John 3:16 has been used as a weapon for too long, so we need to read John 3:17 too. Eternal life isn’t a future reward for people who have the right answer today. Eternal life is Jesus, given for you, today. Get your “JOHN 3:17” posters ready as you listen to this week’s sermon!
4th Sunday in Lent (Year B) – March 15, 2015 – John 3:14-21
St. Jacob’s-Spaders Lutheran Church, Harrisonburg, Virginia
“Eternal Life Now” – Pastor Evan Davis
Facebook allows you to put on your profile all the significant relationships in your life, including your significant other. It allows you to reflect the complexity of relationships, like simply saying “in a relationship,” (not ready to define that relationship just yet) or, and I love this, “it’s complicated.” Just make sure the other person agrees on the designation before you post that on your profile! But I have to say, it’s been complicated between me and the gospel of John.
Don’t get me wrong, I love John. I love the profound depth to be found in almost any verse. John uses simple language, 3rd grade Greek, much less sophisticated words than Paul or Luke, but each word drips with depth and meaning. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” “I am the bread of life.” “Jesus wept.” “Before Abraham was, I am.” And yet, John’s gospel is written by a community that has experienced a profound and painful loss. They are deeply Jewish, but they have come into conflict with fellow Jews who do not know Jesus the same way they do. And hence they have been thrown out of the synagogue. Thus their perspective on humanity is rather dualistic. You either respond positively to Jesus, or you don’t. You have a relationship with Jesus, or you don’t. This corresponds with their actual experience of their friends and family members who did not share their understanding of Jesus. You live in the light or the darkness. You are saved or condemned. You have life or you don’t. You believe or you do not.
It’s been complicated with me and John because, for me, it’s just not that black and white. Nobody has thrown me out of the synagogue. In fact, I see how religious people condemning others is one of the greatest causes of pain, suffering, and violence in the world today. If there’s one thing I wish for the world, it’s that all of us of different faiths or no faith would respect one another and live beside each other in peace. And for me, how I respond to Jesus on any given day depends on which side of bed I got out of this morning, how much patience I can summon today for his desire that I love my neighbors whom I don’t always like, how much I can put up with him not recognizing my status or achievements. It’s not clear cut.
I love John and his gospel, but I mourn how John is used as a weapon, hurled at those some consider to be unbelievers. I mourn especially how this verse, 3:16, about the depth of God’s love and desire for our salvation, is taken to mean that Jesus came to earth to create a divine test that didn’t previously exist – if you believe, whatever that means, you live, eternally. If you don’t, you perish. Why would God do that? Why weren’t God’s previous promises to God’s people, and to the world, still valid?
Maybe I would never have gotten past “it’s complicated” with John. Maybe our relationship would never have developed into a more affirmative love on my part, if it were not for John 3:17. People have posters that say “John 3:16,” but I’d rather they had posters that say “John 3:17.” Because John 3:17 gives us some more insight into what God is up to here. First, we’ll recap – Jesus says to Nicodemus, the Pharisee he’s having a conversation with, that just as Moses lifted up the servant in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. Then in 3:16 comes the why, “for God so loved the world – the cosmos – that he gave his one-and-only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Jesus, the unique, one-and-only Son of the Father, is here because God so loves the whole cosmos – everything and everyone. But here comes the really important clarification in 3:17: “indeed, 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 purpose of Jesus is not to condemn the world. The Greek root here is “judge,” it’s the same word, actually. Jesus isn’t here to judge the world. Jesus is here to be the means through which God will save the whole cosmos, the whole world, the whole universe. So no, Jesus was not sent as a test of opinion or agreement that determines your eternal destiny. Jesus was sent to be your eternal destiny, whether you like it or not.
I’ll explain further. One of the things I LOVE about John is that every key word has such depth. There are multiple meanings going on at the same time.
