“John 3:16 is not a slogan.” – Trinity Sunday

“John 3:16 is not a slogan.”

“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.”

It’s one of the best-known verses in the Christian scriptures. Even Episcopalians, who famously don’t memorize biblical texts, even we can often quote it.

I’m mindful of football players who print John 3:16 in the black shade under their eyes; or the fans who hold up their homemade signs with the book, chapter and verse as the video cam scans the stadium crowd. Jewelry, tee shirts, yard signs, and billboards are emblazoned with “John 3:16” as if the name and numbers speak for themselves, and convey a potent message that evangelizes and converts on sight.

John 3:16 is not a slogan. It’s not intended to be a catchy phrase, a jingle, a mantra, or a refrain. It’s a passage form the third chapter of the Gospel of John that’s part of an entire conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. Nicodemus is identified as a leader of the Jews, but he comes to Jesus in the night.

One of john’s recurring themes is the contrast between light and dark. When Nicodemus comes to Jesus under the cover of darkness, he aligns himself with the dark side: the ignorant, unenlightened, the folk who just don’t get it. (The opening verses of the Gospel refer to Jesus as the “light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” Judas operates in the dark. The soldiers and temple police come to arrest Jesus in the dark of night.)

Nicodemus seems to acknowledge that Jesus is God. And he seems to want to understand what Jesus is about.

Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’

Do you see? Nicodemus doesn’t get it. Jesus is using a metaphor and Nicodemus is a literalist. Jesus speaks of being born again as a whole new experience of God-but poor Nicodemus is stuck on how to enter again into his mother’s womb.

John goes on to speak of Jesus as like the healing serpent that Moses lifted up in the wilderness. He was referring to that strange little story in the Book of Numbers. The Israelites, wandering about in the wilderness, start to gripe about God and Moses having led them out of Egypt. There wasn’t enough water to their liking. They referred tot he manna form heaven as “this miserable food.”

So God sent poisonous snakes from among the people. Those who were bit, died. When the people repented, God had Moses make a bronze snake to mount on a pole. When folk were bitten, they would look at the snake on the pole and would live.

Then Jesus said to Nicodemus, “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.”

Commenting on this story, Jack Spong has written:

John sees Jesus symbolically as the serpent lifted up on his cross, drawing the venom out of human life, restoring wholeness. It is a powerful image….At the climax of (this) gospel Jesus will be enthroned, not on a throne of gold reflecting earthly power or even a throne of bronze as was the serpent, but on a throne of wood fashioned into a cross, an instrument of execution through which he will reflect a new humanity. That will be the doorway into a new consciousness, a new oneness with all that God is, a doorway into that which is eternal.

So much of what passes as Christianity in America is reduced to slogans, to four spiritual laws-, to displaying the 10 Commandments and crèche scenes in public, to having a certain set of laws on the books (usually having to do with sex), and refraining from being so inclusive as to wish someone “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas.” Christianity certainly is more than being able to fire scripture bullets like John 3:16 at a television audience.

Jesus calls to a higher loyalty…loyalty to the God who is love.

Ours is a faith that invites us into experiences of God that include a cross – a self-giving and a humility that is willing to let go even of life for the sake of the other.

Ours is a faith that affirms God’s love for the world; that eschews condemnation; that is open to the possibly that God may be experienced in suffering, pain, poverty…on a wooden cross…not on a throne of gold.

“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.”

Everyone who believes in him (belief, not simply an intellectual affirmation, but a willingness to enter into and be transformed by the experience of the Holy.)

“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.”

The goal is life, not death, life lived in the footsteps of Jesus. It’s not a slogan, but a daily commitment to live as Jesus lived. Only then do we discover eternity as an experience and not a place. It is the realm of God.

Amen.