For God so Loved the World…

Sermon for Sunday, March 5, 2023 || Lent 2A || John 3:1-17

Today we’re going to talk about the most famous verse in the Bible. I read it a minute ago. Did you hear it? How does it start? For God so loved the world…

“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.”

This verse, this famous verse, is tricky for three reasons. First, people tend to isolate it by itself, far from the context of the verses around it. This happens even in the way English translations of the Bible lay out the text; they make John 3:16 its own paragraph for absolutely no discernible reason. Second, people tend to focus on the second half of the verse and decide (because they haven’t read it in context) that John 3:16 is a verse of exclusion. You have to “believe” to have eternal life, and that usually means in practice that you have to assent to a certain set of doctrines that a denomination or a charismatic pastor lists out for you. And third, people tend to make God smaller than God is, in order to fit God inside our limited human understanding. Rather than expand ourselves through prayer and spiritual practice, we instead shrink God to conform to our meager expectations.

For the rest of the sermon, I’m going to mix and match these three reasons that make interpreting John 3:16 tricky. And I need to go next to my own story. Growing up in the Deep South, I saw the citation for this verse all over the place. “John 3:16” was emblazoned on bumper stickers, T-shirts, billboards, and signs at football games. Always without the actual words of the verse, the citation alone was something of a brand or logo for certain expressions of Christianity. Throughout the years, because of a certain interpretation of this and other verses, many well-meaning friends asked me: “Are you saved?” and “Has Jesus Christ become your personal savior?” At the time, I got irritated whenever anyone asked me this because it made me feel like my Episcopal expression of Christianity was worth less than theirs. But looking back on it, I’m thankful for their efforts. They were concerned enough about the state of my soul to invite me to meet Jesus in the same way they had been taught to meet him.

One night at the Fifth Quarter, which was held at Valley View Baptist Church after high school football games, the church’s youth minister invited all the attendees to sit down. He talked to us about Jesus, quoting from several verses of John 3 that I read earlier, including the famous 16th verse. And in the end, he prompted each of us to pray, and to ask Jesus to enter our hearts. So I did. I asked Jesus to be my personal savior. I now had a satisfactory answer for those acquaintances seeking to save my soul: “It was junior year after the game against County.”

But while this answer was satisfactory for them, it wasn’t satisfactory for me. It felt too small, somehow. It felt like I had asked Jesus to be mine, sort of like a divine version of a valet on Downton Abbey. My personal savior. What I didn’t realize at the time was that this ritual formulation of asking Jesus to enter my heart was one way to discover he had been in my heart all the time and was in fact the one prompting me to ask in the first place. So, he wasn’t my personal savior. He wasn’t mine at all. I was his. The gift was that he wanted me to be his.

But to understand this gift God has given us, I had to think bigger than my own personal salvation, which, by the way, is a uniquely American understanding. I had to read John 3:16 with a greater scope. But it wasn’t until my first semester Greek class in seminary that I had the tools to do so. The key to the verse is in the first couple of words: “For God so loved the world…” When we read those words in English, it sounds like God loves this planet we find ourselves on. Sure this love encompasses more than just me and my personal salvation, but we’re still not thinking big enough.

The Greek word that’s translated in this verse as “world” is kosmos, which is where we get the English word cosmos. We’re not talking here just this rock 92 million miles from the sun, but the whole universe! Space, the final frontier! (“These are the voyages of the…nope, wait, almost got sidetracked.) All that God has created or will ever create is wrapped up in this word, kosmos. The Gospel of John thinks big.

To even begin to understand the depths or heights of God’s love, we first must understand what God loves. It’s everything that has ever existed or will ever exist. It’s every atom in every cell in every organ in every being on every planet in every solar system in every galaxy in this universe that is still rapidly expanding, for all time past, present, and future. Nothing at all would exist if the love of God were not animating its existence.

For God’s love of the kosmos, God gave the supreme gift – God’s own self in the form of God’s own Son. The gift God gave was an experience of the perfect relationship, which we name the Holy Trinity: the Parent, the Child, and the Love between them. By giving Creation this experience of perfect relationship, God repaired the broken relationship between God and Creation. This is the epic story being told in those first few words of John 3:16.

And still, that language is too small. Our language is always too small to speak of God, and so we must always “Yes, and…” our way into more expansive understandings of the Creator. The writer of John continues with verse 3:17, just in case we missed the point: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world [kosmos] to condemn the world [kosmos, but in order that the world [kosmos might be saved through him.” John 3:16 can only be read as an exclusionary verse if you conveniently stop before reading 3:17. Because 3:17 is about God loving the entire universe back into right relationship with God. 


Us included.

The belief that shows up in the second half of verse 3:16 is not an exclusionary formula. The belief is our response to God’s loving gift. In John’s Gospel, ‘belief’ is always shorthand for ‘an abiding relationship.’ The belief is not about doctrines, but about the daily walk with God, in which God transforms us into the people God yearns for us to be. And those people that God yearns for us to be find within themselves the spark of eternity that marks them as God’s beloved. They find that same mark of belovedness in each face they meet, and indeed in all corners of God’s good creation. And marked as God’s beloved, they – we – join God in God’s mission of healing and reconciliation. God keeps loving this world – this universe, this kosmos – into existence. And God keeps loving us into the truest versions of ourselves so that we can participate in the saving of this kosmos that God loves so much.

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