March 12, 2017
I must admit something that may shock you. I am a pastor. That’s not what I’m admitting, but it must be said in relationship to what I am about to admit. I am a pastor, but I am terrible at remembering chapters and verses of scripture. I remember the stories. I remember the themes. I know the difference between the proverbs and the psalms. I can generally tell you in what book a story is found or in what epistle a particular theme or idea can be located. But I am lousy at remembering specific verses. My parents, however, can spout Bible verses with ease; my dad especially. One of the things they had to do as children was memorize verses. They had Bible drills. They would be called upon to find a book, chapter and verse in the Bible as quickly as possible. They also had to memorize and recite verse after verse after verse. When it came to memorization, my parents and their generation knew specific scriptures much better than my generation does. At least my parents know it better than I do. This rote memorization of scripture was out of favor when I was in seminary. What good is memorization if there is no interpretation or understanding along with it? But I think there is probably a both/and to be found here. I’ve often thought that I should take up memorization of verses as a discipline, but it can’t be just about memorizing. There has to be some interpretation and digging into the verse as well.
Now that I’ve confessed that I am not a prize student when it comes to memorizing verses, there is one verse that I know so well I could say it forwards and backwards. I can say it in King James:
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosever believeth in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.”
And I can say it in New Revised Standard:
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
My guess is that just about everyone here – if not every single person – can recite this verse as easily and readily as I do. Even if you didn’t participate in Bible drills like my parents did, just attending church on a regular basis means that you’ve probably heard this verse more than once. Actually, I suspect that you wouldn’t have to attend church at all to at least have an inkling about this verse from John’s gospel, because this is one verse of the Bible that we see everywhere. It is displayed at sporting events. You see it on bumper stickers and billboards. John 3:16 is everywhere. But we only read 3: 16. I was an adult before I realized that verse 16 was part of the larger story of Nicodemus and Jesus’ words about being born from above. There’s a lot more going on here than one verse, even this most beloved of verses, can encapsulate.
I love this verse. I love this story. But I’ve grown to dread its appearance in the lectionary readings. Because dealing with this story means I have to deal with the idea of being born again. I do not relish addressing this particular concept; at least not American Christianity’s understanding of being born again. I say it that way because I’m learning that American Christianity has its own peculiar flavor in contrast to Christianity in other parts of the world.
I am into my fourth year of co-leading the ecumenical Bible study at the YMCA. It is an ecumenical study in the sense that we who sit around the table represent different denominations. But it is not so ecumenical in that just about everyone around the table interprets scripture through a more literal, evangelical lens. And then there’s me.
I do not see or interpret scripture through that particular lens. So when this story is brought to the table for study, or when the idea of being born again comes up, I struggle with how to be in community with people who see it so differently from the way I do. I would say that every person who attends the study regularly would call themselves born again. They all have a moment, a date, a time and place, when they can say that they accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior and were saved. That is the moment when they were born again.
I don’t have a moment like that. I have some profound moments when I entered into a deeper relationship, more profound relationship with God; moments when my understanding of God’s working in my life was enlarged. I was raised a Southern Baptist. I was baptized as a believer. I went forward in an altar call. But even that was not a moment where I consider myself saved. No, I do not have that kind of born again moment. Because of this, I suspect that my friends at that table, who love me and value me, also wonder if I really am saved or not. So I dread that conversation. I don’t just dread it, I get my back up about it. I become Amy DeNiro Pacino.
“Are you talking to me? Are you looking at me? Do you think I’m not saved cause I’m not born again? Do you think my kids are not saved because I baptized them as babies? Do you think I’m not a real Christian cause I don’t interpret Scripture literally? Are you talking to me?”
One of the problems I have with the idea of being born again is that it puts the world into two distinct camps – those who are and those who are not. But is that what Jesus was saying? Is that what John was implying in the way he told this story? The story we have before us goes all the way to verse 17. God loved the world so much that God sent his Son into it to save it. In fact, God didn’t send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved. God loved and loves the world. God loved and loves everyone in the world. The world and its inhabitants – all of them – matter to God. The world was to be saved, not just the ones who claim a moment as their moment of salvation.
Here’s a second problem I have with our modern concept of being born again. Saying that you are born again seems to say that you do the saving. I accept Jesus Christ as my Savior, therefore I am saved. I make the choice. I make it happen. No, God makes it happen. God does the saving. So back to verse 17. God sent his Son into the world so that the world might not be condemned, but be saved. That isn’t just referencing individuals. Jesus was speaking about the whole world. The. Whole. World.
The Greek word for world is kosmos. As Dr. David Lose pointed out in his piece on this chapter, throughout his gospel John used the word kosmos to refer to “an entity that hates God.” The world hates God, so the world will hate anyone who comes in God’s name. God didn’t just love the world, God so loved the God-hating world. God so loved the world that rejected God, despised God, hated God.
This world might hate God, but God does not hate it in return. God loves it. God loves us. And God doesn’t just love us from a distance, God loves us up close and personal. God loves us intimately. God loves us so much that the way God sent his Son was through the very messy, very human process of being born. That’s how much God loves us and God loves this world. Even though the world might hate God in return, God loves the world. That is the God we know; the God who loves God’s creation, the God who loves us.
We can’t talk about verses 16 and 17 without also talking about the verses that were left off in today’s reading; verses 18 though 21. God loved the world. God sent his Son into the world to save it, not condemn it. But, if someone rejects the Son, if someone rejects belief in the Son, than that person is condemned. Does that mean that God banishes the person to hell? Or does it mean that the person banishes God from his or her life, from his or her heart? Rejecting God is about rejecting the light. The light came into the world, but those who reject God choose darkness over light.
The God we know is the God of love. This isn’t some easy, peazy, happy-go-lucky love. God’s love demands something of us. It demands us. God’s love demands our response of service and sacrifice. God’s love means that we matter. God’s love is for us whether we say we are born again or not. God is about love not condemnation. Our God is about grace and mercy. Our God is about judgment, but judgment that goes hand-in-hand with righteousness. Our God is about love, love for the world, love for us – all of us. It is not about born again versus not born again. It is not about us versus them. It is about all of us being loved by God, who wants us to live in the light of his Son. All of us. That is the God we know.
Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.