Our Gospel reading this morning contains a verse that was famously called by Martin Luther “the Gospel in miniature”. Many others have called the verse ‘the Gospel in a nutshell’. Preaching on a passage with such freight is a good assignment, and daunting, for a brand new priest, or perhaps for any.
That particular verse in our passage, John 3:16, is one that many in this room could recite without pause. Here it is from the NRSV – feel free to recite along with me if you’d like… 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 passage is, in fact so ubiquitous in the Christian tradition that, as you’ve seen, people hold up posters at sporting events with only the numerical reference of the scripture…. What is the message being communicated when we see this? … It seems that the agenda is often about celebrating one’s own place of certitude and “right” belief and wagging a finger in a posture of warning – listen up…pay attention folks…God so loved the world that God’s only begotten son was given so that all who really believe this…subtext – in the correct way…will not perish but have everlasting life…got it? And remember, you cannot know the hour or the day when Christ will return and you’ll have to account for yourself…you don’t want to be left behind…
The Gospel in a nutshell communicated in this way touches on basic existential and very human fears. Is this life I am living all there is? Is death the end? Is there a “correct” belief that I just don’t seem to be able to connect to? What happens if I can’t?
One thing I know for sure. If anything is of God, it is based in love and not in fear. God is love and God calls to us from that place, always. God wants us to embody that love with one another. As writer Jane Shaw has said, “Life in God is something we experience, not something we have to get right: it is a practice rather than a doctrine.” Life in God is a practice – it is not a doctrine.
Our passages today are about something deeper than correct belief…and not at all about who is in and who is out of the kin*dom of heaven, not about division and separateness. These passages are about a movement, about a Way – and they call us from disconnectedness into healing.
The New Testament, as it was written in the original Greek, would have had no punctuation whatsoever. Sentence punctuation was invented several centuries after the time in which Jesus was living. In ancient Greek there were no spaces between words or paragraphs and every letter was capitalized, no lower case. Take a look at the paper you have with our Gospel lesson written in several ways. It is easy to see in this way how the process of punctuating the scriptures is essentially the process of interpreting them. And interpretation is as subjective as the person who is carrying it out.
In the NRSV translation you see on your paper, as in many translations, verse 16 is separated out and given its own paragraph for emphasis. Yet in the translation by J.B. Phillips below that, you can see that it is not made into its own paragraph. Punctuation is interpretation. So let’s do some of our own. If I was to set off a passage in a paragraph for emphasis, it would have verses 16 and 17 together. Delving deeper into the layers of meaning that the original Greek holds it would read like this:
For God so loves the world that God’s only son was given, so that every one who places confidence in him will not be lost, but will hold in the hand eternal life. You must understand that God has not sent the son to pass sentence upon the world, but to heal the world—through him.
Listen again to verse 17, understand that God has not sent the son to pass sentence upon the world, but to heal the world…. Verse 16 needs this addition to be the Gospel Good News in a nutshell!
I have incorporated here the layers of meaning found in the Greek words of this passage ‘believe’, ‘have’ and ‘save.’ Believe includes ‘have confidence in’, ‘have’ in the way it is used here can mean ‘hold in the hand’. Yes, the promise and hope of eternal life after death is a beautiful thing…and the Greek here adds to it – fullness of life in the hand now – to enjoy now…on earth as it is in heaven!
I want to draw attention to the Greek for save. This word σωθῇ- can be translated ‘to make well, to heal, to restore to health’. As Christians we have done much damage with our use of the words salvation and save. “Are you saved? Are you in?” God sent the son into the world to heal, to restore. These verses from John’s gospel are picked out of a conversation Jesus was having with Nicodemus, a Jewish leader well versed in the law who needed to hear of the love and desire for healing God has for the world. He needed to hear that life in God is a practice – not a doctrine.
