May I speak in the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – Amen.
My friend Luci has a problem.
She finds herself using words to mean
The exact opposite
Of their actual meaning.
She’s not off by a little bit.
She’s 180 degrees in the wrong direction.
She uses the word levity – humour, lightness, laughter,
When she means gravity – weight, importance, dignity.
She uses the word dearth, which means scarcity,
To signify abundance.
For whatever reason,
Most people seem content to let her languish in her misapprehension –
I don’t know if they don’t want to be rude,
Or if they aren’t that confident themselves that they understand these words –
But she’ll go for years using them incorrectly until someone,
Usually her mom,
Lets her know.
As is common among folks who’ve held wrong beliefs for some time,
She doesn’t immediately accept this correction.
No, she digs in her heels,
Until provided with incontrovertible proof
That she’s been using these words wrong.
I thought about my friend Luci this week
As I looked at John’s Gospel.
We all know this verse, right?
The most famous verse
Of all the famous verses
John 3:16 is what we see splashed on placards at baseball games
In Twitter bios.
As Lutheran pastor John Stevens says,
The Gospel in miniature.
It sums up the whole of our faith:
“God so loved the world
That he gave his only Son,
So that everyone who believes in him
May not perish
But have eternal life.”
The world that he gave us
His only Son
His very self
So that EVERYONE who believes in him
May not perish
But have eternal life.
What an extraordinary truth.
What an incredible gift.
God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – let’s be clear
That we are talking about the whole Trinity here, not just the Father –
God so loved us.
Who have stoned and murdered the prophets who came before.
Who have consistently turned away from the Law God has given us
To show us how to live in a just and merciful society.
Who have chosen self and greed
Over God and love every time
Still loved us
That he was willing to die on a cross
To pay the price it would take
To bear the cost himself
Instead of putting it on us
To serve as a ransom
So that everyone who believes in him –
The traditional translation here is a bad one, it would be better to say
Trusts him –
May not perish, but have eternal life.
This is Good News!
The kind of news no other God on the block
Was promising in those days – or, really, in any days.
The idols of the world promise us many things:
But no one ever has or ever could
Promise eternal life
Not because we’ve earned it,
But because we trust Jesus.
This is the heart of the Gospel,
Our sure and certain hope.
Too many people have seemed to use this verse, in my experience,
To mean its exact opposite.
When I see a poster with John 3:16 written on it,
I don’t think of God’s lifegiving grace,
I think of the protestors outside the abortion clinic I walked past in Connecticut,
Shouting at the women walking in
(And, often, women walking past like me)
Words of judgment and condemnation.
When someone puts this verse in their Twitter bio
I don’t expect them to recognize me
As their fellow sinner given redemption by Jesus
I expect them to send threatening tweets
Calling me names
Because I am an ordained woman.
This extraordinary verse
That conveys God’s unconditional love and devotion
Even to a people who have rejected him over and over
Has been so twisted to mean
The opposite of its actual meaning.
And just like my friend Luci,
When I tell them they’re interpreting it incorrectly,
They don’t respond very well.
They dig in their heels.
They focus on the part that hasn’t been translated into English well,
Declaring that the important bit is the believing in Jesus part,
Not the God so loving the world part.
Responding to this extraordinary evidence of God’s love
With further exclusion
And cordoning off themselves as somehow better
Than the rest of the world that God loves.
But we can’t do that.
Because if we keep reading,
We hear Jesus continue:
“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.”
Jesus is very, very clear.
God condemns the darkness,
And the deeds practiced in darkness
Because people knew they were evil.
But God does not condemn the world.
God LOVES the world.
So that the world might be saved.
We who follow him
Are called to love that world
That messy, sinful, broken world,
Full of people practicing evil deeds,
Stoning the prophets
And breaking the Law
As much as God does.
It will be costly to do so.
It cost Jesus his life.
But Jesus was willing to pay that price
To not condemn the world.
To not set up barriers of exclusivity
Around who is righteous
And who is not.
Instead, he gathered up all of us
The whole world
And declared that through him
That world shall be saved.
When we twist this Gospel,
When we use it condemn rather than to save,
We are not loving the world
As God did.
And so today I am reclaiming this verse.
I am putting those who would use it to condemn God’s beloved on notice
And telling them to back off.
Because whatever meaning they think it has is wrong.
They don’t get to take the heart of the Gospel from us
And use it to hurt instead of to heal.
God so loved the world
And through his grace
Because of this first love he had toward us
So will we.