Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Weaponizing of John 3:16

Quick Quiz #1

Which of the following best describes your opinion of John 3:16?

A) It's my favorite verse! I have it tattooed on my buttock!
B) Meh. I can take or leave.
C) Excuse me for a moment: I just vomited a little in my mouth.

There is no right answer, of course. Believe it or not--no matter what your friends tell you--you are allowed to dislike John 3:16 and still be a Christian. Like Thin Mints, this verse of scripture is the favorite of 55% of Americans. (I just made that up.) But what about the rest of us? No, I'm not saying I'm fully in the "C" camp of involuntary puking, but the level of John 3:16 idolization in contemporary Christianity turns me off.

Maybe a more elucidative question is this: how do you hear John 3:16? Do you hear it as a statement of God's incredible and limitless love, or does it sound more like a prescription for salvation? In other words, where is the emphasis in your interpretation of the verse? Do you stress the gift of love God made in Jesus Christ, or do you emphasize the importance of belief in obtaining everlasting life?

Of course, it isn't that simple. All of us embrace both parts of the verse. But I hear a lot of people describe John 3:16 as "the gospel in miniature." I take that to mean that this one verse contains most (if not all) of what you need to know about the good news of Jesus Christ. That version of the gospel goes a little like this:

God loved the world.
God sent his son.
Those who believe in him get everlasting life.
Those who don't...well, they don't.

But, if that really is the whole gospel, why does Jesus keep talking? His explanation to Nicodemus isn't finished yet. As if to make sure that 21st-century Christians don't misinterpret 3:16, Jesus sticks the next verse right there in a place where it surely won't be ignored: "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." How might John 3:17 shift the way we hear the preceding verse?

Yes, there is condemnation. It comes in the rest of Sunday's gospel lesson (John 3:14-21). Jesus makes it clear that "those who do not believe are condemned already." But Jesus isn't in the condemning business. We are. It is we who condemn ourselves. But, if Jesus isn't one to condemn, then why do so many Christians use John 3:16 to condemn others?

Jesus said, "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." He did not say, " that everyone who believes what you believe may not perish..." What does it mean to believe in Jesus? I've got my answers to that question, and I hope you have yours. But we don't necessarily need to agree on exactly what that means. I can trust that the gracious, loving gift of Jesus--the one who came not to condemn but to save--is bigger and broader than I can imagine.

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