Looking at our Hebrew Bible reading today we see the Israelites wandering in the desert – big surprise – on what had to have seemed an endless journey and complaining of hunger and thirst. Yes, God had provided food for them in manna and quail, but they were plain sick of it and we are told that they began to speak against God. The scripture tells us that the community then began to experience a plague of poisonous serpents. They decided that God was really mad at them and so then they went to Moses, repented for speaking against God and asked him to intercede on their behalf. Moses did this and then followed what he heard God telling him to do. He fashioned a bronze serpent and lifted it onto a pole. Afterwards, if those who were bitten were willing to look upon it, they lived… what can we make of this? How could the bronze serpent have been a means to their healing? We could say that it was their faith and confidence that God and Moses wanted healing for them as much as they wanted it. Notice here that in the text we see repeatedly “the people.” It is a communal sin – they spoke against God. They came to repent as a community…we are being called into such action as the people of god today – for the need to be healed of the communal sin of our country’s apparent devotion to unreasonably powerful firearms and easy access to them. You and I may not feel that way individually, but as a people we surely seem to. We are being led into this communal repentance through the passion and moral clarity of the youth who survived the most recent mass shooting in Parkland, Florida.
As a diocese we are being called into prayers for healing. The bishops of the dioceses of Massachusetts and Western Massachusetts have jointly issued a call “From Lamentation to Action.” In it they urge a Day of Lamentation on Wednesday, March 14, in response to a call for unity in prayer on that day from the Bishops United Against Gun Violence coalition. I will give details about this at announcement time today.
The writer of John reflects on this scripture from Numbers in today’s gospel – he writes “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” Is he saying here that Jesus must be lifted up on the cross, to suffer as a necessary means to save us, to heal us? Perhaps so. I propose to you instead that the lifted up Jesus offers to us, through his willingness to suffer the consequences for challenging the powers that be, a means to our own healing through his action of absolute love and surrender.
Our scripture reads, God so loved the world that God GAVE…I thought about this word gave a lot this week. For myself and others I’ve known the immediate connection with the phrase ‘gave his only begotten son’ means gave into death on a cross…but there is another view…God so loved the world…that God gave into human flesh God’s very self in the man of Jesus. Gave the baby into the womb of Mary so that all who place confidence in Jesus as sent by God would experience fullness of life in the way we are intended to. God gave as incarnation – and everything flows from that. This is about believing in a particular way of living that is about love, wholeness, and connection. Jesus is limited, by the human fleshiness of his existence as a real person…and at the same time he is unlimited as a Way, a light that points beyond himself. It is a deeper truth – a deeper faith – that presents itself in more than just the person of Jesus. There are approximately 2.2 billion Christians on earth and the other major world religions make up approximately 4 billion adherents. We are not the only ones to be headed into the embrace of a loving God. Jesus is our Way to God. Jesus carries me into the hospital rooms I visit, and as I pause at the door I am ready to meet God in the countless names, expressions and experiences that are before me. The Good News is about a presence that is greater than the human form of Jesus – and is available to every person.
Our passages today are bigger than their objects of belief. They are about a movement, about a Way – from disconnectedness into healing.
Our journey through these 40 days of Lent has been inviting us into self-examination – into slowing down and making space and time and willingness to reflect on our own disconnections and woundedness. I invite you today to make space for healing…to ask God where in your life you may be in need of it. As we continue to move toward Holy Week we will be asked to companion Jesus on his journey into places of darkness. Perhaps you are in such a space. Is there healing of body, mind or spirit that you desire? Are you seeking light out of darkness?
God so loves the world that God’s only son was given, so that every one who places confidence in him will not be lost, but will hold in the hand eternal life. Understand that God has not sent the son to pass sentence upon the world, but to heal the world—through him.
As a diocese we are being called into prayers for healing. The bishops of the dioceses of Massachusetts and Western Massachusetts have jointly issued a call “From Lamentation to Action.” In it they urge a Day of Lamentation on Wednesday, March 14, in response to a call for unity in prayer on that day from the Bishops United Against Gun Violence coalition. The Cathedral Church of St. Paul will incorporate a Litany of Lamentations into the 10 a.m. Holy Eucharist that day. The bishops also encourage participation, locally and nationally, in the Saturday, March 24 March For Our Lives. In solidarity with those taking part in the Washington,D.C., March For Our Lives, more than 100 sister marches are taking shape in locations across the country, including Boston. In Boston on March 24, the Cathedral Church of St. Paul will offer hospitality and gathering space, beginning at 10 a.m., in partnership with the Diocese of Massachusetts and its B-PEACE antiviolence campaign and Episcopal City Mission. Those interested in marching with other Episcopalians should plan to meet at the Cathedral Church of St. Paul by 11:30 a.m.
 Jane Shaw, A Practical Christianity; Meditations for the Season of Lent, Morehouse Publishing, 2012. pg,