22 March 2009

More Than a Magic Formula or Mantra

John 3: 16 (1-21)
Fourth Sunday in Lent/ 22nd March 2009

The reformer, Martin Luther (1483-1546) called John 3:16, “the gospel in miniature.” He viewed this verse as a summary of the Christian message, a summing up the bold claims of Christ’s message. It’s probably the best-known verse in the Bible, even for people who know nothing about scripture or about Christ. Taking Luther’s cue, Christians turn to this verse as the container of our truth and then use it to get our message out the masses. But is this really appropriate?

You probably memorized this verse in church school, maybe with the language of King James. We find it everywhere. We see it emblazoned on banners at sporting events, especially televised ones. Wherever the camera pans the playing field, look out in the stands, in the bleachers and there’s bound to be a “John 3:16” there. We find it on tattoos, t-shirts, necklaces, key chains, every kind of Christian-kitsch. One of my favorite websites is flickr.com, a site dedicated to the art of photography. I typed “John :16” into their search engine and came up with fascinating images, from the tacky to the sublime. I found an image of Tim Tebow, quarterback for the Florida Gators, being interviewed after a game; he had “John” painted in white under his right eye and “3:16” painted under his left. Talking about football in front of the camera, he was trying to get another message out to viewers. John 3:16 is found on billboards, painted on the sides of old warehouses. There’s a photo of a large sign board that reads: STATE LINE STORE (I believe along the Georgia border), FIRST CHANCE LOTTERY. STOP. QUICK CASH. PLAY HERE. In the lower right hand corner of the sign, you can see it: John 3:16. Did you know that the In-N-Out Burger chain of drive-thru restaurants has John 3:16 in tiny red print on the inside rim of the bottom of their beverage cups? One of the more bizarre uses I found was a photo of the John 3:16 Photo Supplies Store in a mall in Singapore.

It’s laughable and sad, but also very serious – serious because focusing on this text alone and expecting it to carry the weight of the gospel is problematic. I think James Kay, professor of preaching at Princeton, is right in raising the alarm. He warns that we need to avoid making the Christian message into a cipher – a code, a secret number, a symbol – instead of a story. When we see the text on placards or banners or bumper stickers or tattoos, it’s as if this verse somehow exhausts the meaning of God’s good news in Jesus Christ, as it if were the “code number for the kingdom.” Knowing the code or knowing what it reads then implies “we’ve got the gospel.” It’s “here” contained in this verse. It sends the message – if you know what it says and believe this one verse and do what it says – simply “believe in Jesus” – then “Open Sesame” – you’re in, from the outer rings of hell straight to heaven, all because of what one does with this verse. “When the Christian story is reduced to a sentence, instead of heard as a story,” Kay argues, “it’s so easy for that sentence to become a magic formula or mesmerizing mantra.” [1]

He’s right. We’re told these days that all we can handle are sound-bites (which really isn’t true, we’ve just become accustomed to this and have become lazy) and so John 3:16 has become our sound-bite – we don’t even have to write out the text we know what it means – and that’s all we need to know and all people need to know, that’s all we can handle. It’s become gospel-lite, the mini-gospel.

But come with me, let us venture beyond this verse and see the wide, expansive reach of Christ’s story. Release your focus on this verse, zoom back and look at 3:15 and 3:17, 3:14 and 3:18. Zoom out. Pull back and see how this verse sits within the wider context of John 3, fits into the larger conversation with Nicodemus.

Nicodemus, a leader of the Pharisees, arrives at Jesus’ home under the cover at night. Our Nic at Night seeks Jesus out as a teacher. He and the Pharisees clearly respect Jesus’ authority. They know he comes from God. Nicodemus goes searching for something, inquiring in secret. We’re never really told what it is, but it’s implied in Jesus’ response with this confusing non sequitur, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above,” or as KJV puts it, “born-again.” Nic doesn’t get it because he’s being literal; Jesus is offering a metaphor.

Nic doesn’t get it because his frame of reference will not allow him to embrace the way of God. Nic doesn’t get it because he’s not willing to unlearn what he’s been taught, unwilling to be open God’s new way in the world, to God’s kingdom – to the purpose of the kingdom. Then Jesus proceeds with the spirit-wind analogy. “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

And what does Nicodemus say? “How can these things be?” It’s that response, that attitude within Nic and within all of us that snuffs out the Spirit, squelches the Spirit, and eclipses and covers our ability to see with our eyes the work of God’s kingdom through Jesus Christ. “How can these things be?” closes off the possibility of change and transformation, hinders us from standing in awe and amazement before the power and love of God, prevents us from seeing all the marvelous ways God is at work in the world, now, for the world, now.

We ought to be always praying for new eyes to see God’s way. God’s way doesn’t come naturally. Nor is God’s way what we expect. So we have to be taught, by the Spirit. That’s what Jesus means by being born again, or more correctly born, literally in the Greek, “from above,” that is, with God’s aid. And it doesn’t happen just one time, but needs to happen again and again.

Sadly, we’ve come to view what Jesus’ is talking about here as a singular moment. For example, if you go up I-83 into Pennsylvania, east of York in Lancaster County, you’ll find the Ephrata Cloister, an 18th century German pietist religious community. Walk around the grave stones and you can see on the stones the individual’s birth date, the born-again date, and then date of death. We’ve come to see this moment as a singularity. I once was asked the exact time of day when I was born-again and because I couldn’t give an exact answer my salvation was held in question.

