The Rev. Steven D. Paulikas
March 8, 2020
All Saints’ Church
Friends, the season of Lent is one of sacrifice and of doing things we don’t want to do. So let me confess to you that I truly do not enjoy having to preach about today’s Gospel passage. Please consider this sermon part of my Lenten mortification.
I dislike this passage because it has been so overburdened with cultural spiritual baggage that it hardly makes any sense anymore. In particular, there’s that famous—if not infamous—verse in John, Chapter 3, Verse 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.”
If you haven’t heard these words before, then you have never done any of the following things:
1. Looked at the bottom of a soda cup at an In-and-Out Burger or a shopping bag from Forever 21, each of which bears the inscription, “John 3:16,”
2. Watched Tim Tebow play for the Florida Gators in 2009, when he wrote “John 3:16” on his eye black, or
3. Received an autograph from Duck Dynasty’s Si Robertson, who adds the verse to his personal John Hancock. Or basically watched any college or professional football game, where people have been holding up John 3:16 signs for cameras for decades.
What do these things have to do with Christianity? Let me just say: I have no idea. But they have all made people think that there is something somehow magical about this one single verse, as if all of our religion could be boiled down one sentence.
And, in fact, that is what the people who have used pop culture as a vehicle to popularize this one verse from the Bible believe. They call it the “Golden Verse,” the key to understanding all of scripture and faith. But that’s even too narrow of a characterization for this campaign. Because this is really an effort to promote a particular interpretation of this one verse as the key to understanding all of Christianity. This interpretation hinges on one word: believe. “...Everyone who believes in him may not perish, but have eternal life.” In this understanding, the key to eternal life is your personal belief that Jesus is the Son of God. If you don’t have that belief, then the verse has another word for you: “perish.” As one respected evangelical theologian puts it, “The point is that Christ is salvation, and those who believe in Christ are saved. That is the central message of Christians.”
So there it is: a simple, clear theology that explains everything. If you believe in Christ, you are saved. And because of that, it is the mission of Christians to try to bring as many people to salvation as possible—and to save them from perishing. To do that, they need to get the message out. So why not print the message as a code on paper cups and signs that get seen on TV? It’s all very logical when viewed from this perspective.
For better or worse, this is the theology of hundreds of millions of Americans, and an even larger of factor of people around the world. It gives people the comfort of a clean and tidy way of thinking about God and the world. It’s an easily transmittable message and creates a convenient way of forming community: those who believe are in the community, and those who don’t are on the outside.
Let me say: there is a deep and earnest piety behind the motivations of most people who share this John 3:16 theology. You may be one of them, and if so, I honor your faith and your conviction. Many people in my own life—family, acquaintances, other Episcopalians—have been deeply influenced by this one verse from Scripture, and I would never want to diminish the authenticity and passion of their faith.
I would only ask for a bit of open-mindedness around a question that I makes me skeptical of elevating this interpretation of John 3:16 above all else:
If salvation is dependent upon my personal belief in Jesus, then is being a Christian more about Jesus, or about me and my belief? Follow me a little ways on this one. The big John 3:16 push is to get as many people as possible to believe that Jesus is the Son of God, which is supposedly the key to salvation. That means that my salvation depends on an affirmative action by me in something that is sometimes described as accepting Jesus as your personal lord and savior. To me, that seems to give me a whole lot of power. More power even than God. Does it mean that God was not acting in my life before I believed? Does it mean that God will stop acting if I stop believing? And what is the threshold for belief? Is there a test? And most importantly: is God’s action in the world really constrained by our capacity for belief? The fact is that the In-and-out-Burger answer to all these questions puts me in the driver’s seat with God as the car. And for me, well, that’s just not the Jesus I know from the rest of the Bible.
I believe the obsession with John 3:16 in contemporary American Christianity has turned our religion into an ego trip. In the name of submitting ourselves to Christ, we are urged to make our own convictions the arbiter of our salvation. I could just as easily point to so many other verses from Scripture that would call this practice sinful.
Matthew 23: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your mind and with all your strength.”
Or this one from Romans 8, when Paul proclaims, “for I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Or how about this one: “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.” That one is…John 3:17.
John 3:16 theology that places salvation in our capacity for belief has given rise to so many of the things that people outside the Church find disturbing about Christianity. Hostility toward people of other faiths and arrogance toward those outside the clearly-defined lines of their spiritual community. A strident and inflexible political agenda based on a narrow reading of Scripture. Hurtful behavior and comments toward members of their own families based on received doctrine. Earlier I mentioned my own family members and acquaintances who subscribe to a John 3:16 faith; those same people largely refused to attend my wedding, because in their view, being gay means I don’t really believe in Jesus, and I guess they didn’t want to support my path to damnation. That hurt.
The huge shame in all of this is that Jesus didn’t come to spread hurt, arrogance, and hostility. In the words of John 3:16, that very verse itself, he came to give us eternal life. By his crucifixion and resurrection, he offered himself as a living sacrifice to all humanity. That is the theology of an Easter people, of Christians who are reborn through the waters of baptism and nourished with his body and blood.
I do not believe that faith is not about slogans or clever marketing. I do not believe the Bible is an instrument for making us feel bad. And I definitely do not believe that Jesus came into this world to spread fear and distrust, division and false righteousness.
I believe that faith is lived out, day by day. I believe that God’s word is the instrument of salvation for all people, and that its depths can never fully be plumbed by the human mind and spirit. And I believe that Jesus belongs to all of us—because that’s what he said.
If you Lenten discipline is designed to make you trust in your own righteousness and not God’s, then I’m sorry to say you’re on the wrong track. We’re not getting to heaven by the strength and virtue of our own faith. God’s faith is faith greater than our own. This is one of the great lessons of Lent, and whatever observance you may be following should point to God’s graciousness, not your own.
God truly does love the world. So much so that we have been given a Son. This is gift enough. Let your faith in this love grow and flourish, for eternal life is ours from God. Amen.