And 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. “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. “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. 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. 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. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 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.” John 3:14-21
When I hear this particular verse of John 3 I think about that guy in the rainbow wig that was at all of the sporting events holding up a sign “John 3:16.” Rollen Stewart is his name. Rollen began his crusade in 1977 at the NBA finals. What began as a publicity stunt captivated Rollen. In the late 70’s and early 80’s Rollen was everywhere holding up that “John 3:16” sign.
“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 known as the Gospel in a nutshell. This was Rollen’s message. That God gave so that we may live. This message delivered Rollen into the public sphere, where he became a minor celebrity. Rollen became obsessed with this message. In 1992 Rollen kidnapped two men and a woman at a hotel near Los Angeles International Airport. He plastered his message on a window for all to see as he threatened to shoot down planes that landed at the airport.
Rollen was convinced that the end of the world was at hand. So convinced that he tragically decided to force the world into submission to hear this message…this message of Gods giving, so that we may live. Rollen is still in prison serving three life terms for his actions.
In some ways I admire Rollen for his convictions. Rollen believed he was doing Gods work. That what he was doing was a faithful and righteous response to the message “John 3:16” is calling the world to.
The problem is that Rollen forgot about the dynamic God that “gives in order that we may live.”
We are knee deep in crisis these days. We see growing violence in developing nations as we see millions of jobs being lost here in the West. We see disaster strike those that did all the right things in life. People that worked hard saved much and now they have lost that little something for their golden years. Increased competition for increasingly scarce resources may draw us deeper into crisis.
What are we left with? Where is the God of “John3:16” that gave so much so that we may live? Has God exhausted the expense account in delivering the life giving blessing of Jesus the Christ? Are the naysayers right in asserting that God gave so much that we may live a long and winding road to destruction?
What has happened with the Gospel in a nutshell?
The problem with this response is the same problem that Rollen had…when we look at John 3:16 as a formula we inhibit the dynamic life altering process God delivers in Jesus the Christ.
There is no formula to follow. No recipes to guide. No precise measurements to instruct. No guaranteed deposit on our actions. The dynamic God of creation beckons us to come and follow, wherever you may be. All 6.7 billion of us on this dynamic rock we call earth
There is no formula to be with God. Remember the story of the healing of Naaman in 2 Kings chapter 5. Naaman could not “go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and have his flesh restored and be clean.” That was too easy. Is John 3:16 as simple as go and do because God went and gave? If so then why do we have a difficult time being healed and made whole?
Is John 3:16 telling us that we must believe, behave, belong?
It is not that we cannot believe, behave, or belong to the Gospel proclamation of “Be in Christ a new creation.” What does it mean to believe?
To believe according to Webster’s Dictionary is “to have confidence in the truth, the existence, or the reliability of something, although without absolute proof that one is right in doing so.” How does one believe? The how is the tricky part. The how is the long and winding road. “How” is the path to the mountaintop, past the darkness of the valley floor. I am not sure if the “what” matters as much as the “how” in belief.
Behaving is easy if you got the “believe” down. All you have to do is the right thing. Do “this” and not “that.” It is a matter of formulaic responses. There is a proper manner in which to act. Anything outside of this particular “proper” manner is not appropriate behavior and should not be condoned. It should not even be entertained. In fact we must frown upon it as we take corrective actions to “assist” our sister or brother.
We are created to belong. We all belong to something. We all are in relationship. We belong to families. We belong to clubs, groups, orders, and communities. We are eager to belong. In our belonging we explore the relationship we have with God at a micro and macro level, that points to the ultimate of questions…WHY?
Why? “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 is an answer to the why’s of life. It points us towards the glory of Easter morning. This single verse opens the door to the new vision Jesus the Christ ushers in to all of creation.
There is this beautiful story of Rabiʿa al-Basri, the famous Sufi prophetess and mystic, that illustrates what I am talking about. Rabiʿa was wandering the streets of Basra carrying a bucket of water in one hand and a burning torch in the other. When asked why she was carrying the torch and the bucket of water, she said, “I want to set fire to heaven with this flame and put out the fire of hell with this water. They block the way to God. I do not want to worship from fear of punishment or for the promise of reward, but simply for the divine love of God.” John 3:16 offers up a taste of that simple, yet powerful divine love. Sufis call this “Thawq.” Thawq is the place where the divine dwells in the mundane or profane and reveals the divine love. It is fleeting and one cannot be fully consumed by divine love in this lifetime. The taste of divine love moves us forward in a continuous search for God.
Rollen did not hold up a God that was
“John 3:16” is not about believe, behave, belong. It is about belong, behave, believe.
We must first belong. Rollen’s problem began here. Rollen did not uphold a Gospel that was fully inclusive. He began from a point of exclusion. He was the messenger of a message that was on the tongues of a few and not in the ears of many. Rollen needed to spread the message absent of intimate community. No one belonged to Rollen’s message. No one belonged to Rollen’s process of delivering the message.
There is no formula to belong. In belonging one fashions and forms and reforms that which they belong. Look at our faith community here at Douglass…in our 150-year history we have belonged to many things. Some we still belong to and others we no longer belong. Douglass is formed of those that flow in and out of belonging. Because we are created to belong we hunger to belong. Look back upon your life…what has driven you to “Be” who or what you are? What do you belong to? Belonging opens the door to heaven. In our belonging we explore the relationship we have with God at a micro and macro level that points to the ultimate of questions…WHY?
It is in the quest to answer the “WHY” that makes us belong to anything. You do not join something absent a “WHY.” You belong in common struggle to understand the WHY.
“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 is an answer to the why’s of life. As it points us towards the glory of Easter morning we belong to something greater than our self. This belonging transforms us and equips us to behave. This single verse opens the door to the new vision Jesus the Christ ushers in to all of creation. “John 3:16” offers up a place to understand what the particular way is that we are to behave. Behaving here is still not a formula. a2+b2 does not equal GOD! When we first belong we behave because we belong.
We behave not in “fear of punishment or for the promise of reward, but simply for the divine love of God.” Behaving when you belong is the torch and bucket that removes the obstacles in OUR way to God. To behave in belonging the “this” and “that” of proper decorum is filtered through that divine love we all encounter in God. We are blessed with belonging so that we can behave.
We belong. Then we behave. This equips us to believe. having confidence in the truth, the existence, or the reliability of something, without absolute proof that one is right in doing so is a lot different when you belong than when you do not belong.
How does one believe? When we belong the how we believe is not any less tricky. The how we believe becomes less important. When we belong the act of belief itself sustains us in faith as we seek understanding together.
This is part of the beauty of Disciples tradition. Disciples value the path more than the destination. We point to the mountaintop and smile at the journey before us. We as Disciples take joy in doing absent of certainty. For the beauty of God is present in doing.
Like bees drawn to the sweet scent of spring flowers so to are the many drawn to the beauty of God. Let us not forget the Dynamic God of Community that is present in the belonging as we seek to behave, so that we may believe. May the desire of paradise burn and the fear of fire be quenched so that the divine love of God please you always.