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Lent 4B  2012

Please, Can we have our Gospel back?
(John 3:14-21)

by Elisabeth R. Jones

 
If there’s one Bible verse that stands out in the English speaking world as the most well-known, it is John 3:16.
Drive a US highway and you’ll see it on a billboard.
Turn on a TV for a major American sporting event and you’ll see young and old waving placards with it behind the pitcher’s mound or between the goal posts. Footballer John Tebow famously painted it on his cheeks for the Superbowl.

It’s assumed that you know what “John 3:16” is, and many of us do: it’s been a staple of Bible memorization in Sunday and public schools of an earlier generation, choristers have been weaned on Stainer’s unforgettable version (heard this morning):
For God so loved the world
that He gave his only begotten Son
that whosoever believeth in him
should not perish but have everlasting life (KJV)

This one verse has been called “the Gospel in a nutshell” 1 a problematic claim if ever there was one, because in this post 9/11 21st century, this single verse has become the flag marking a widening tectonic fault-line within the Christian faith. For some, many in fact, within born-again and evangelical Christian circles the verse is the ultimate litmus test: by its formula it separates – and saves – those who “believe in him” from those who, not believing, will perish.

There are many who would have you believe that this is precisely and only what this text means.
Trouble is, it doesn’t “only” or “precisely” mean this.
Scripture never does mean only one precise thing, but at its liveliest, most life-giving, Scripture cannot be contained to one, precise, literal meaning. Which is the first problem with this text. If somehow, you don’t believe this, or feel yourself excluded by this litmus test interpretation, is it really “Gospel” or “Good News” for you (us?)

The second problem is that when you take as ‘literal’ or ‘precise’ or singular in meaning not just the original Greek, but a 17th century English translation thereof, you’re skating on very thin ice.

I’m not going to go into all the examples here – I’ve done that on the blog, but to give you just one example:
When in 1611 the KJV translated the opening phrase as ‘God so loved the world’ it didn’t then mean – as it does now – God loved the world “SOOOOOOO much” but rather “God loved the world in this way.”
Now that opens up a whole host of possibilities, not just one.

Similar issues arise with the word “gave,” and “believe,” but let’s not get sidetracked.

Instead let’s get to the third problem with this text, the big elephant in the room.
“God loved so much that” …… what? God is prepared to have his (yes his) son sacrificed for your sins, so that you won’t perish, or be condemned.

Errm, did you see sins in this text?
or even the substitution of this son on a cross for those sins?
No, I don’t either. It’s not there. It’s read into this verse so often, so completely, and it’s what’s intended when you see those highway signs, and sports arena placards, but it’s not there. But tell that to the placard wavers. We’d be forgiven for saying, “If that’s the so-called Gospel of this text, you can keep it.”

But darn it, it’s not, and I want the Gospel of this text back!
Now, it’s not an easy text, it’s elusive and problematic at a number of places, not the least being the Gospel writer John’s suspicion of the “world outside” born out of his context within a tiny persecuted community, which creeps in around the edges of the central message of Jesus he is commissioned to portray.

As Bill encouraged us, (in the reading) if we want to get our Gospel back, let’s listen to it fresh, as if we’d never seen a placard. The way John tells this story, Jesus is speaking to a Pharisee, Nicodemus, one who knew the law of God inside out, and wanted to know what Jesus was doing with it that was causing such a stir in the Jewish hinterland of Galilee, and now, Jerusalem.

And this billboard verse was part of his lengthy answer:
I’d like to paraphrase expansively, to see what happens.
“Nicodemus,” he says, “God is Love. That’s what it all boils down to. The Good News in a nutshell is that God loves this crazy world, warts and all. And this is the way we know God loves this world:
God’s expansive Love is what formed a universe of beauty,
God’s love is what birthed a nation from Abraham and Sarah,
God’s love was strong enough to rescue those people from slavery,
God’s loving justice is what caused God to teach the people how to live justly and generously
with one another and the world through the teachings of the Torah, and of the prophets.
God’s love was stronger than condemnation, stronger than justice, stronger than divisions.
We know because God kept faith with faithless people throughout exile, failures, occupation, chaos and trouble.”

“Nicodemus, God loves the world this way, by God becoming familiar – literally – becoming family with the world through the gift (note, gift) of a son.
God loving the world enough to become as inextricably, intimately, irrevocably connected with the world to become dust and flesh with it, in all its painful, crazy, wonderful beauty.
To see footsteps on the sand is to see God’s walk in the world, to feel a healing touch, to see tears in the eyes of compassion, to hear words of timeless truth, is to know that God loves the world this way.

“So, God so loved the world that God gives this flesh and blood child of the earth and of God
so that……”
Is this where it gets tricky again?
“….Whosoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.”
What does this mean? Well, if God’s love is as we’ve just described,
then this can possibly mean:
To those who see Divinity in flesh and bone, bud and flower, skylark, and science, breath, and even death, for them this world takes on a fullness, a completeness that is as if time itself is filled to the brim with an instant.

“Sure, there are those who can’t or won’t.”
Says Jesus to Nicodemus – poetic he might be, but he was also real.
“Some prefer to think the world is all theirs, that God has no part of it, and that sort of worldview ends up being pretty bleak, dark. But seeing God in the world, loving it, with healing, with wisdom, with justice, now that’s life and light eternal!”

This is the Gospel I’d like to take back from within the heart of this text.
Because that Gospel is one worth living for.

Can you imagine what would happen if we Christians, of all stripes, questioning and certain, evangelical and liberal, fundamentalist and progressive, and even those who are not even sure they want the name “Christian” any more, were to see God in love with every corner of this beloved creation, and were to invite all creatures into fullness of life as God lives it and loves it?

Can you dare to dream of a world where this Gospel is let loose? A Gospel – life where we exclude none, because they are inconvenient, or the wrong species, or colour, or sexual orientation, or age, or faith, or religion?

I do, I do dare to dream that.
I spend my prayers and my living dreaming just that, working for it. And for this reason, I want this Gospel back.
For me, for us, for my children, for all children, for all of us, for God’s sake.
Let’s take this Gospel back, and live it, shall we?

Amen.

 

© Elisabeth R. Jones March 2012


1See Carl Gregg’s lengthy critique of this ‘Gospel in a nutshell’ at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlgregg/2012/03/lectionary-commentary-john-316-the-rest-of-the-story-for-sunday-march-18-2012/)

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