I’m not a big fan of identity markers. What I mean by that is, I don’t like political or religious slogans, especially when they’re reduced to bumper stickers. I don’t even particularly like clothing associated with sports teams or universities. I think they over simplify, invite stereotyping, and create boundaries. Take for example, those coexist bumper stickers. You know, the ones that spell out the word using symbols from some of the world’s religions? When I see a car with such a bumper sticker, I immediately make assumptions about the driver—she’s probably in her fifties or sixties, if not older, has been involved in progressive religious and political causes for a very long time, and is very concerned to be on the “right” side of every issue. You know, a typical Madisonian. Don’t worry, I do the same thing if I see a mini van with a fish symbol on the back, or, God forbid, a prius with an Episcopal shield. Such symbols clearly identify where we stand, at least for ourselves, even if those we encounter don’t necessarily know what the symbol means.
That’s certainly true of John 3:16. Back in the 80s, when I was watching college and professional sports regularly, there was a guy who held up signs with simply that: John 3:16—at every major sporting event. I don’t know if it still happens. I did a little research and learned that the guy who started it is currently serving four consecutive life terms for kidnapping; so go figure.
Back then I wondered what the point of his efforts was. That combination of letters and numbers, John 3:16, was meaningful only to those who knew the verse in question. To everyone else, it was completely meaningless. And if you knew that words were, you probably figured you were all set, you believed, therefore you were among those who God loved and were assured of everlasting life. So why hold up the signs?
Given that context, I suspect that for people who don’t know what the verse means, that combination of words and numbers—John 3:16—serves little more than as a marker of identity, the same way wearing a Wisconsin Badgers cap or sweatshirt might. And like a Wisconsin Badgers cap worn at an Ohio State-Michigan game, John 3:16 might arouse suspicion, anger, or alienation from outsiders. My guess is that for some of you, hearing me say out loud “John 3:16” makes just a little anxious or angry as you recall encounters with conservative Christians, or your own experiences among aggressive evangelists.
All of that goes to the meaning and perception of one short verse from today’s gospel reading. It’s a verse that has become so ubiquitous in our culture that it has lost any connection with its original context in John’s gospel, and I would venture to guess, it has also lost its power to shape us and our understanding of God.
And that’s a shame, because of all scripture, there may be no passage that is as as profound in proclaiming God’s love for humanity and the world: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten son, that whoever believes in him might not perish but have everlasting life.”
To understand today’s gospel reading, and especially to understand this key, familiar verse, we have to pay attention to the context. Today’s gospel comes from chapter 3, which begins with the encounter of Nicodemus and Jesus. Nicodemus is identified as a Pharisee, a leader of the religious establishment. Significantly, he comes to Jesus by night and it’s clear from his questions that he regards Jesus sympathetically, even as one whose teaching has authority—he addresses Jesus as “Rabbi.” In their conversation, and this is typical for Jesus’ encounters with followers or would-be followers in John, Jesus makes statements that are ambiguous, open to multiple interpretations. That’s apparent from the other very famous statement in this chapter that “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” The word translated here as “born from above” can also be translated and is usually translated “born again.”
Jesus speaks enigmatically. In fact, it often seems that he intends to confuse his dialogue partner. There’s another puzzle here for it’s not at all clear that Nicodemus remains on the scene by the time we get to Jesus’ words in today’s reading (the phrase “Jesus said to Nicodemus” has been provided by the editors of the lectionary. It doesn’t appear in the text).
Jesus’ puzzling, ambiguous language continues in our gospel passage. There’s that phrase “lifted up.” While the connection between the Numbers story and Jesus’ crucifixion may be obvious, in John’s gospel, “lifted up” means more than crucifixion. A better translation here might be “exalted” for it better conveys what Jesus and John are getting at. In this gospel crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension are all part of a single action or event. It’s a paradox—certainly the crucifixion is Jesus at his most human, and humiliated; but it is also the moment when his divine nature is most evident. It is the moment of his glorification.
God so loved the world—In the later verses of this passage, there is condemnation and judgment. But above all, there is love, God’s love. The passage confronts us with the question of our conception of God, our understanding of the fundamental nature of God and our understanding of our own nature and deepest desires. Is God a God of love or a God of judgment? We might be inclined to see these two attributes as equal. Certainly, both are important and both are intrinsic to God’s character. But in this passage, love wins.
“God so loved the world.” This little sentence is really quite remarkable for John’s gospel. Everywhere else in the gospel, consistently, the world, the cosmos, is depicted in opposition to Jesus Christ. And that’s the case even though in chapter 1 the gospel writer proclaims that God created the world. Now we learn that the God who created the world loves the world. Indeed, God loves the world (not just humans, the created order) so much that God gave God’s only son that we might have everlasting life.
Judgment here comes not from God but from the human beings who reject God in Christ. To use the gospel’s imagery, “the light has come into the world and people loved darkness rather than light.” That offers a different perspective on things. Instead of fearing a just and righteous God, we need to fear our own desires and choices—to preserve the dark and hidden corners of our lives and to live in the dark and hidden corners of the world.
It’s interesting that Nicodemus came to Jesus by night, in the darkness. As I said, we don’t exactly know when he leaves the scene—after his last recorded response to Jesus’ words, his expression of disbelief and misunderstanding? Or did he stick around until this point, when Jesus speaks about those who love the darkness better than the light? If so, it’s pretty powerful to imagine him hearing those words, turning away, and walking back into the night, back into the darkness.
But that’s not the end of Nicodemus’ story. We encounter him again at the end of the gospel, at the end of Jesus’ life. John reports that he assisted with Jesus’ burial, supplying 100 pounds of a mixture of myrrh and aloes. Having earlier turned back into the darkness, now, having seen Jesus lifted up, Nicodemus walked into the light.
The same choice confronts us. We can look up to the light, to Christ glorified on the cross, a symbol and sacrament of God’s love for us and the world, or we can turn away, scuttle into a dark corner and hide, fearful of the light shining in the darkness of the world, the light shining on the darkness of our own lives. As we approach Holy Week and draw nearer to the cross, may the light and love of God shine in our hearts and help us to experience the fullness of God’s love, the fullness of new life in Christ.