The following is adapted from a sermon delivered at The United Church of Cookeville in Cookeville, TN on March 18th.
You may be aware of today’s New Testament reading if you live in America and have a pulse. Most notably, John 3:16—“ 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 everywhere. I’ve seen it displayed boldly on billboards or discretely on the bottom of shopping bags. Football players wear it on their face, and their fans write the reference in big block letters on poster board. John 3:16 is on bumper stickers, t-shirts, coffee mugs, check books, tote bags, wall clocks, and just about anything else that could conceivably bear the message.
So it’s important, apparently.
If you were to ask someone who paid to put John 3:16 on a billboard why they felt the need to spend about $12,000 a year on such a thing, they would probably say something along these lines: “John 3:16 summarizes the entirety of Christian doctrine and teaching in one verse. It is the most important thing a person could ever read because it has the power to save them from eternal hellfire. Twelve grand a year is a miniscule pittance to pay for even one salvation.”
The thinking is that if you see the verse, maybe then you’ll say a prayer. Later (when you die) you’ll go to heaven. The details of what happens here and now are more secondary.
They see John 3:16, in other words, as Christianity 101—the nuts and bolts. The essentials.
If you ask me, though, I’d have to say that John 3:16 means a lot more than that, and we’re especially mindful of the fullness and complexity of our faith at this time of year. During Lent, we retrace the life and ministry of Jesus in the hope that our own lives might take a similar shape. We’re called to new life and commitment as Jesus is baptized, and we struggle to figure out what exactly it means to follow him. We discover that the stakes are high as Jesus rebukes Peter, saying “get behind me, Satan!”
Jesus takes us to Jerusalem and demands that we, too, reject the warhorse and ride into town on a colt, proceeding on behalf of the powerless even if it means suffering and defeat. At the cross, we see God’s love rejected as the world makes the innocent and vulnerable bear the brunt of its brokenness.
Then, after all of that, Easter. We celebrate the promise and imminent reality of new life even in the midst of death, darkness, and estrangement. On Easter, we Christians are keenly aware that “in our darkness a light shines, and that light is God.” (Aaron Weiss)
All of that other stuff—the Lent and Easter stuff—is a big part of what I understand John 3:16 to mean. To believe in God’s embodied presence on earth means to embody that presence yourself. It means following love’s imperatives even when it is difficult, and it will be difficult. So anyone in search of a feel-good, stable religious life ought to find a different faith, because Christians don’t turn a blind eye to personal hardships or social ills. The sting of death is always part of the story, but death is not our protagonist.
Earlier, we read one of the many complaint stories that made their way into the Hebrew Scriptures. The Israelites, who have previously directed their frustrations at Moses, are now blaming both Moses and God for their plight in the wilderness. “Why have you brought us out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.”
At this point they’re so disgruntled that they’re incapable of forming a coherent complaint. Is there no food or is the food miserable? Doesn’t matter—things are bad and they’re angry. And, as is often the case, things need to get worse before they finally stop their grumbling and ask for help. So now there are snakes. The Israelites are eating their miserable, non-existent food and they’re dying from snake poison. Finally they show some agency in the form of repentance: “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.”
Moses fashions a bronze serpent, lifts it up upon a pole, and any poison-afflicted Israelites would look at the serpent of bronze and live.
Fast forward to the first century and Jesus is saying to Nicodemus, “I’m like that bronze serpent.”
I understand this to mean that the love made manifest in the whole person, life, and ministry of Christ, when embodied, brings life triumphant to those who would otherwise suffer darkness, estrangement, and loss of identity. When we love, we live, and that’s how we know God. It was the second century church father St. Irenaeus who wrote that “The Glory of God is a human being fully alive.”
And the Glory of God is not veiled behind clouds or walled off by pearly gates. It is in our midst.
John’s theology employs what theologians call a “realized eschatology.” That’s really just a fancy way of saying that the experience of salvation is readily available here and now. The Realm of God is in, around, and among the faithful. We get a little taste of John’s realized eschatology in today’s reading: “Those who believe in him are not condemned, but those who do not believe are condemned already.”
This really ought to be starkly contrasted with the way in which salvation, heaven, and eternity are normally discussed within the context of John 3:16.
