Here's a name for you: Rollen Stewart. Born Feb. 19, 1944. Ring a bell? You probably know who he is, you just don't know his name, although it's not like you're gonna run into the guy at Starbucks or anything since he's serving three consecutive life sentences on kidnapping charges in a California penitentiary. His other claims to fame include being married four times, being jailed by Moscow police at the 1980 Summer Olympics, and stink bombing Trinity Broadcasting Network. And most recently Rollen Stewart is known for coming in #1 for most common response on my Facebook wall when I posted the question, When you hear or read the words "John 3:16," what does it make you think or feel or remember? You see, Rollen Stewart is the wacky rainbow wig guy who is famous for holding up "John 3:16" signs at big sporting events. And while I don't have the data to back up this claim, I'm willing to bet that his antics didn't win a whole lot of so-called unbelievers over to Jesus.
"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."
Here's the thing: I got 47 answers to my question, What does the term "John 3:16" make you think about? And while a lot of folks answered, "rainbow wig guy at football games," what was more heartbreaking than that is how many negative reactions people have to this verse. Here's a sample:
"John 3:16 is a message of exclusion -- as in we are the ones who will be saved -- clearly not you"
"The way some Christians talk, God has it out for the world"
"this verse is thrown in people's face in a violent-feeling manner; as if aggression will get someone to believe"
My friend Brad simply said that John 3:16 makes him think of "weirdos and violence." Wierdos and violence. 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. What have we done?
As this season of Lent calls us to confession and repentance, I'd like to take this opportunity to confess what the church has done to make people think so negatively about John 3:16. Because when did a verse about the extravagant and self-giving love of God become about exclusion and violence? When? Well, basically as soon as it was heard by sinners. And here's why: As Pastor Barb Martens once put it, for some people, the good news is that there is an "in group" and an "out group," and for others the good news is that there is no longer an out group. In other words, the fact that this love of God in Christ is truly for me is not enough. I must -- and let's be honest, the church feels it must -- add to the gospel. And what the church will add every time is an exclusion clause: "for God so loved ... us but not them." Or, "for God so loved ... Christians, but not Muslims. Or, "for God so loved ... America, but not Iraq."
I wonder if we think that this story of a world-redeeming, self-emptying, life-giving, faith-creating, people-loving God is not good enough news unless it excludes someone else? And, let's be honest, the best way to exclude someone else is to make the entire God-loving-the-world thing not about God's extravagant love, but about our belief. Then the ball is in the church's court, and when it becomes about belief, then we can determine what exactly is the right kind of belief, the right style of belief, and the rightamount of belief. Voila! We have ourselves an" in group" and an "out group." An in-group who has seen fit to offer our gift of belief or pure doctrine or morality to God in exchange for Love. And then, we deserve to be the "in group" and those who did not offer these things in exchange for God's love clearly deserves to be the "out group." They had their chance and they blew it.
There's no better example of this than when the church decides who deserves to take communion. When we set up boundaries around Christ's table we treat it more like our table. As though to say, the fact that this is the body of Christ broken for me and the blood of Christ shed for me is not enough unless I know and can determine who it is not for.
I confess to you that the church can turn the good news of God's love into something that makes people think of weirdos and violence by adding our made up requirements to it -- but it can also happen by taking things away. Because the John 3:16 verse is modified and given a whole other meaning by what comes before it and what comes after it. Read John 3:15-17: "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."
The world is saved through Christ Crucified and lifted up