This morning’s Scripture is well-known. It brings with it some familiar images and what is perhaps the best-known Bible verse. John 3:16 is right up there with the 23rdPsalm. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him, might not perish, but have eternal life.” (You know, I didn’t even know that I had that Bible verse memorized until this week, when I was working on this sermon, and it was just there.) We know John 3:16 from church, and we know it from those signs that people hold up at baseball games. You’ll find plenty of options if you Google John 3:16 t-shirts, or John 3:16 coffee mugs, or even John 3:16 tattoos.
And this Scripture also brings with it what has become a well-known, and well-invoked image – this image of being “born again.”
Having become such a part of our public consciousness, this Scripture also comes with a good bit of cultural and religious baggage. This phrase “born again.” A few years back it became part of and was co-opted by a particular brand of American Christianity. It actually became a brand– the “born-again Christian” – a marker for inclusion – and for exclusion. It became part of a theology that was used to set up categories that separate out – that include some, and that exclude others. Either you are born again – or you’re not. Either you are in – or you are out. Either you are within the embrace of God’s eternal love – or you’re not.
And adding to that baggage – this image became attached to a popularized American theology that is fairly dominant in this country. I’ve talked about that here before – I think a couple years ago. It’s a popularized theology that’s based on heaven and hell, and this sense that good people go to heaven, and bad people go to hell. Think about it. When you see Christianity portrayed on TV or in popular culture – isn’t that a big part of it?
And then all that gets attached to an image of God as enforcer of this system – a God who is willing to have some folks go to the Good Place, and some to go to eternal punishment. In our daily life, then, we start to image this God – who is waiting around every corner, to catch us doing wrong, making a list, and checking it twice, but for very scary reasons.
Now, to be clear: Presbyterians do not believe that. That imaging of God is works-based – as if what we do or do not do determines God’s love for us. We don’t believe that. It ignores entirely the life-giving and life -assuring concept of God’s graceas embodied in Jesus Christ that is one of the cornerstones of our faith. But it’s there, in the popular culture, and in some brands of Christianity – this image of God as a wrathful, punitive God. And it comes along, unfortunately, as part of the baggage that accompanies this well-known Scripture. And we don’t just need to unpack that baggage. We need to leave it behind.
There’s this family of writers – the Lin Family – and what they say is that we need to “heal our image of God.” You see,
· if we claim that we are created in the image of God,
· and then we image God as punitive,
· we then start to become – to create ourselves – in that image – in the image of a punitive, capricious, and conditional God.
We become like the God we image.
My friend, Carol Howard Merritt, has described how all that plays itself out in her book, “Healing Spiritual Wounds.”Carol and I both have evangelical roots that are part of the path we have traveled to a progressive, inclusive understanding of Jesus. In her book, Carol describes how this image of a punitive God – how the church made in this image – has wounded and excluded so many folks. Now, I do want to say that there are parts of my evangelical roots for which I am deeply grateful – that is where I first encountered Jesus, and where I came to love Scripture. AND, I come from a community excluded by this brand of Christianity – LGBTQIA+ people and our families. Carol names us as one example of those who have been harmed, and then she describes her own experience of how this image of a punitive God has reinforced patriarchal structures that have worked to keep women like her “in their place,” and how it has protected people within the church who have harmed others in the name of Jesus. I have the scars, and maybe you do too.
If we are going to talk about healing – all the ways that God is moving us and the world toward wholeness– we’ve got to first make sure – before we do anything else – that we’ve got the right God– the right image of God. We may have to collectively heal our image of God, as a part of our path to experiencing the fullness of who God really is, and how much God really loves us, and how much God absolutely longs for our well-being.
So let’s take all this baggage – now that we’ve named it – and set it over here for a moment – and turn fresh to this beloved passage of Scripture – and look there – for a healing Word.
This is the story of Nicodemus. Nicodemus is a Pharisee – a leader in his faith community – who comes to Jesus in the night. Nicodemus knows and is embedded in the traditions of his community, and, and, in his first experiences of Jesus, he has seen something of God. So, he comes to Jesus in the night, and says, “We’ve seen your signs, and we know that you are a teacher who comes from God.” And then Jesus starts talking about being born from above – or as Nicodemus hears it, born again – and we have this back and forth.
But let’s come back to that. Let’s go right to the heart of the matter – John 3:16 – and work our way back. Now that we’ve put all that baggage over here, let’s look at what John 3:16 really says.
And the first thing we notice is that it begins with God’s love – God’s love for the whole world: “For God so loved the world.” This is not an exclusionary text. Throughout the Gospel of John, “the world” is not going to be particularly friendly to Jesus – and even so – all this begins with God’s love for the world. Everything we have to say about God and about Jesus begins and ends with God’s love for the whole world.
“For God so loved the world, that God gave God’s only son.” Now, this is the part that can get caught up in troubling notions of sacrifice – a vengeful God giving his son as a sacrifice for sin – you may have heard that before – but there’s nothing about that here. God gives. God’s presence in our midst in God’s son in Jesus – the Word made flesh in the midst of us – is a gift. God approaches us in Jesus. Out of God’s love for the world, this gift.
“So that whosoever believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” Now here’s where that popularized theology can get us off track. We hear “eternal life,” and we may jump straight to that paradigm of what happens to us when we die – some future reality or consequence. “Eternal life” as “after-life.” But that’s not what “eternal life” is in the Gospel of John. In the Gospel of John, “eternal life” is about life right now. It’s about entering into a quality of life – a new experience of life – life where the presence of this loving God changes everything – right here and right now.
