Here’s a name for you: Rollen Stewart. Born Feb 19th, 1944. Ring a bell? You probably know who he is you just don’t know his name although it’s not like you’re gonna run into the guy at Starbucks or anything since he’s serving 3 consecutive life sentences on kidnapping charges in a California penitentiary. His other claims to fame include being Married 4 times, being jailed by Moscow police at the 1980 Summer Olympics, and stink bombing Trinity Broadcasting Network. And most recently Rollen Stewart is known for coming in #1 for most common response on my Facebook wall when I posted the question when you hear or read the words “John 3:16” what does it make you think or feel or remember? You see, Rollen Stewart is the wacky rainbow wig guy who is famous for holding up John 3:16 signs at big sporting events. And while I don’t have the data to back up this claim I’m willing to bet that his antics didn’t win a whole lot of so-called unbelievers over to Jesus.
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.
Here’s the thing: I got 47 answers to my question what does the term “John 3:16” make you think about and while a lot of folks answered “rainbow wig guy at football games” what was more heartbreaking than that is how many negative reactions people have to this verse. Here’s a sample:
John 3:16 is a message of exclusion – as in we are the ones who will be saved – clearly not you, another person said :The way some Christians talk, God has it out for the world, and another: this verse is thrown in people's face in a violent-feeling manner; as if aggression will get someone to believe, and finally My friend Brad just simply said that John 3:16 makes him think of Weirdos and Violence.
Wierdos and violence. 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. What have we done? As this season of Lent calls us to confession and repentance I’d like to take this opportunity to confess what the church has done to make people think so negatively about John 3:16. Because when did a verse about the extravagant and self-giving love of God become about exclusion and violence? When? well basically as soon as it was heard by sinners. And here’s why: Pastor Barb Martens once put it like this: for some people the good news is that there is an in group and an out group and for others the good news is that there is no longer an out group. In other words, the fact that this love of God in Christ is truly for me is not enough – I must – and let’s be honest, the church feels it must- then add to the gospel. And what the church will add every time is an exclusion clause. For God so loved – us but not them, For God so loved Christians but not Muslims, for God so loved America but not Iraq. I wonder if we think that this story of a world-redeeming, self-emptying, life-giving, faith-creating, people-loving God is not good enough news unless it excludes someone else? And let’s be honest, the best way to exclude someone else is to make the entire God-loving-the-world thing not about God’s extravagant Love, but about our belief. Then see, the ball is in the church’s court and when it becomes about belief then we have a situation in which we can determine what exactly is the right kind of belief, the right style of belief and the right amount of belief and viola! we have ourselves an in group and an out group. An in-group who has seen fit to offer our gift of belief or pure doctrine or morality to God in exchange for Love. And then, see, we deserve to be the in group and those who did not offer these things in exchange for God’s love clearly deserves to be the out group. They had their chance and they blew it.
There’s no better example of this than when the church decides who deserves to take communion. When we set up boundaries around Christ’s table we treat it more like our table. As though to say The fact that this is the body of Christ broken for me and the blood of Christ shed for me is not enough unless I know and preferable can determine who it is not for.
I confess to you that the church can turn the good news of God’s love into something that makes people think of weirdos and violence by adding our made up requirements to it - but it can also happen by taking things away. Because the John 3:16 verse is modified and given a whole other meaning by what comes before it and what comes after it. Listen to John 3:15-17
the Son of Man will be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
16For 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.
17Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
The world is saved through Christ Crucified and lifted up…that the world might be drawn into relationship with the true nature of God. The nature of God revealed in a rough hewn cradle and cross. Based on people’s reaction to John 3:16 I suggest that maybe what this has been made into instead is this: Christ came to condemn the world but some of the world might be saved through our belief.
But what I learned at Lutheran seminary is this: Christian Faith is simply not a if…then….proposition. If you believe then you will be saved, It is a Because…therefore proposition. Because God loved the whole world therefore God came to us in Christ so that there would no longer be any confusion about the matter. Because God loves the world, therefore we are free to do the same. Because God loves the world and God creates faith in us therefore we are free to believe. In other words, belief is not what we offer God in exchange for God’s love, belief is what is created in us by the Holy Spirit when we have an encounter with the Word of God - be it the Word made flesh in Jesus high and lifted up on the cross given for us in bread and wine or when we have an encounter with the proclaimed Word of God and forgiveness of sins.
God has claimed you in this story. God has swept you up into God’s redemptive love for the whole world and there is nothing for you to add: no amount of belief, no giving up of sweets during Lent, no good works nothing. Because God loves the world, God came and was made human, ate with sinners and bureaucrats, died an innocent death and was lifted up on a cross, so that all might believe in God –therefore there is no exclusion clause to be added to God’s love - therefore you can trust that this is a God for you and with you and there is nothing you can add to that and nothing that can be taken away from that. And if this story of who God is in Christ makes any sense to you at all cling to it - but if the church has instead given you the weird and violent message that Christ came to condemn the world but some of the world might be saved through our belief then forgive us our sins as God forgives all those who sin against him.
In the name of Jesus,