John 3:17

Sermon Preached on February 17, 2008 (Lent 2A)
St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Stone Harbor (NJ)

Ah, John 3:16 – the bumper stickers, the painted signs on the sides of buildings, the banners held up at football games. Who cannot help but fall in love with the sentimental words of John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Somehow that verse is so much clearer in the King James Version. And, indeed, everything seems so much clearer when we know John 3:16. Because knowing John 3:16 makes us insiders to the Truth that all we have to do is believe in Jesus and eternal life is ours to have. And, presumably, knowing this passage so well that we put it on bumper stickers, sides of buildings, and banners is our way of letting others know that we are not only insiders to the Truth but believers in this Truth. We are saved. Oh, and by the way, if you don’t know the verse, don’t care to drive around town with the verse, perhaps you are one of those fated to perish. Isn’t that the implication? For wherever there are insiders, there must be outsiders. Wherever there are believers, there must be those who do not believe.

Sometimes I think it might be an interesting experiment to drive around with a bumper sticker on my car that reads, “John 3:17.” Can you imagine the chaos? First, the shock could cause a traffic accident! But, if the traffic accident is averted, I like to imagine people rushing straight home, ignoring whatever errand it was they were off to, and running hastily to their bookshelf to dust off the Bible (the Bible they haven’t looked at since they committed John 3:16 to memory) and opening to that verse – John 3:17 - and reading, “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.” And then, in a flash, the great epiphany would occur - if God did not send Jesus into the world to condemn, but rather to save, then perhaps there is more to these passages than at first meets the eye. Maybe flashing John 3:16 as a sign of my personal salvation is not the essence of the Christian faith.

Now, I have been a bit flip about Christian’s use of John 3:16 and I want to back-up just enough to say that I do not really have any issue about the use of this verse of Scripture per se. Rather, my contention is with those who use that verse as if it summarizes the whole of the Christian faith and with those who live out their faith as if that is all there is to the Christian faith. Because, adding just one verse more, sheds a very different light on the matter.

These two verses from John’s gospel, taken together, according to United Methodist Bishop William Willimon remind “us of why we’re here. We are on the way of the cross not because of what we have done or left undone” (to use the familiar words of our confession of sin) “but” says Willimon,

“because of what God has done. . . . It was out of love that [Jesus] came among us and stood beside us and chided us and died with us, for us, and saved us. Love. . . . It was for this that we began the [Lenten] journey. It was not for sackcloth and ashes, whips, the sacrifice of a before-dinner martini and empty stomachs that we are here. It was love that put us in this parade. We kneel not as miserable worms but as those brought to their knees by sheer wonder at the gift. It was not to condemn us that our Lord bid us bear his cross, but to save us. We are not here as the lost but as the found.”[1]

And just as Jesus was not sent to condemn, but to save, so we also are called not to condemn others – presumably the non-John 3:16-sporting folk – but to save. And our steadfast belief in Jesus should be motivation enough to engage us in this work.

As I was mulling all of this over in my head this week, I thought of children’s (and some adults’) belief in Santa Claus as a parallel to the kind of belief we are called to have in Jesus. In the weeks and days leading up to Christmas, children engage in a number of activities: they write letters to Santa carefully addressed to the North Pole; they put out really big Christmas stockings so that they might be surprised by a few small toys and bits of candy on Christmas morning; provide milk and cookies for Santa and perhaps carrots, hay or some other treats for the reindeer. Each of these activities is done, at least for small children, because they believe in Santa. They love Santa.

Our belief in Jesus, our love of Jesus ought similarly to compel us to engage in certain activities. And Scripture is quite helpful in this regard because it gives us a number of helpful suggestions of how we can show our love: Feed the hungry. Give drink to the thirsty. Welcome the stranger. Clothe the naked. Visit the sick and those in prison.[2] This list comes from Matthew’s gospel. But there is also a powerful passage found later in the gospel of John that speaks directly to this connection between the love of Jesus and our actions. This is the exchange between Simon Peter and Jesus after the resurrection:

“Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me . . . ‘He said to him, 'Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ A second time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ He said to him the third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ . . . And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, "Feed my sheep.’”[3]

There can be no question as to how our love of and belief in Christ is to be acted out in our lives. Scripture is compellingly clear.

A number of us have been gathering at the Partnership Center on Thursday nights to take part in our Lenten series, God’s Mission in the World. The focus of our discussion is on the Millennium Development Goals which were established by a meeting of the United Nations in September of 2000. The Millennium Development Goals are designed to cut global poverty in half by 2015. Our Presiding Bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, refers to the Millennium Development Goals as a project that

“calls us home to a world where the hungry are fed, the ill are healed, the young educated, women and men treated equally, and where all have access to clean water and adequate sanitation, basic health care, and the promise of development that does not endanger the rest of creation. With the passionate commitment of each and every one of us, that vision of abundant life is achievable in our own day. It is God’s vision of homecoming for all humanity.”[4]

“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.”[5] Do you believe in Jesus? Feed God’s lambs. Do you love Jesus? Tend God’s sheep. Do you believe in Jesus? Together, let us feed God’s sheep.

[1] William Willimon, “God So Loved (John 3:17),” Christian Century (March 17, 1982), p. 292 accessed online at Religion Online on February 13, 2008.
[2] Matthew 25:35-46
[3] John 21:15-7
[4] The Most Reverend Katharine Jefferts Schori, “Foreword,” God’s Mission in the World: An Ecumenical Christina Study Guide on Global Poverty and the Millennium Development Goals (The Episcopal Church Office of Government Relations and the ELCA Washington Office, 2006), p. 4.
[5] John 3:16-17 (KJV)