Instead, being born-again or born from above doesn’t happen once after some act of confessing “belief” in Jesus. When we link John 3:16 with its emphasis upon belief with the idea of being born-again or from above we distort the meaning of the whole chapter. In other words, we so often view this text to be about “me and my salvation” or “Nicodemus and his salvation.” What I must do. The fact that people tend to read the entire chapter this way says something about us, what we consider most important – namely, ourselves. But it’s not only about us.

When the Spirit blows through us we are being born again and again and again; being born from above again and again. And sometimes we are so closed-minded, so stuck in our ways, so stubborn in our worldviews and assumptions about how things are to be that we need to be shaken into reality. We need startling images, maybe even obscure, bizarre metaphors, like the story of snakes lifted up on a pole in Numbers 21:9. Jesus refers to the obscure story in Numbers about Moses and the people in the wilderness. They were being bitten by poisonous snakes. So, Yahweh told Moses to put an image of a snake up on a pole and every time someone was bit, they were to look at the snake and live. This is a direct inference to Jesus’ own death, of being “lifted up” on a cross for all to look and to live. Yet, isn’t it amazing how often we pass over John 3: 14 and 15? Maybe we need bizarre metaphors and stories of snakes to wake us up from what might be called our Nicodemean slumber.[2] We need “strange stories” instead of “safe slogans” to help us apprehend what God is doing in the lifting up of his Son upon a cross.

What do snakes and the cross have in common? “Just this: When the gospel of God’s love is lifted up among us, it draws out all of our venom and all that poisons the world. The glory of God’s eternal love for you, for me, and for the world only touches the earth through a cross – amid the vipers and the venom.”[3] Jesus invites Nicodemus to break free from his limiting frame of reference and understanding to look at the One who will be lifted up in order to draw us out of ourselves into the wider framework of God’s redemptive purpose and love for the world.

For the one who looks at him and sees in him the very love of God will live, will have “eternal life” – not only in the sense in the sense of life-ever-after, but life here and now touched by eternity, a life informed and shaped by the eternal, by God, a new life, a born-from-above-again-and-again-life. And the focus of this text should not be upon us, but upon him, upon the cross. That’s why we can’t skip over the snake story; it would mean to skip over the cross. John’s entire gospel is organized to focus our eyes upon the one lifted up (John 12:32), for the one lifted up will draw all people to himself.

The good news of this text is that it’s not all about us, about you and me and our salvation and whether we have enough belief or not. We’re included in it, of course, our salvation, that is. But it’s not about us at all, really; if we focus our attention only on John 3:16, then it’s easy to think it is all about us, about what we have to do, what we have to believe about Jesus in order to have eternal life. Instead, it’s all about the cross. Jesus being lifted up. Salvation. When we zoom out further we see it’s not really about us alone, but for the sake of the world.[4]

It speaks volumes about our self-preoccupations if we stop at 3:16 and forget 3:17. We use 3:16 as a kind of threat to people – believe or else! But that loses the point of the chapter, even the gospel. I’m inclined to think that there might be more good news in 3:17. Maybe we should start a campaign of putting “3:17” everywhere (of course we then run the risk of turning this verse into a slogan), but it would serve as a corrective of focus. What is 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.”

It’s not about us, alone, but the world, for the love of the world that Jesus goes to a cross, to demonstrate to the world the wide reach of God’s amazing love and grace. For, as John wrote, “having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end (John 13:1b).” The light of his love extends a light to the world that no darkness can ever extinguish, bringing light even in the midst of our darkness. His love is the light of the world, a love that grows in intensity and shines brightest in the places of greatest human suffering.

When we focus on the cross suffered for the love of the world, the rest of the verses after 3:17 make more sense. Read them carefully and see they’re not talking about condemnation in some afterlife for those who don’t believe. The kind of judgment Jesus is talking about here – and it is judgment – is not in the flames of hell, but a state of living condemned already when we reject, deny, avoid, refuse to live and do the truth found through the One lifted up on a tree. When we refuse this, we condemn ourselves. Judgment was never the purpose of Christ’s mission, but the result of it. Either we turn to the light or turn away from it. To turn from the light has its own sufficient penalty, because “people loved darkness rather than the light.” This is judgment, not by God, but by us, not in some far-off future, but here and now. Those who do not see are sentenced already, not in some eternal sense, but that they live divorced from God’s love – and that’s a horrible way to live. To not know this is to live life under a terrible sentence. Theologian, Brian A. Gerrish, perhaps puts it best, “It is not God or Christ who sentences those who turn away; “we all judge ourselves by what we make of the cross.”[5] What do we make of the cross?

Whatever our response might be, the message of the cross still stands; whether we believe it or not, God’s love through Christ remains, the light of his love shines for all the world; it’s still there for all to see and embrace and believe, its power continues to shake and redeem our lives and our world, forever bringing us to life, again and again, born from above again and again.

It’s all there – for everyone – willing to look and see. How can these things be? May we have the eyes – the new eyes – to really see.

[1] James F. Kay, “John 3:16,” Seasons of Grace: Reflections from the Christian Year. Foreword by Thomas G. Long (Eeerdmans, 1994), 49.

[2] Cf. Kenneth E. Kovacs, Lectionary Homiletics (Vol. XX, No. 2), February-March 2009, 68.

[3] Kay, 51. Emphasis in the text.

[4] I am grateful to my friend, David A. Davis, for his reflection on this text. Lectionary Homiletics (Vol. XX, No. 2), February-March 2009, 70.

[5] Brian A. Gerrish, The Pilgrim Road: Sermons on Christian Life. Edited by Mary T. Stimming (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000), 111-112.

No comments: