John 3:14-21

Recently I came across a poem entitled "Beyond the Sixth Grade." Here are portions of it.

"Graduated from theology in the sixth grade; no need for Sunday School again; too much struggle for mom and dad to plead that young soul into a classroom one more Sabbath....Simple answers (were adequate). Just when spicy foods and rich meals could be appreciated, peanut butter and jelly (was served); crust off, served cut in half as to a preschooler. As school encouraged wrestling with Plato and heavy weights, the church promoted 'simply believe.' No one would conceive of youth departing from chemistry, government, orchestra and basketball because (one's) knowledge and skill (were deemed) sufficient. No teacher would convey the theory that the universe would crack and all knowledge would shatter if it were questioned, tugged and manipulated this way and that. Monday-through-Friday learner she became. So did he. Absorbing the mysteries of the galaxies, reveling in literature, practicing cello and backstroke, pondering ancient philosophies of the wise ones. Delighted by discoveries within and beyond self...All the while religious education (with its) perfect attendance awards and Bible school art tucked in a scrapbook on a top shelf. Journey with the Creator (was) deemed complete in an 'all I need to know I learned by the sixth grade' approach."1

For too many people, that describes the church's method of encouraging faith. Keep it simple; do not question; just believe in Jesus. In fact, the whole gospel can be summed up in one verse: "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." It's best if we can memorize the verse, but if not, simply say, "John 3:16." Or, write "John 3:16" on poster board and hold it up when the camera pans the crowd in the end zone.

We do not buy that sort of thinking here at Westminster. We don't stifle questions, we encourage them. We don't smother curiosity, we prompt it. We want people to wrestle with the Scriptures and to be inquisitive. We want people to plumb the depths of their faith and to always be chasing the truth. Some resist having their beliefs challenged. They want their faith elementary and uncomplicated, and that is why they find the pastors here so annoying! We question what the church has taught in the past, especially if it does not mesh with our experience or seems at odds with our understanding of Christ. We do not wish to destroy anyone's faith, but it is our responsibility to prod everyone to a more mature faith. The Apostle Paul said, "When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways."2

So it's with mature, inquisitive minds that we engage today's gospel lectionary reading which includes the well-known and often quoted verse, John 3:16. Historically, this has been a comforting passage to most Christians. They have taken solace in the belief that God is loving. God loves the world so much that God gave his only Son. Perhaps even more reassuring is that this verse can quell one's anxiety about death. The great psychic distress that comes with being human is the knowledge that we do not live forever. One day it will all be over. However, this passage prevents us from caving in to despair by promising eternal life. Verse 17 says, "God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him." Good news, indeed.

And yet, in our day, this passage has become troubling for an increasing number of people. While the passage says that God loves the whole world and wants everyone to have eternal life, there seems to be a catch. It is only those who believe in Jesus who have eternal life. Verse 18 says, "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." Does God love the whole world, but shuts the doors of the heavenly kingdom to those who do not believe in Jesus? What kind of love is that? Is everyone a child of God, but God condemns those who do not become Christians? What kind of parent is that? Is God forgiving, but only to those who admit their mistakes? Is God's forgiveness that limited? As I have mentioned on other occasions, it is critical for us to take into account the context in which John's gospel was written. John was writing his gospel late in the first century to a small community of believers who had recently been banned from the synagogue by the Pharisees and were persecuted for their beliefs. It's not surprising that the author of this gospel would use forceful language in hopes of keeping them faithful in the midst of persecution. The persecution of John's community helps us understand why his gospel is the most anti-Jewish, and why it contains the most exclusivist language. It is only in John's gospel that Jesus says, "No one comes to the Father except through me."3 And yet, surprisingly, Jesus also says "I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold,"4 which leaves the door open for people who are not Christian.

Further, Jesus never addresses any other world religion and it is likely that he knew nothing of Hinduism or Buddhism, and Islam would not even come into existence for seven centuries after his death. The God revealed in Jesus, the Creator of all that is and a loving parent who wants us to live abundant lives, does not seem like the kind of deity who would be limited to accepting people through only one faith tradition which is strongly predicated by accident of birth.

What is the intent of this passage for us today? Is it intended to bolster our confidence that we have the inside track to God, but those who do not believe as we do are destined for destruction? Is it intended to encourage us to think that we are the virtuous people who walk in the light, but those who believe differently are evil people who dwell in darkness? This passage has been used as a wedge to divide people and to justify the most unChrist-like acts imaginable. Think: the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition and the persecution of the Jews that continued for centuries until it laid the foundation for the Holocaust.

Witnessing the many ways that people have abused religious faith, it is no wonder that some people want nothing to do with any religion. And yet, for those of us whose lives have been enriched by our faith, who have found meaning and purpose, who have discovered courage and hope when times were difficult, who have had their lives transformed, who have embraced its vision of a better tomorrow, know that there would be a terrible void in our lives without it. Passages of Scripture often possess more than one layer of meaning and God's Spirit can bring to life new understandings. What I find intriguing about this passage is that its meaning seems to pivot on the word, "believe" which shows up five times in the first five verses. What does it mean to believe in Jesus? For most of my life I understood the word "believe" to mean giving mental and verbal assent to something. To believe in Jesus meant to affirm certain statements about him. It meant: Can you affirm with a clear conscience that Jesus is the Son of God? At one point in life it meant: Do you believe that Jesus could do miracles, such as walking on water? At another point it meant: Can you say the Apostles' Creed - including that he was born of a virgin - without crossing your fingers?

But the more I study Scripture and the more I wrestle with what it means to be a Christian, the more I realize that believing in Jesus means a great deal more than simply affirming specific propositions. Believing in Jesus means following him. It does not mean forcing my brain to accept certain doctrines, but rather striving to live a Christ-like existence. When I was in seminary, I thought I was being called to a ministry of pastoral counseling. In one of my courses, I worked in an outpatient mental health facility where I counseled people. Back in those days, we used cassette tape recorders to record the counseling session. After each session, I sat down with my supervisor who listened to the recording and pointed out what I was doing right and what I was doing wrong. And what I was doing wrong. And what I was doing wrong...

Early on I learned a valuable lesson. My supervisor said, "You pay to much attention to the person's words and not enough attention to the person's behavior. People will say all sorts of things, but their actions will reveal the heart of the matter."

This simple counseling principle applies especially well to religious faith. To know what someone believes, what he truly believes in his heart and soul, focus on what he does. His actions will reveal what he believes at his core.

In fact, each of us should reflect deeply on what we say we believe and see how well it measures up to the way we are actually living. If there is a disconnect between what we say and what we do, then we need to ask if we are deceiving ourselves.

When Jesus was asked, "Which commandment in the law is the greatest?" he did not respond by saying "You must profess certain ideas about God." He did not say, "You must force your brain to accept things that seem dubious." He said, "Love God. And love your neighbor as yourself."

Some people will gladly profess that they believe Jesus is the Son of God and then think they have done all that is required to receive eternal life. But they will resist having their way of living scrutinized. They say they believe in Jesus, but do nothing to relieve the suffering of the poor. They say they believe in Jesus, but do not treat others fairly. They say they believe in Jesus, but keep their wealth for themselves. They say they believe in Jesus, but do nothing to make the world a more peaceful place.

Believing in Jesus is not primarily concerned with affirming certain ideas about him. It is about committing ourselves to a certain way of being in the world. In his brief life, Jesus showed us what it meant to live a life that is full of God. It entails respecting others, showing hospitality to strangers and standing up for those who have been pushed to the margins of society. Jesus demonstrated the importance of extending compassion while seeking justice.

Recently NPR's Nina Totenberg accompanied Representative John Lewis of Georgia as he led a pilgrimage to Alabama to commemorate some of the violent events of the Civil Rights movement. They traveled to Selma, "where club-wielding police on horseback gassed marchers led by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. They went to Montgomery, where Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white man on a bus. And to Birmingham, where police chief Bull Connor set dogs and fire hoses loose on women and children marching for the right to vote." Many of the people who brutalized those marching for their civil rights, were good church-going people who would have been quick to say, "I believe in Jesus" while their actions screamed the contrary.

When this pilgrimage stopped in Selma a couple of weeks ago, there was a two hour service. The official speaker for the occasion was Eric Holder, our nation's first African-American Attorney General. Do you know who introduced him? The daughter of Alabama's former governor, George Wallace. The man who famously told the citizens of Alabama: "Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!"

Wallace's daughter, Peggy Wallace Kennedy, "spoke of the civil rights marchers in Selma as a brave band of believers who carried the flag of freedom. In the darkest moments," she said, "they never gave up." She went on to say, "I knew in my heart that their cause was just, but unlike them I did not let my voice be heard." She deeply regrets her silence, but now she is a changed person. That's why she was there that night to introduce Attorney General Holder. And as she was wrapping up her remarks, her eyes filled with tears, and she turned to Holder and embraced him, and for several moments the two simply held each other.5. The embrace said, "Forgive me for the past," while at the same time saying, "I stand in solidarity with you now."

People who believe in Jesus reach out to others with compassion and take strides for justice. And not only in large, grand gestures, but in things that any of us can do. We can feed the hungry, mentor a child, pound nails for Habitat, discourage someone from telling a racist or homophobic joke, go on a mission trip, encourage our elected officials to work for the common good; the possibilities are endless.

The way we interact with others and the things we do express our faith. Do you truly believe in Jesus?


  1. Cynthia Langston Kirk, "Beyond the Sixth Grade," in The Progressive Christian, September -
    October, 2008, p.7.
  2. 1 Corinthians 13:11
  3. John 14:3
  4. John 10:16
  5. Nina Totenberg, "Civil Rights History Comes Full Circle in Alabama," on National Public
    Radio's Morning Edition, March 19, 2009.