Here’s my goal in this sermon. I want you to dislike John 3:16. You may have it memorized, or are familiar with it. Chances are good you’ve at least heard it, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
I’m not trying to get you to dislike it because I’m just mean (not too much anyway). But I want you to dislike it because the way that it is normally used is not only contrary to the message of John’s gospel, but to the entirety of the scriptural witness in Jesus. Far too often this text is used as a threat or a weapon (believe, or else!). John uses it as part of a call to action!
So really, my goal is not to make you dislike the verse, but dislike how it’s been used to convey a message that counters God’s mission in the world, counters the role of Jesus, and counters the call of the church.
Let’s take a step back and consider the gospel of John as a whole. The author was part of a small Jewish believers-in-Jesus that had been expelled from their local synagogue. They were being harassed and persecuted by their neighbors for continuing to push Jesus-as-Messiah. Regardless of how much they try to convince the majority group that Jesus is the one chosen by God, they continue to be harassed over it.
And, perhaps, some of that persecution is beginning to work. This gospel was written first of all to a small minority group of Jewish believers in order to encourage them to continue Jesus’ mission even though they are being persecuted for it. Their life witness of self-giving sacrifice is the way they reveal Jesus as Messiah, bringing light into a dark world. Following in the way of Jesus of Nazareth is their purpose as a group.
Like pretty much any verse, if we look at John 3:16 as an isolated verse, separated from the rest of John’s gospel, we’re gonna lose something, miss something, read something into it. And that’s exactly what has happened. We been taught in recent decades to put the emphasis on “everyone who believes” part. Meaning that if you, personally, believe that God sent Jesus to die on the cross as a sacrifice to atone for your sins, you’ve got yourself a bona fide ticket to heaven when you die. That is the last thing the author of this gospel ever intended. That thought never occurred to him.
He and his little community are facing all kinds of pressure to give up on following Jesus. In the midst of the daily persecution they are facing, they need encouragement to keep going if they are going to continue Jesus’ mission of being light in the darkness.
For this community, the author is saying, Jesus is lifted up, like the bronze serpent in the first reading, for healing. Not as a punishment for sin or anything else, but as a sign which provides healing and life. Jesus was given by God as a sign of God’s love for the world. Look on him and be renewed. See on the cross how far God’s love for the world actually goes. Let that love encourage you. See? God won’t give up. Keep trusting God whose loves for the whole world extends that far. That love is light in the darkness. The light has come into the world, and Jesus is the one chosen by God to shine that light.
If people understand the light of God’s love in the world, they will be drawn to Jesus. They will follow him and attempt to shine that same loving light. If they believe that light exposes darkness, that love drives out hate, that giving one’s self away defeats evil, they will come to the light that is Jesus.
But, the author writes, there are some who continue to believe that darkness doesn’t matter, or that it can’t be overcome, or maybe even that darkness is better. Those who believe that what hides in the darkness is tolerable won’t be drawn to the light of God’s love in Jesus. It’s not that they’re going to hell, it’s just that their opposition to you as disciples comes from a place of darkness, not light; a place that is hidden, not revealed; a place that won’t recognize Jesus as a sign of God’s loving light. Their persecution and opposition do not come from God’s love and therefore can’t rid the world of evil. Only love can do that. Jesus is the ultimate sign of that love. Keep believing that. Keep living that. Keep shining that light. Let the world see your acts of love.
John 3:16 is but one verse of a much larger piece that is a radical call to action. Believing in Jesus means trusting in God’s love as the response to evil. Believing in Jesus means trusting God’s love revealed in him so much that you are willing to follow the biggest sign of its presence—Jesus himself. “Everyone who believes in him” includes all those who will not hide in the darkness, but will give of themselves in love for the world.
That call to radical, loving action is still given in John. There are still those who love the darkness and hate the light. There are still those who do evil and keep their deeds hidden. But that is not the way of God. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son—not to condemn the world, but to save it. And you who recognize that, who believe that only love casts out evil, you will be the ones to overcome the evil of the world by loving the world. Jesus shows us the way. Jesus shines that light. Keep believing that. Keep loving with God’s far-reaching love. Keep on doing it in the face of persecution and harassment. Keep showing the world Jesus, who shows us what God’s love looks like. Because that’s where life is to be found.
God loves the world. Jesus shows how great that love is. Trust that. Believe that. Follow that. And shine that in the world. That is life in Jesus. That is life in God’s love. And that love never ends.