John 3:16 NRSPV – a sermon

Audio of yesterday’s sermon is now available on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read it here.

When it comes to language and its ability to convey meaning beyond the words on a page, Greek and Hebrew are like Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel while English is more like the finger paintings my two year-old brings home from pre-school.  Both have their inherent beauty, but one speaks deep to the soul.  Even in arguably the most famous sentence in all of Scripture, the English translation leaves us lacking.  I’m talking, of course, about John 3:16.  I’m told Martin Luther called it “The Gospel in a nutshell.”  I found a picture on the internet this week of a walnut-turned-locket that had John 3:16 written on one side and an acrostic for GOSPEL “God’s Only Son Promises Eternal Life” on the other.  Thanks to “Rainbow Man” Rollen Stewart,[2] John 3:16 has, for decades now, been the favorite passage of every major sporting event in America.  Even, and maybe even especially, in this era of growing secularism, John 3:16 is for us the great summation of the Good News of Jesus.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.”  Many of you know it by heart, probably in the King’s English, but as I dug into this verse this week, I began to realize that the beautiful message of love and mercy isn’t exactly what Jesus was saying.  He was saying something even better.  With a lot of help from Luther Seminary New Testament Professor, Sarah Henrich,[3] I began to look at John 3:16 in Greek and saw new levels of deeper meaning opening up right before my eyes.  The King James Version is much more flowing, but here’s the New Revised Steve Pankey Version. “God loves the world thusly, he gave his only Son, in order that whoever puts their trust in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

The first thing I noticed was that the word translated as “love” is agape.  You’ve no doubt heard before that in Koine Greek, there were at least four different words that can be translated as “love.”  “Eros” is the passionate love that we most often associate with an intimate partner.  “Storge” is the natural affection felt within families, as in the love a parent naturally has for their child.  “Philia” is the catchall type of love: the love that friends have for one another or the love I have for the Pittsburgh Steelers and crawfish boils.  Finally, there is agape love.  Agape love is used throughout the New Testament.  It is the type of love that Paul writes about in his famous love poem from 1st Corinthians 13: it is patient and kind and it seeks the needs of others.  Agape love is the type of love that defines who God is as the author of First John boldly proclaims that “God is love.”  It is the type of love that Jesus commands us to have for God, for our neighbors, and even for our enemies.  Jesus says agape love is the hallmark of the Christian discipleship, “they will know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another.”  We learn agape love from the example of God who sent his only Son.  God loves the world with a deep, self-giving, abiding sort of love.

The next thing I noticed was that this agape love is a verb in John 3:16, and not just any verb, but a verb in the aorist tense.  We don’t have the aorist tense in English, so my Greek professor, Tony Lewis, explained the it by way of the refectory’s occasional use of a sausage lunch buffet.  There’d be hot dogs, kielbasa, and Italian sausage to choose from, and all the way at the end was this strange, Mexican inspired, sausage looking thing called the “fiesta dog.”  “Some of you will have your curiosity piqued,” he’d say, “and you might avail yourselves of the fiesta dog and soon you will understand the aorist tense: an event that begins at a particular moment in time, but goes on for eternity.  You will eat the fiesta dog once, but its effects will be long lasting.”  God’s agape love for his creation is in the aorist tense.  It started at the beginning of time and it will continue forever into the future.  God’s agape love is active and ongoing.

Third, we most often hear about how God so loved the world, but it really isn’t about how much God loves the world, but about how he shows it.  God shows his love for the world thusly, he sent his only Son to restore it.  All. Of. It.  From the amoebas in the sea to the Billy goats on the mountain side, from the baby asleep in a mosquito net in east Africa to the CEO in the corner office in mid-town Manhattan, from me in the depths of my sinfulness to you in the heights of your hopes and dreams, God sent his only Son as sign and symbol of his love for everything he created.  The love God has for the world is deep and self-giving, active and ongoing and it drives God to work toward restoring all of creation to right relationship with him.

Finally, the natural response to God’s deep and abiding love for us is not belief as it has been co-opted over the past five hundred years or so.  God doesn’t invite us to check off a series of boxes about things we intellectually assent to: Creation in 7, 24-hour days – check; A flood that covered the whole earth – check; the Virgin Birth – check; Water into wine – check; the anti-Christ of Revelation – check.  Instead, the response God seeks is a relationship with him.  We find our entrance into eternal life by entering into a trusting relationship with the one who loves us from the beginning of time.  “Whoever puts their trust in him should not perish but have eternal life.”  What makes us disciples, what makes us Christians, is that we’ve turned our lives over to Christ.  We’ve responded to God’s invitation into relationship and placed our trust in Jesus alone.

So often, John 3:16 is used as a weapon against those who do not believe in God in the right way.  Too often, it is used to define who is in and who is out when it comes to God’s love.  The truth of the matter is that God loves everyone and everything he has created, and desires to be in right relationship with all of it.  There are those who choose to walk away from the overwhelming love of God, and this passage tells us they have condemned themselves; there is no need for us to add to that.   They have chosen to walk in darkness, and God loves them enough to let them make their own choices.  Meanwhile, the millions upon millions of us who are trying to follow the way of the Kingdom, trying to walk in the light, trying to trust God and to love God, even when we fail to do so, eternal life is guaranteed.

The love of God was poured out in the person of Jesus Christ.  The Holy Spirit continues to work through all creation to impart grace upon us, to motivate us to faith, and to enkindle within us a deep and abiding love for our Creator.  It is all the work of God, the work of a God who loves the world and shows his love thusly, he gave his only Son, in order that whoever puts their trust in him should not perish but have eternal life.  I guess that really is the Gospel in a nutshell.  Amen.

[1] http://www.aardpiggy.com/BibleChallenges/Nutshell.html

[2] Mr. Stewart’s story is the tragic tale of theology gone bad.  You can read more here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rollen_Stewart or watch an ESPN news piece here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ot7J025JS5U

[3] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=263

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