From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live. – Numbers 21:4-9
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
There are things in our lives that we get so used to that they just become part of us. They’re so common, so familiar, we have to think about them about as much as we have to think about breathing, or blinking our eyes. They’re part of our routine. Like the order we do things when we get out of bed – shower, deodorant, shave, brush your teeth, always in that order, day after day. And when you shower, always wash your hair first, then your body, always starting with your right arm. Well that’s my pattern anyway; yours might be different but the odds are that you still have one. Our lives are full of these patterns, these familiarities, these shorthand ways of making sense of the day.
We do it with the Bible, too, or at least parts of it. There are some passages of scripture that we’ve heard so many times that they’re just part of us. We know exactly what they say and exactly what they mean without having to think about it, even before we’ve completely read it or heard it. At least, we think we do.
That’s probably the case with some of today’s gospel text. It starts off with an odd reference to lifting up a serpent, which refers to the even more odd passage from Numbers that we heard this morning, but then it moves into a part that we’ve all heard countless times. John 3:16. We’ve seen the rainbow-haired guy and hundreds of people copying him holding up signs citing it at sporting events. Tim Tebow used to have it printed on his eye black stickers. It might be the most familiar, most well-known Bible verse out there; even the most biblically illiterate people in the country could probably quote it, and almost always in the King James Version. And we know exactly what it means, don’t we?
Well, maybe. One of the things that we’ve done in the Wednesday Noon Study Group and in the Confirmation class is to look at a specific familiar passage from the Bible, and to read it like we’ve never heard it before. It isn’t easy; you have to force yourself to do it sometimes, but to really stop and let every word, every phrase, every detail of a story sink in. And sometimes, when you do that, certain things catch your attention. Certain things stand out. You notice things that you’d allowed yourself to gloss over before. You pick up new things, or you notice that in your mind, you’ve added details that really aren’t there. And maybe there’s some phrase or word that just sticks out in your mind and makes you contemplate what it means in this context. From what I understand, the adult forum is going to discuss that same idea, In a slightly different context.
In this passage from John, Jesus has been speaking to Nicodemus the Pharisee, who has come under cover of darkness to speak with him, and they’ve been having a conversation when we get to this passage. In all honesty, we don’t know if this is supposed to be Jesus’ words that he speaks to Nicodemus, or if it’s the gospel writer’s commentary on the scene. The ancient Greek language didn’t have quotation marks, so we can’t really be sure which is the case. But either way, let’s listen to that one verse, John 3:16, just by itself, as if we’ve never heard it before:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have everlasting life.”
Early this past week, I read through this passage, and especially this verse, and I just kept re-reading it and thinking about it. And what my brain kept coming back to was that phrase “believe in.” What does it mean to say that a person “believes in” this Son that God sent into the world? And just what does it mean to say that that’s the reason that God sent him? Is it saying the same thing to say that someone “believes in” the Son as to say that they’re a “Christian,” or are those not necessarily the same things? And if God’s whole purpose for sending the Son into the world is strictly that people would “believe in” him, and *that’s* how people gain this everlasting life, then what does that say about all the theological doctrines that say that God sent the Son into the world in order to die and pay some cosmic price or ransom or sacrifice, in order to earn our everlasting life through the shedding of Jesus’ blood?
What I’m talking about here is what theologians would call “atonement theory” – trying to understand just how it works, the nuts and bolts of it, that we’re saved, reconciled, redeemed, justified – choose your favorite term – through Jesus Christ. Or why “He Came Down,” as the hymn we’ll sing in a little while puts it. We were just talking about this subject in the Confirmation class a couple weeks ago, and we’re going to be looking at it in greater depth in the Wednesday group right after Easter. Did you know that there are at least six different ways that the writers of the New Testament explain how this works? And theologians from ancient to modern times have teased out those scriptural passages into complex theological theories about it. A number of these theories would seem to require Jesus’ death and bloodshed to work. In others, that isn’t a necessary component. In the tradition of Western Christianity, coming out of Rome and then the European Reformation and then on into America, the idea that Jesus had to die in order to save us has been a longstanding one. “We’re washed in the blood of the Lamb.” “There’s power, power, wonder-working power in the precious blood of the Lord.” “Oh! precious is the flow/ That makes me white as snow; / No other fount I know,/ Nothing but the blood of Jesus.” And on and on. But the idea of God demanding the shedding of innocent blood in order to save us implies something really, really monstrous about a God we believe is the definition of love. Some have said that the two ideas are absolutely incompatible. Personally, I agree with them.
John 3:16 doesn’t say that God sent the Son into the world to die, to be the victim of violence, bloodshed, and murder, in order to save us. In fact, that idea doesn’t show up in a single verse of this entire gospel. The closest this particular gospel writer gets to that is to say that in Jesus being lifted up, that others will come to believe in him and they will be drawn to him, but that doesn’t mean that that “lifting up” is a necessary part of all this. John 3:16 says that God sent the Son into the world for people to see him, and hear him, and to believe in his words, to believe in his message. In this version of atonement theory, the bloodshed and suffering of Jesus on and leading up to the cross isn’t necessary for this everlasting life to be given from God. We know and enjoy that life, this verse says, just by “believing in” him. Believing his message, his teaching. And what is that message? According to Jesus, it’s what we’ve come to call “the Greatest Commandment”: Love God with all of your being, and love others in the same way that you love yourself; in the same way that Jesus loved his disciples. Do this, and you will know eternal, everlasting life, Jesus says. Hearing and acting on that message is apparently what Jesus thinks it means to “believe in” him. It isn’t believing something “about” him. It isn’t believing something particular about “how” he unites us with God, or how it’s only through him that people come into God’s presence. It seems that according to the writer of John’s gospel, this particular atonement theory, Jesus says that receiving everlasting life is hearing and believing his words, to love God and love one another. And that this could be the case even if Jesus had never been crucified, even if he settled down, had a family, and lived a normal life. Maybe Jesus’ crucifixion wasn’t some unfortunate but still glorious thing that we say we’re grateful for, because it was needed to reconcile us with God; but rather, it’s a huge, totally unnecessary tragedy, the biggest miscarriage of justice in human history. Something we should mourn.
And if all this is the case, can someone who’s part of another religion, or even no religion at all, “believe in” Jesus in the sense that it’s meant in this verse? Can someone who rejects Christ’s divinity and rejects, maybe even hates, the Christian Church, still “believe in” Jesus in the way that it means here? Those are some pretty big questions. As we continue through Lent, I invite us all to think about those questions as we ponder the meaning of Jesus’ life and death, and the cross. And just think: all these deep, ponderous questions, all come out of looking at just one simple phrase, in one familiar verse, of the Bible.
Thanks be to God.