John 3:16-21 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
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.
17 “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. 18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”
When I was living in Nashville, before I started seminary, I was organized a weekly interfaith conversation; we met every week at Panera and talked about morality, faith, and current events. In a lot of ways, it was around that long, skinny table that I first began to discern my calling to ministry. One of the things that I remember most about that time and that group of people who had almost nothing in common except for the fact that we spent two hours every week eating dinner together, was the ways in which our past religious experience often shapes our understanding of seemingly simple concepts. For instance, one of the members of our group, I will call him Tim, had no religious vocabulary; he was raised a-religious. Another of the group casually mentioned Adam and Eve, and he didn’t know to what we were referring. I think about this often, especially when I encounter things that are so common place in our Christian heritage, especially in our mostly Southern United States Christian heritage. For me, there are a handle full of verses that get cherry picked and plastered everywhere; at their best they are signs of hope and reminders that we are a people of faith, but at their worst, these slogans for Christianity become paths to cheap grace and quick judgment.
For me, it is hard to hear John 3:16 without hearing both of these at play. When I hear John 3:16, I hear that God loves this world, and that Christ came to offer salvation from all evil works that run rampant in this world. But when I hear it, I also hear a quickly flowed condemnation of all those who don’t believe like we do; that God’s great love must also come with a side of God’s great wrath. And perhaps you’ve had a different experience of this verse and have less complicated feeling around it, but I’ve had to do a lot of work to redeem it, because a central tenant for me in my faith is that it was not the wrath of God that sent Christ to the cross, but the wrath of humanity.
It is the same wrath of humanity that we see demanding that other’s lives be treated as less than, it is the same wrath of humanity that claims that some lives are more valuable than others, and it’s the same wrath that we can see play out time and time in again in our holy scriptures. When I read John 3:16, it is vital to me that we keep going, that we tag on verse 17 when we oft quote it, “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.” God’s love and the cross were never about wrath, only about love and salvation. The only wrath that the cross struck down was the wrath of humanity, and that is from what we need to be saved.
The verse that I’m finding especially convicting this week is verse 19, that judgment comes into play because, “people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” So this week I’m getting curious about what does it mean to love the light? What does it mean to have all our deeds, even, and maybe especially, during this time, be oriented to the light, to our faith, to our hope in Christ? What does it mean to love the light on a Wednesday afternoon when the weight of our current life begins to weigh a little heavier? This is my hope for us today, that we can live our lives loving the light, loving God, loving ourselves, and loving our neighbors, all because God so loved us.
This is my prayer and my hope, my friends, as we remember that life is short and we do not have long to gladden the hearts of those who travel with us, so be swift to love, make haste to be kind, and make no peace with oppression. And the blessing of God Almighty, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit be with you now and always.
A midweek meditation for the people of Christ Episcopal Church on April 22, 2020.