Before I read today’s gospel text, I invite you to find a pew Bible and read along. I’m reading from the Common English Bible, which is slightly different from the NRSV. I invite you to notice the differences between what you see with your eyes and what your ears hear.
So, what did you notice? (I especially wanted people to notice the difference between the word “judged” vs. “condemned.”) Good work. Our seminary professors constantly reminded us, every translation of Scripture is also an interpretation. One way to get a fresh view is by comparing translations. John 3:16 may be the most famous Christian verse in our era. This verse is so familiar and our reaction to it so ingrained, that we must be very intentional in listening to it, or we simply fall back on our “default” interpretations.
What do I mean by “default interpretation?” “Default settings” on computers, when you first get them, are preselected functions programmed to occur automatically until you specify you want the computer to do something different. All of us have default patterns of thought and behavior learned very early on in our lives. Some of our defaults continue to be helpful. Some of them were appropriate at certain points in our development, but need to be set aside as we grew. And some defaults, if we learned them in abusive environments, impair our capacity for healthy relationships as they continue to function in our lives.
John 3:16 is a touchstone of “default” Christianity for many people, triggering deeply ingrained impulses of faith. Maybe these words reconnect you with a wonderful awareness of God’s powerful love and the assurance of eternal life; maybe they put you right back into early family or Sunday school experiences where you felt welcomed and loved. If that is your experience, praise God. What a gift!
But others have less than positive associations of this text, because at some point, it was interpreted to you as a threat rather than a promise: “Believe in Jesus, or perish in hell forever.” For too many people, this text has become a stumbling block, when the “default” message speaks exclusion and condemnation, exactly the opposite of what it’s actually saying.
So what do these verses actually say about God, who God is, and what God is doing? Let’s look closely at the verbs directly tied to God. What are they? (loved, gave, did not send).
God loved the world—the cosmos, in the Greek—and God gave the Son, whom he did not send to condemn or judge but to save. Did you hear that? The Son was not sent to condemn or judge.
While there is certainly judgment in these verses, look again: is the noun God actually tied to the verbs “condemn” or “judge” in these verses? No. The text never actually states that God is the one condemning or judging. Judgment in John’s gospel is not the specific act of an agent, either God or us, pronouncing judgment or punishment upon someone else. Rather, it represents the crisis of decision which Jesus provokes in our lives, whether or not we will choose to receive and enter the relationship Jesus offers us.[i]
In this text, God does nothing more or less than love us and provide for us salvation and eternal life. But now we’ve come upon some more words with lots of default associations. “Salvation” and “eternal life” are often understood in terms of an afterlife, what happens after we die. Being “saved” means we go to heaven and live with Jesus forever.
This interpretation has been comforting for many. I’m not suggesting we discard it, but there are additional possibilities to hold alongside it. Even more than “life insurance,” these words offer “life assurance,” pointing us to a quality of life in the present moment. To be “saved” is also to be healed of our anxiety and fear of death and failure, and to be freed from compulsions and addictions that we may live authentically human lives and truly love God and all the others God has created. To have “eternal life” is to live your own, present, daily life securely aware that you are inextricably connected to a purpose, presence, and power far greater than your basic existence. Your life, right here and now, participates in the divine life of God.
And to “believe” in Jesus means far more than nodding agreement to theological or scriptural propositions.[ii] It means that embracing a worldview shaped by intimate communion with God in Christ, a new lens through which we see ourselves and others, by which we are reoriented, in all our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors from life-diminishing to life-giving activity, through which we learn to live honestly and vulnerably, with nothing to hide.[iii]
The good news of John’s gospel is that in sheer love for us—and for the whole cosmos–God makes it possible for us to experience, right here and now, a new, life-giving reality, sourced in God’s purpose, presence, and power, an identity with meaning, a community of belonging, and great hope for the future.
So, what are we to do in the moment of decision? How do we come to “believe” in Jesus, to receive and be reoriented in the life he has to offer? By looking at Jesus, who has been “lifted up.”
Speaking of defaults, and given strong snake phobias, maybe it’s not surprising that you never see anyone holding up a banner with “John 3:14” between the goalposts at football games.
“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so must the Human One be lifted up so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life.” I can’t help but wonder what the author of John is doing in pointing us to this weird story from the Book of Numbers.
The snake Moses lifted up was a bronze sculpture hung on a pole. The Israelites, freed from slavery but exhausted in desert wanderings, had entered a worldview of distrust in God. Though God had provided daily manna and quail, they complained that God was really out to get them. But when the poisonous snakes show up and people start dying, the people recognize their disbelief and turn back, asking Moses to intercede so that God will take the snakes away.
So Moses prays, and God responds. But interestingly, God doesn’t do what they want. The poisonous snakes remain in their midst. Instead God tells Moses to make a snake icon and put it where everyone can see it. Those who get bitten survive and find healing simply by turning their gaze upon the bronze serpent. The comparison point between this strange healing symbol and Jesus is that both are “lifted up” so that people can look upon them. In both cases, God provides a means by which the mere act of looking allows the possibility of healing and a new life.
But what do we see when we look at Jesus “lifted up?” In John’s gospel, Jesus is understood to be “lifted up” in a process of crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. So, first, we gaze upon him “lifted up” on the cross, and that is not easy at all. The cross is not just any “pole,” but an instrument of torture and death. One thing we see is brutal inhumanity, cruelty, and injustice playing out in the death of an innocent man.
To look at the cross is to gaze upon the terrible outcome of our distrust and betrayal of God and others. To look at the cross is to see our collective shame and fear destroying a human being in the image of God. We see the judgment, that people love darkness rather than light.
But that is not the only thing we see on the cross. We also see the truly Human One, the man who represents humanity at our best, who demonstrates what it means to truly love, willingly giving himself to the consequences of humanity’s faithlessness. We see the fully divine Son in whom God’s life and love is poured out freely and completely in grace not only for us but also with us. We see the God who goes with us into the darkest shadows, the most shameful and vulnerable places of our lives, so that even when we are utterly bereft and betrayed, we will never be alone.
My friends, we are halfway through the journey of Lent, a season in which we are invited to look closely at all our default worldviews and notice—without self-condemnation—any binders or barriers which keep us from following Christ in love of God, others, and ourselves. Jesus is “lifted up” to offer us a window, through which we may receive a new and healing awareness, seeing not only that which separates us from God, but more importantly, how God has come to offer us elevation.
“Elevation” is a term social scientists use to describe the warm and expansive emotion human beings experience in witnessing acts of goodness. Elevation motivates those who experience it to open up, connect with, and assist other people.[iv] Elevation is what it means for us to be lifted up to participate in God’s eternal life as we gaze deeply upon our crucified and risen Savior.
I want to leave you with these words from Julian of Norwich, a mystic of the 14th century, who calls us to receive the elevation of Christ, lifted up:
“The love of God most High for our soul
is so wonderful that it surpasses all knowledge.
No created being can fully know
the greatness, the sweetness, the tenderness,
of the love that our Maker has for us.
By his Grace and help therefore let us in spirit
stand in awe and gaze, eternally marveling
at the supreme, surpassing, single-minded, incalculable love
that God, Who is all goodness, has for us.[v]”
Amen and Amen.
[iv] Definition from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elevation_%28emotion%29
[v] quoted from Revelations of Divine Love at http://www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20150309JJ.shtml