One popular application of John 3:16 goes like this: If you say a prayer acknowledging your belief in Jesus, then you can be certain that eternity in heaven will be yours after death. This blessed assurance oftentimes comes packaged with the convenient fringe benefit of being able to tell others that they will certainly be spending some time in Hell. The need for justification is far too often paired with the urge to wield judgment. Wendell Berry has written that, for many people, “the highest Christian bliss would be to get to heaven and find that you were the only one there.”
As popular as that view may be, it isn’t John’s perspective. John believes that by choosing darkness, we impose judgment on ourselves. So if you’re trying to view the world from John’s theological perspective, then leave your wrathful God at home. As the author of 1st John puts it, “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”
My undergraduate mentor has for many years taught a course called Meanings of Death. As part of the class, he sometimes asks his students to draw heaven, and while there is usually plenty of variety, there are also recurring themes. Heaven tends to look a lot like a stereotypical suburban neighborhood—much more pristine, to be sure, but at the same time equally bland. And anyone can tell you about the ways in which inhabitants of heaven spend their time—they pray, sing hymns, and play their God-issued harps on a luminous cloud.
This image of perfectly blissful living is odd. A lot of people flock to suburban neighborhoods, but they do so for comfort and safety, not for maximum enjoyment. And many of us like to sing hymns on Sunday and to pray when the mood strikes but there’s a reason that most Christians don’t live in monasteries. The thought of doing that stuff all of the time simply isn’t appealing. If our vision of heaven was made real in the form of a summer camp or amusement park, then I'd imagine that their business would be less than brisk.
Mark Twain wrote that
Man’s heaven is a curious place. It consists wholly of diversions which on earth he cares for not at all….Man’s heaven is a place of reward—made it himself, mind you—all out of his own head. Very well; of the delights of this world man cares most for sexual intercourse. He will go any length for it—risk fortune, character, reputation, life itself. And what do you think he has done? In a thousand years you would never guess—he has left it out of his heaven! Prayer takes its place.
So there’s our picture of heaven. In eternity, we live in the sort of houses that few people would consider dream homes and we spend all of our time on tiresome acts of piety. The Glory of God is not, as St. Irenaeus suggested, a human being fully alive, but an ever-so-pious, sexless, middle-class suburbanite.
I’ve got to think that this all says more about our own expectations and guilt than it does about God’s glory or any true experience of salvation. Typically, we follow the myth of the American dream much more closely than the pattern of life exemplified by Jesus. We attach our sense of value to a salary, or to a spouse, or to a white picket fence, perfect lawn and 1.9 beautiful children. And when we do enjoy something—truly enjoy something—we find a way to feel at least a little bit guilty about it. That’s the mark of guilt-ridden people—“not to feel too badly about themselves they make sure they don’t feel too good about anything.” (William Sloane Coffin)
Untold masses of people worship at the altar of self-preservation and then have the gall to wonder why it is they aren’t experiencing any vibrancy, dynamism, or fulfillment in their lives. They have everything they wanted and yet they’re more miserable than ever. The American situation is, as comedian Louis C.K. put it, that “everything is awesome and no one is happy.”
And what a shame—to be offered fullness and vibrancy of life but to settle for a sterilized blandness bordering on death. The reality of eternity must be better than our popular notions.
Let’s finish, then, by revitalizing that notion of eternity a little bit. Normally we think of eternity as being associated with an unthinkably long period of time, but eternity is really a place where time fades away altogether. Past and future are irrelevant if not nonsensical concepts in eternity. That sounds, to me, an awful lot like a moment of genuine presentness.
We know eternity in all of those little moments when we feel that we could die happily; when guilt from our past fades away and we don’t recognize any future anxiety whatsoever. Eternity feels like loved ones united after a long absence, lost in the joy of one another’s company. Eternity is a little bit like two lovers meeting at an airport’s arrivals terminal.
When we abide in love we abide in God, and it is there that we know eternity and our souls find rest. In eternity, we can cast off any feelings of guilt and anxiety and get down to the exciting business of reconciling the world through love. Along the way, we find out what it means to live fully into our humanity. We’re broken and blessed, sorrowful and triumphant. Death is present but our most immediate and vivid reality is life. We ask with Paul, “Where, O Death, is your victory? Where, O Death, is your sting?”
And if there is any response, we’re too busy living to hear it. Amen.