Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who trusts in him may not perish but may have the life of God’s new age” (John 3:16, trans. By N.T. Wright). Martin Luther said John 3:16 is the gospel in miniature. Yet, despite being so well loved and remembered, this famous verse is also mostly misunderstood.
Former Anglican Bishop and New Testament scholar NT Wright has said he assumed at least until his thirties, this verse and the whole point of Christianity was for people to “go to heaven when they died.” He writes, “It never dawned on us that “heaven and hell” was a construction of the High Middle Ages.” It comes as a surprise to us that what mattered for people in Jesus’ time was not “saved souls” being rescued from the world and taken to a distant “heaven,” but the coming together of heaven and earth in a great act of cosmic renewal in which all people were likewise being renewed. (N. T. Wright. Paul: A Biography)
Old-time religion is giving way to very old-time religion. 16th century Christianity must surrender its honored place on the pedestal to 1st Century faith. As in the turbulent days of the Reformation, Christians today are recovering the early Jewish sense of being firmly grounded in history and creation that reorients would-be disciple’s like us to focus on this life while the afterlife recedes into the background.
The ancient Jews to which Jesus preached were creational monotheists. For them, God’s great future purpose was not to rescue people out of the world but to rescue the world itself, people included, from its present state of corruption and decay.
So, if only for just a moment, we can clear away some of our deeply held assumptions about salvation, the meaning of this beloved verse, and indeed the entire gospel, a new question naturally arises. If John 3:16 and the Bible are not about getting into heaven what are they about?
Following Jesus is no longer a program for self-improvement or a golden ticket to pass through the Pearly Gates; it’s an invitation to a new community. We are uprooted from a network of relationships that perpetuates injustice, death, and alienation and grafted by God’s Spirit into a network of relationships that brings healing, reconciliation, and abundant life rooted in eternal life itself.
Think about how many things have been determined about your life by the accident of where you happen to have been born. Where we are born accustoms us to unjust privilege or prevents us from access to clean water, education, and the chance to live to adulthood. We are born in families in which we are loved or in families that teach us we are deeply inadequate. We are born with a skin color that conditions our sense of who we are, what we deserve, whom we may love, or fear. This world is set up in ways that lock us into patterns of relationship based on our birth — patterns that separate us from one another and from God.
John 3:16 is Jesus’ invitation to instead be “born from above.” Jesus offers us freedom from relationships that ensnare, and the choice to relate to one another, and all living things, as beloved children of one loving God. It’s a gift and a choice for us to take a new name, enter a new world of healthy relationships, a joy-filled and abundant life that begins now and stretches into forever.
With this new framework of faith, we see forgiveness is not merely something to add to your spiritual resume. It’s an essential tool every Christian must master if we are to advance our life’s work together of bringing in the kin-dom of God. After forgiveness there is peace. After forgiveness, our enemies are reduced. After forgiveness, the cycle of violence is broken. This lent we are focused together on learning how each of us can get better at wielding this powerful gift we received in baptism, the power to forgive.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu was president of the All Africa Conference of Churches when he made a pastoral visit to Rwanda in 1995 one year after the genocide. He writes, “I broke down… I went to Ntarama, a town where hundreds of Tutsis had fled to the church for safety and sanctuary. But the Hutu Power movement had respected no church. Strewn across the floor were the remains of the horror. Clothing and suitcases were still littered among the bones. The small skulls of children remained shattered on the floor. Skulls outside the church still had machetes and knives in them. The stench was beyond anything I can describe. I tried to pray, but I could not. I could only cry. Rwanda, like the Holocaust and other genocides before it, stands as a testament to our capacity for unconscionable evil, and yet our ability to forgive and heal stands as a rejoinder that we are not made for evil but for goodness.” (Desmond Tutu & Mpho Tutu. “The Book of Forgiving.” )
We are not made for evil but for goodness. Tell me, do you believe that? Against the backdrop of that small church in Natuarama, such a statement sounds preposterous and unbelievable. Except for Christians, the cross and empty tomb of Christ proclaim to us the very same message. The “world” God loves so much that he sent his only Son includes the enemies of God. All creatures great and small: empathetic, cute and sweet as well as the hard-hearted, repugnant, and evil are loved by God, transformed and reconciled through the power of love and forgiveness.
Tutu writes, “We can’t create a world without pain or loss or conflict or hurt feelings, but we can create a world of forgiveness. We can create a world of forgiveness that allows us to heal from those losses and pain and repair our relationships. The Book of Forgiving shares the path to finding forgiveness, but ultimately no one can tell you to forgive. We can ask you to do so. We can invite you on the journey. We can show you what has worked for others. We can tell you that the healing we have seen from those who have walked the Fourfold Path is humbling and transformative.” (Desmond Tutu & Mpho Tutu. “The Book of Forgiving,” p. 224)
All of us must walk our own paths at our own pace knowing as we do so, we walk with God. God loves you. For God so loved the world Christ Jesus has made it possible for his followers to be dwelling places of God’s presence in the world, places where heaven and earth come together to renew everything through the powers of love and forgiveness. You have heard it said God’s house has many dwelling places: Yes! God is at home right here in each one of us and in people around the world. “Salvation unto us has come by God’s free grace and favor” (ELW # 590). See, we are a new creation!