What does this verse, slogan, meme, and sometime magical spell mean to United Methodists on the edge of a denominational meltdown? Probably the same as it’s always meant. Yes, Virginia, unlike any other set of words in the Bible, whether we realize or not, we attribute unexplained powers and possibilities to the mere utterance of John 3:16. We do this: “Just say it once and you’ll be saved!” Harry Potter could learn a thing or two from we Christians.
For many, it’s a verse believed to have permanent, even ecumenical meaning. It means the same thing today it meant yesterday and on the day before that. Its self apparent clarity is unchanging since Nicodemus posed his question and Jesus gave his reply. Some hold that “God so loved the world” to be a self evident truth on par with Thomas Jefferson’s declaration that “all men are created equal”.
For other, it’s like a supernova. A long time ago, a supernova was a bright, shining star. By the time the light reaches us (after its collapse), we’re seeing what it eventually thousands of years ago. In the present, it longer exists. We have no idea what it means today. When the supernova exploded in the dark reaches of space, it meant a certain combinations of gases and gravity went dark and collapsed upon itself. This we know. It has taken years for us to catch up to something that occurred before Earth existed. We’re not unpacking something new. (Yes, it’s new to us.) We’re simply trying to understand a past which no longer exists.
John 3:16 was the Big Bang moment which formed our Christian universe. There are real limitations on how close we can come to seeing, experiencing, and studying this moment. To paraphrase Nicodemus, we can’t go back into the celestial womb. Once it occurred, through the fragments of space, time, and denominational telescopes we’re only looking at fragments of matter from something that happened so long ago (it might as well have been 400 billion years ago from our limited human perspective) and is no longer reflective of a real time event. Nicodemus isn’t still with Jesus in a night time meeting where Jesus explains metaphors about rebirth. The event is over.
However, does this mean God no longer loves the world? God still loves the world. Yes, hell yes! My point is this: I don’t believe the third chapter of John is the best way to tell the story of God’s ongoing love and grace. John 3:16 is confusing, tired, and getting a bit old. In fact, I don’t think we’re paying attention to it. We’ve used and abused this passage to such a degree that it’s lost any meaning, beauty, or hope it once offered. It’s a punch line. Jesus was never a punching bag. Besides, there are better passages “to tell the old, old story of Jesus and his love.”
John 3:16 sets up a litmus test. “So that everyone who believes in him won’t perish,” that’s how the verse goes. God believes in me on days when I am a struggling theist. United Methodism can’t evolve into a litmus test faith. Litmus tests leave good people behind.
I will never be convinced that God offers us love and grace with a catch. I never really saw Jesus as big on making people jump through hoops. I believe God helps us through our belief and unbelief. I see this when I sit across a kitchen table with a widow who’s just lost her husband of 67 years. She’s angry at God, unbelieving at the loss she’s experiencing, and yet praying to God to join her on her painful journey. Nothing about John 3:16 brings help, hope, or love to that kitchen table.
I told her God loves her in her anger, doubt, sadness, and disbelief. It doesn’t matter what John 3:16 says. God loves you, no strings attached.
Richard Lowell Bryant