The week’s lectionary passage takes us to the familiar home of John 3:1-17. It’s hard to resist the homiletical allure of preaching John 3:16, yet like the perennial texts we face at Christmas and Easter, is there anything new to be said about these most well-known verses of the four gospels?
If there’s anything about this passage that I find unavoidable, it’s the emphasis on God’s love. “For God so loved the world,” Jesus says to Nicodemus. Unfortunately, we often gloss over those words and read them as a prologue to the more important, “that he gave us his only begotten son.” They are the key to understanding verses 16 and 17, perhaps the whole pericope.
I don’t want to move on so quickly because we might miss something about the relationship between love and creation. Secondly, with this gift of love and creation comes a great responsibility that goes far beyond “belief” in the son who was sent “to us.” To understand our role in our relationship with God, we need verse 17. If we believe in the son who was gifted to us, we are accepting the terms of the gift, that the gift came not to condemn and further the same love of humanity that prompted the gift in the first place. That’s why the pericope doesn’t stop with verse 16.
Other religious traditions, particularly in the ancient world, show God (or gods) engaging in brutal and violent creation stories. In the ancient Sumerian religion, the goddess Tiamat was ripped in half to create sea and sky. We know of the traditional tales of the Greco-Roman pantheon that showed the gods’ contempt for each other and human beings. Gods in the ancient world hated people. Yet, in Genesis, we’re told humans were created as a little less than angels. In these familiar words from John, the early Christian community is reminded that the God of Israel loves the world. God does not hate humanity. We are not God’s playthings. God does not treat us like chess pieces on a board, moving us around according to a plan only God knows. God loves us. We are God’s partners and friends. Isn’t it wonderful to be loved by God?
God loves us. God gives us a son because he loves us. Because God loves us and gives us a son, he says it’s out of a desire not to condemn humanity but to love humanity. What is keeping us from getting the point? God loves us. Why can’t we love others unconditionally as God does? Why can’t we love others without condemning and judging? Doesn’t believing in God’s son make this kind of unconditional love possible? I believe it does. God created us out of love, not hate. Shouldn’t this free us from hate? How can we claim to love God’s son if we have hate in our hearts? If hate is in our hearts, the John 3:16 process stops, and the love God first shared in giving us Jesus stops with us. If love is there, we keep passing John 3:16 on, and that creative “For God so loved the world” process never ends.
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