John 3:16: "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."
This verse is one of the most out of context and misquoted verses in the whole of the Christian Testament. It is often misquoted and used as a sledgehammer designed to stop all further discussion.
No matter how much many of us wish to discuss the real issues of faith in our post-modern world, some Christians just throw this verse at me to say, “The Bible says that Jesus is the only way to salvation, and therefore there is nothing else to discuss.”
If you believe that then this morning I am not trying to change your minds or to make you see things my way. All I am doing is responding to the catastrophic decline in the membership of the traditional institutional church in this country and inviting you to engage with the issues that I raise. Then, having thought through the issues, make up your own mind about what I am saying.
John 3:16 is often quoted at me by those who think that a person is either Christian and therefore will inherit eternal life or we are not Christian, in which case we will inherit and deserve eternal punishment. Sadly, in this way the Christian Church for two millennia has created barriers of exclusion when Jesus crushed similar barriers within the Judaism of his time and place.
Such an exclusive 'conversion' religious view merely underlines the fact that for too many Christians, Jews and Muslims, all descendants of Abraham, our common ancestor – all our understandings of God are far too small.
This morning I am not arguing away John 3:16 but I am inviting us all to see it in two different and liberating contexts – the first the context of late 1st century theology and not as early 1st century history, and the second, an understanding fit for purpose in our 21st century highly educated culture and environment - but also one that continues to resort to violence to 'solve' problems.
The more that I consider the life and teaching of Jesus the more I see that one conversion is NOT what Jesus experienced nor was it what Jesus spoke about. As I study the Gospel stories and the different experiences of Peter and Paul and the other leaders of the early churches scattered around the Mediterranean and Middle East, the more I see Jesus inviting us to a continual cycle of converting moments and spiritual re-births.
And these converting moments and spiritual re-births happen each time that we die to self and to our selfish demands especially when we put the genuine needs of others first and, although it is not always easy to do, when we love others unconditionally. This is the message of Matthew 25 when Jesus is said to have reminded his followers that whatever we do for the least of people we do to Jesus.
Such a commitment to living this way will transform us by those small converting moments and spiritual re-births into the image and nature and character of the Perfect Love that is God fully and uniquely revealed to Christians in Jesus of Nazareth. This is the daily work of the Divine Indwelling Spirit just as it is our work with that Spirit.
But the question that I ask is this: "Which Jesus is the authentic Jesus, the Jesus of Mark, Matthew and Luke or the Jesus of John’s Gospel?"
Take for example John’s Gospel in which Jesus talks of himself as a divine person. There are the great ‘I am’ sayings in John’s Gospel – ‘I am the bread of life’; ‘I am the light of the world’; ‘I am the vine’; ‘I am the way and the truth and the life’ – but they are not in the 3 earlier Gospels written nearer to the time when Jesus was alive. Either Mark did not know or chose to ignore these ‘I am’ sayings, when 30 or more years later John is the only Gospel writer apparently to know them.
Why should this be?
In Mark, Matthew and Luke, Jesus never speaks of himself in this way and often, when someone had a realisation of the Divine Nature of Jesus, what was the response of Jesus? “Don’t tell anyone!”
And in the other 3 earlier Gospels, when Jesus spoke it was usually in concise statements or parables but in John’s Gospel Jesus spoke in long detailed discourses. So which is the authentic Jesus, the man of few words or the intricate weaver of story, challenge and self-promotion?
Also, think about Jesus entering the Temple in Jerusalem and overthrowing the tables of the moneylenders and traders. In Mark, Matthew and Luke this comes at the beginning of the last week of the life of Jesus. But where does this come in the Gospel of John? It is in chapter 2 at the beginning of the ministry of Jesus! Now did Jesus overturn these tables twice in his ministry or is one of the accounts wrong?
Either Mark, Matthew and Luke are right and John is wrong – or John is right and the others are wrong. You can’t have it both ways! The differences are so great that it is not possible for all four Christian Gospels to be historically accurate records of what Jesus said and did.
What I now say is vitally important - until the account of the last week in the life of Jesus, John’s Gospel is theology and not history. Therefore much of the opening 18 chapters of John's Gospel cannot be taken as historically accurate. Whenever John’s Gospel has Jesus saying such as, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life’ or there is commentary such as "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." - these are theology and not history.
What John was saying is, “This is our on-going spiritual experience of Jesus who was dead but in our day by day experiences is alive and in him we believe that we already enjoy eternal life!”
But even if these statements in John’s Gospel are theology and not history, they cannot be ignored – but nor can they be used to beat up people like me and try to argue us into accepting their version of the God experience as the only way!
Yet, for all those who are Followers of the Way of Jesus, the theology of John 3:16 is packed with Sacred Truth. The perfect unconditional Love that is God is given to the entire world because that Perfect Love is for and is within every body. We are all temples of the Spirit of God.
To Christians Jesus is the unique revelation of the perfect, unconditional love that is God. To those who Follow the Way of Jesus, as we live as he lived, and as we face death as Jesus faced it, then we will be saved from our selfishness and we can taste something of the life eternal that is available to us all here and now. The eternal life of which the Gospel writers speak is ours to be lived today!
To remove the boundaries that religions have created to prove that 'I am right but the rest are wrong' will help us to discover a genuinely fresh expression of the joy and excitement of God in our lives and in the lives of other people no matter by which religious label they choose to describe themselves. In this way we will cease claiming that the Church is the Kingdom of God and see it as an important part but not the whole of the Kingdom of God.
As we step out into the unknown we need to be sure that we know the difference between 1st century remembered history and 1st century developing theology. In taking sacred risks we may need to go back to the drawing boards of our faith, but knowing that as we do so we continue to step into the presence and barrier breaking sacred purposes of God, today and always.
My prayer remains that we will constantly see and experience something new in the Truth that lies within and beyond the stories, histories, laws and poetry of the Hebrew and Christian Testaments. No matter what the future will bring for each one of us or where life will take us, if we can live the vision of God’s Kingdom involving all people, and the experience of the ever-present Immanuel, “God is with us”, then every day is filled with new possibilities and offers opportunities of continual converting moments and daily spiritual re-births for us all!
Nicodemus Visits Jesus
3 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ 3 Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ 4 Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ 5 Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.” 8 The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ 9 Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ 10 Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
11 ‘Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
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.
Copyright ©: 2014, Rev John Churcher. All rights reserved. Scripture taken from the Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Anglicised ®, Copyright © 1989 American Bible Society. All rights reserved.