Believe – trust, give your heart to, not intellectual agreement. [more details in audio version]
Eternal life is certainly life with no beginning or end. But it’s more than that. John’s whole explains what he means by eternal life, but never as clearly as in his final prayer to the Father the night before he is crucified when Jesus prays, “and this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (17:3). Eternal life is in the knowing. It is the relationship between Jesus and you and me. That is eternal life. All through the gospel, Jesus refers to “eternal life” in the present tense: “very truly I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life” (6:47); “those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life” (6:54). Of course, the love of God, the relationship with God, which is life, never ends, as Jesus says here: “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand” (10:28). But it starts right now.
Salvation is a relationship. It is the dynamic relationship of being known by Jesus and knowing him as well. Knowing his ways. His life. Jesus is not a divine test of who’s in and who’s out. Jesus is the divine rescue mission to save God’s dying people in the darkness. It’s not like only other people are in darkness. In our culture of choice, we find it hard to believe that this is not in our control. That we can’t just flip a switch to move from darkness to light. That we are helpless and we need God as much as the people we think this text is talking about. The text assumes that we’re all in the darkness of human brokenness…judged already in that we love the darkness rather than the light that is Jesus. Jesus comes to us so that we might learn to love the light that is him. That we might come to believe, that is, to trust, in him…starting right now. That abundant and eternal life of trusting him is the salvation God desires for us. Salvation is the process of God changing our heart so that we would love Jesus more than life itself, more than living forever, more than wealth or health or our own desires. Salvation is trusting Jesus more than any other person, any other force or priority in our life, trusting him with our heart, our mind, and our strength, entrusting to him our life, our soul, our future. Judgment is nothing more than reality that we most often we run away from the light back into the darkness of life on our own. It is not a future punishment, it’s not something else, it’s not a penalty. It’s the present reality for those of us who on our worst days run away from this relationship. It’s the reality of a world in darkness, disconnected from the light that is Jesus. We need Jesus, and thank God that Jesus will be there even on those days when we’re running in the opposite direction.
Salvation is a relationship. And so I’ll put it in terms of the most important human relationship in my life. I’ll tell you about my wife, Brett. [Now this is my experience. I can only really tell you my story, I can’t tell you someone else’s, and I’m married. But don’t take me as saying you have to be married to experience the salvation God intends….single, divorced, separated, widowed, never married by choice….all of these are valid ways to be human if that’s your call. Back to my story.]
Brett loves me. Even if I’m having a bad day. Amazingly, even when I get angry or become self-absorbed or obsessed with my own needs or fears or when I don’t listen…even then, Brett loves me. Now it’s not like she’ll love me only if I agree she is the best person in the world, or if I agree she exists, or if I agree with her…but if I ever have trouble understanding what she says I’ll be called a doubter or unbeliever and she won’t love me anymore. No. She just loves me. And that love, and the relationship it creates and sustains, IS the point. There is nothing else better around the corner. The point is to love and be loved, to know and be known. And the funny thing is, it doesn’t really work if I don’t trust her. If don’t “believe in” Brett. I believe in her….not that she exists – that is as obvious to me as the existence of Jesus was to the gospel writers….I believe in her, I believe she will be there for me no matter what. I believe that she will keep her promises. I trust her and I give my heart and life over to her. But only because she loves me. Her love creates that trust and faith I have in her. It’s all about her love.
So it is with Christ. It’s all about God’s love in Christ…a love even more powerful, more deep, more faithful than any human love. A love that creates the faith it desires. Like it or not1, God so loves the cosmos. God so loves you that God has sent you his Son – not to judge you, but to save you. He loved you to the end, all the way to the cross, and he loves you now. No one can snatch you out of his hand. His love brings you, right now, today, out of darkness and into light. This Holy Week we will remember how he was lifted up for the sake of the world. Gaze upon him and know that the feeling welling up in your heart is called salvation, eternal life…right now. Amen.
1David Lose, “Lent 4B: God’s Offensive Love,” http://www.davidlose.net/2015/03/lent-4-b/ (accessed March 14, 2015). The “like it or not” phrase has been a part of the way Lose explains God’s unconditional promises for a while now.