter how difficult or painful or shameful, the light of Jesus shines in truth and in life. As we encourage one another with the light of Christ, we are then a witness to the world—not in judgment, but in truth and love.
Don’t settle for judgment and condemnation. Seek the light of Christ, the truth of God’s love. For part of this text also includes verse 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. That is our witness. That’s what the world needs to hear. That’s what they need to see in us. Because that’s what we trust God has done for us.