And to “believe” isn’t just to nod your head or to say some words so as to be “born again.” It’s to trust. One scholar points out that in the Greek it’s really to “believe into” – to “believe towards” – to move towards God with our whole selves. God moves towards us, with this gift of Jesus Christ – with the invitation that we move toward God – because God so loves the world.
And if there’s any question lingering about that punitive image of God, verse 17 affirms God did not send Jesus to condemn the world, “but so that the world could be saved through him” – so that the world might be healed and made whole through him.
One writer in talking about how this is Good News – said, you know, we already live in a Bad News world – a bad-news world, an angry-news world, scary-news world. This Scripture isn’t bringing more bad news. It’s bringing Good News – life-giving news – world-healing news --
So let’s bring all that back into this conversation that Nicodemus has with Jesus. Nicodemus brings what he thinks he knows about God – he brings this glimpse – that he can’t quite understand – of what he’s seen in Jesus. And Jesus answers with more life than Nicodemus can comprehend. Nicodemus hears Jesus say, “You must be born again,” and immediately goes to the bodily impossibility of that. But it’s a word-play – what Jesus has really said is, “You must be born from above.” Jesus offers birth into this entirely new life – life infused with the spirit of God – as embodied in the Word made flesh – we can be born into that.
You see, the birth that Jesus is talking about here is about as inclusive and expansive as you can get. He’s talking about being birthed into this new experience, this new life, this eternal life – from above – connected with God in Jesus – a direct experience of the Spirit in us. This new birth and new life, begins and ends in God’s love for us and the whole world – God approaching us, inviting us to approach God – Jesus, God’s own spirit, all of us, and every bit of us – all coming together – God making the world whole.
Our healing starts here.
Carol Howard Merritt says it like this: “God saves us not in a solitary act of murmured prayer, but through pulsing, vibrant community. It is not because of our individual striving or saying magic words. The act of salvation begins and ends with God, and we can participate in it if we wish, for God is pregnant with us and all creation.”
Our healing starts with being birthed out of God’s love for the whole world into this kind of Spirit-infused, God-infused living. God’s healing, saving love, all around us, all up in us.
If we begin our search for healing with that image of a punitive heaven-or-hell God, we might miss out on the God who brings healing to the most tender places of our lives, the God who comes to us in Jesus Christ; the God who knows our own frailty and our own suffering as deeply as we know it ourselves, maybe even more deeply.
If we begin our search for healing – if we see ourselves as made in the image of – a healing, loving God, we open ourselves to the opportunity that we might be able to see and experience healing beyond what we ever could have imagined – God’s healing everywhere all the time –
· even when the specific change that we long for in our body doesn’t show up;
· even when the oppressive force that we have been fighting against our whole life seems to win one more time;
· even when the bad news of the day seems more than we can take.
God always with us; God always for us; God always loving us; God always making us and the world whole. We can bring all the harm and hurt that the church has done – all the harm and hurt that we know in our bones – we can bring all that to this God and trust in the loving power of God to heal those hurts and to make us whole.
About a month ago, I was at home, folding clothes, and I looked up and saw a framed, calligraphy Bible verse. It says: “You shall not perish.” I remembered that the first time I saw it years ago, I thought, “Where is that in the Bible?” Yup. John 3:16. You see, that framed calligraphy Bible verse was a gift from Rev. Roger Lovett to Jeff on the day that Jeff was baptized. Roger Lovett is a Southern Baptist pastor, who gets that the church has harmed LGBTQIA+ people and our families by telling us that we were somehow not within the embrace of God’s love. And he needed Jeff to know, and us to know, that all that was wrong – that the love of God in Jesus Christ is good news for us too. And so Roger Lovett took his calligraphy pen, and wrote, “You shall not perish.” John 3:16. For God so loved the whole world.
You’ve heard me say a lot of words in these sermons – and I did warn you on my first day, “I’m a talker.” But there are only three words that I needyou to remember. And they are these: God loves you. I need you to remember those three words, and hold to them for the days when you need them most. God loves you. Those three words are the spring from which all our healing flows. They are living water for all our parched places.
God loves you. If anyone has ever told you otherwise, well I’ve walked out of that rubble too, and I’m standing here to tell you: They were wrong. God loves you. God’s love for us in Jesus Christ is good news for you too – good news for the whole world.
This is the healing truth of John 3:16: God so loves that world that God comes to us, again and again, in Jesus Christ,
in bad-news times, in scary-news times,
bringing us the good news of God’s healing love for us,
bigger than we ever imagined:
new birth, new life,
God’s Spirit with us and in us,
loving us, saving us, healing us from everything that does us harm,
God’s healing love,
making us – and the world – whole.
For God so loves... the world.
© 2020 Scott Clark
Dennis, Sheila & Matthew Lin, Good Goats: Healing Our Image of God (Paulist Press, New York, 1994). Carol Howard Merritt, Healing Spiritual Wounds: Reconnecting with a Loving God After Experiencing a Hurtful Church (HarperOne: New York, 2017). The biblical background is drawn from Gail R. O’Day, “The Gospel of John” in New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Vol.9 (Abingdon Press: Nashville, 2001);Herman C. Waetjen, The Gospel of the Beloved Disciple (T&T Clark International: New York, 2005), and, Karoline Lewis and Deborah Kapp, Commentaries in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 2 (Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville, 2010). See O’Day, p. 549 for background on the Greek word anothen. Waetjen, pp. 156-58. Rolf Jacobson, Working Preacher commentary, at https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&post=5419 Carol Howard Merritt, p.208.