Sorry about the delay -- had a computer snafu and a guest speaker on successive weeks.
I don’t understand why the lectionary puts this passage in our readings two weeks after the Super Bowl is over – it contains the best-known verse in the NFL, after all – but there you go.
We don’t see him so much anymore, but there was a guy who always used to wear one of those crazy rainbow-Afro wigs and hold up a sign saying “John 3:16.” He sat in back of the end zone and every time there was a field goal or an extra point attempt on his end of the field, the camera caught his sign.
I expect John 3:16 is one of the best-known scripture references, and a lot people probably even know the verse that goes with it: “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.”
Verse 17 intrigues me too, though. “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.” It intrigues me because a lot of times we Christians seem to present the other side of the coin. We talk a lot about God visiting this or that judgment on people or on a country because of their wickedness. I heard a few people around the country say that when Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans, and I imagine you did too. These people were quiet about whatever sins the city of Houston had committed when Hurricane Rita hit it, but the ways of the Lord are often mysterious.
According to what Jesus said in his conversation with Nicodemus, that’s not the case. Jesus didn’t come to condemn the world, but so that the world through him might be saved. Jesus, as a human being without sin, would have been justified in condemning the world around him, but he didn’t. He called out the Pharisees and some of his other opponents on their actions, but he did so because of what they did. His own disciples earned the same kind of rebuke when they crossed the line.
Some people would like to understand this verse as a clue to the idea that our view of the world as fallen isn’t exactly right. They point out that when God made the world, he called it good. God is sovereign over all creation, so it’s hard to believe human sin would have enough power to wreck the world God made.
For them, when Jesus says he didn’t come to condemn the world, he suggests that the world as it is can somehow be repaired, and that those who follow Jesus’ teachings can do that, as well as lead others to it.
That’s a problematic idea, even though it reminds us of things we might forget, like God’s sovereign power over everything, a power that nothing in the universe can match.
I think that Jesus’ own critiques of the misdeeds around him help us see that while God might not have sent him to condemn the world, there’s condemnation around somewhere. Further, the end of the phrase says that he came so that the world through him might be saved. If it needs saving, that means something is wrong with it, something that may endanger its continuing existence.
If God didn’t condemn the world, but the world is somehow condemned anyway, that shortens our list of usual suspects, doesn’t it? Down to…well, us.
In effect, the world is self-condemned. By “world,” here, I mean human existence and our human cultures and societies. I’m pretty sure most of the trees of the world are without sin, for example, as are the rocks.
We have condemned the world and made it so we need saving. Which is just classical Christian teaching, isn’t it? Don’t we say our own sin separates us from God? Don’t we talk about how we have missed the mark in living Godly lives, thus requiring God to save us from what we can’t save ourselves from?
And don’t we talk like that (me included)? This worthless group of people, that rotten industry, that other bunch of heathens…oh yes, we can talk a good game of condemnation. We can move a person or a group of people from the category of “fallen” into “impossible to redeem” very quickly, can’t we?
We know how to move ourselves across that line, too, and convince ourselves that God won’t deal with us, because he wouldn’t want to bother with people as clearly rotten as we are. Just like he wouldn’t want to bother with people clearly as lost as those…racists. Or those CEO’s. Or those Muslims. Or those (insert political party or parties you don’t like here).
According to Jesus, God wants to bother with exactly those people. In fact they – and we, let’s be honest – are why he came in the first place. So that the world, and everybody in it, might be saved through him.
That’s good news you might want to put on a sign at a football game someplace.