Maybe you’ve heard our gospel text for today before: “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.” If that doesn’t sound familiar, maybe you’ve heard the chapter and verse for it: John 3:16. This one of the most famous scripture passages in America. It decorates poster boards lifted up at football games. It’s plastered across billboards. Many people feel that this one sentence is a perfect encapsulation of their faith, and the faith they want other people to have.
Unfortunately, there is also a great deal in this sentence and in this passage from the Gospel of John to make us uncomfortable. The vocabulary alone is enough to make many progressive Christians squirm. Eternal Life? Salvation? Condemnation? Judgement? What do these words really mean?
We might also object to the dichotomies in this passage. Is the world really so clearly divided between believers and unbelievers, people who love light and people who love darkness, folks who are condemned and folks who are saved?
Even if we love the text itself, the way it is used in our culture is enough to make many of us push back. How could any one sentence of scripture measure if folks are correctly Christian? Would Jesus really want anyone to be harassed and bullied into belief?
Thankfully, this passage from the gospel of John was not written by or for American Christians in the 21st century. Considering the broader context from which it comes may help us to find something that is useful for our own lives of faith.
You may have noticed that this passage from John begins in an odd way. “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
In our first reading today, we remember the story of Moses lifting up the serpent in the wilderness. The people Israel are on their way out of slavery in Egypt. As it turns out, wilderness travel is not meeting their expectations. The Israelites complain to Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” Then God sends poisonous serpents among the people, and they realize that they haven’t been behaving very well. God says to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.”
Putting a poisonous serpent on a pole: this is a fascinating way of curing snakebite. Just in this way, the author of the gospel of John tells us, the Son of Man must be lifted up.
What might a glimpse of a crucified or resurrected Jesus, lifted up, cure us of? The Jewish people were suffering under Roman control. If they could see the poison of that system exposed, through the crucifixion of an innocent man, maybe that would break the power of that poison. While still colonized, they could become spiritually free: liberated to follow their own path.
Whatever our interpretation of this strange comparison, it connects the gospel with a larger story of faith, with a struggle for freedom, and with the destiny of a whole people. Maybe whatever is saving about Jesus isn’t for individuals to achieve, but communities to receive.
But so far we’ve only touched on that first sentence of the text. How can our understanding of this gospel passage be broadened by considering the context of the gospel we find it in?
John is different from our other three gospels in many ways. John’s Jesus does not spend much time healing in John, nor does he share many parables. Instead, this Jesus talks, at length, about the nature of the world and especially, about himself. This Jesus confronts his audience with claims that are both poetic and extreme. He is a provocateur, challenging those around him and the readers of this gospel to decide where we will stand.
This kind of all-or nothing approach reflects the situation of the people who produced this text.
John’s community was experiencing a painful separation from the mainstream Jewish community in the years when this text was written. So, being part of this movement was a high-stakes decision. Believing in Jesus meant putting yourself at odds with Jewish friends and family and synagogues. Romans were also suspicious of the Jesus movement. John’s gospel demands ultimate loyalty and correct belief not from a position of dominance, but from a position of relative powerlessness. Why would anyone undergo the difficulties of belonging to this group unless they believed it was the only possible way to discover religious truth, and experience spiritual liberation?
What does this text mean? “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 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.”
One other thing that we might miss, reading in English: the meaning of “so” in “For God so loved the world.” It doesn’t mean “so much.” A more accurate translation might be “in this way.” So, the sentence could read: “This is the way God loved the world, by giving his only Son.”
In other words, Jesus is a gift. I think this is something that perhaps John’s community, and the evangelical American Christian community, in its diversity, and we here this morning, in our diversity, might all agree on. Jesus is a gift. A gift that challenges us. A gift that changes the world. A gift that communicates God’s love for us.
In two weeks, we begin Holy Week: a roller coaster of a story about the end of Jesus’ life and the beginning of what we might call Christian faith. This Holy Week story, like this passage from John, may be awkward for us to deal with. It contains ideas that make us uncomfortable. It has high stakes. It is hard for us to translate from its original language context, and to apply to our daily lives.
I urge you still to receive Holy Week as a gift. Not as a proscription, or a demand, or a test, but as a gift. No matter where you are in your life, there is something in this wide week for your spirit. A place for confusion, and for celebration. A place for your deepest pain, and your deepest joy.
The complexity in our scriptures, and in our traditions, is part of what makes them valuable. A simple, easy, comfortable story could not possibly touch the deepest part of human experience or hope to honestly reveal the divine. So, friends, let us dive deep, and open up our hearts and our lives to the wonderful gifts God has offered us. May it be so.