Text: John 3:14-21 Revised Standard Version (RSV)
14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”[a]
16 For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. 18 He who believes in him is not condemned; he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. 20 For every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. 21 But he who does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God.
In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity. Amen.
“Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes?”
That was kind of the question for me, too, this week, as I read this passage. What might be the connection between Numbers 21:4-9, where we read about all those snakes in the Negev wilderness, and this passage from John, which has as its centerpiece that majestic declaration: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life”?
In the reading from Numbers, we see that – at least in the Old Testament – there is a definite limit to God’s patience. In that passage, God has grown weary beyond belief at the grumbling of the thankless Israelites, and he says, “Enough!” He sends an Exodus-like plague of venomous snakes to visit and chastise them. This punishment has the effect of “scaring them straight”; and when the people repent, the Lord commands Moses to make a bronze snake and lift it up on a pole, so that whenever someone is bitten in future, he or she can look to the snake and be healed. The punishment was only temporary; once it had achieved its goal, God put it aside and turned the image of the snake into a source of forgiveness and healing.
Likewise, the lifting up of the Son of Man on the cross, an instrument of punishment and death, was to become an instrument of salvation.
Which brings us to: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”his is quite possibly the best-loved passage in the entire New Testament. It’s certainly the best known. Martin Luther called it “the Gospel in a nutshell” – and it tells us “that God is fundamentally a God of love, that love is the logic by which the kingdom of God runs, and that God’s love trumps everything else, even justice, in the end.”
I’ll bet that every one of us here today has gotten some real comfort from reading it in times of stress and sadness – when the chips are down, it’s great to know that God’s got your back. It’s great to know that God is fundamentally a God of love.
But there seems to be an “exclusionary clause” in this passage – “that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” It certainly seems as though this promise of God is reserved for a select few. Others are left in the cold. God’s judgment falls on them like a trip hammer.
As the Rev. Dr. Margaret Aymer writes: “Who’s in? Who’s out? Groups that are trying to protect themselves focus heavily on this question, particularly in times of conflict and controversy. They may have great ideals about welcoming all comers, but those who approach, thinking the doors are wide open can find criteria for entry magically appear like a velvet rope at the entrance to an exclusive club. Of course, part of the argument, implicitly or explicitly, is that those who do not meet the established criteria are somehow inferior to the insiders. After all, they are not really like us, are they? … Of course, establishing insider/outsider criteria is as old as human society. So it should be no surprise that the same tendency to try and determine who is and is not Christian can be found in this most beloved passage of Christian scripture, the passage that surrounds John 3:16.”
We don’t have to look too far to see this divisiveness at work. The history of Christianity tells the story of schism after schism, argument after argument, regarding not just what the Scriptures say, but how we’re supposed to live according to what they say, and who’s doing it “right” and who is not.
The earliest church councils were concerned with this issue, and there’s a long unbroken line of other councils leading through the Middle Ages; and then, of course, there’s the Reformation to which you and I are the heirs. The history of Christianity in the United States is largely the history of settlers coming to these shores to worship God as they chose, and not too long thereafter, we see them throwing people out of their colonies for believing differently!
The list of denominations that have started here is miles long. The late Martin E. Marty wrote a book titled Pilgrims in Their Own Land: 500 Years of Religion in America, in which he surveyed the way in which denominations have been formed, then split into different denominations, which themselves fell into discord and split … dozens, perhaps hundreds, of times in these last five centuries. Within a 20-mile radius of where we are right now, there are Catholic churches, Episcopal churches, Lutheran churches of various flavors, Baptist churches, and probably others I’m not even aware of. And every one of these churches has a history that is different than the history of the church down the block from it; every one of these churches, and the denominations they’re part of, has practices and points of view that are different, sometimes very different, from those other churches – if they didn’t, they wouldn’t exist!
Nowadays, we’re all about churches working together – the World Day of Prayer service that St. Joe’s hosted a little over a week ago is a prime example of that; but our church and all the other churches dotting the landscape are reminders that there was a time not all that long ago when Christians were very conscious of their differences, and not as conscious of their similarities. Baptists did not hang around with Methodists, or Episcopalians with Catholics, or Congregationalists with Presbyterians, and so on. Each denomination, and each church within a denomination, had that velvet rope to separate itself from “those other people,” and they weren’t afraid to use it.
The passage from John for this morning is an early example of using that old velvet rope. It starts out well – the invitation seems wide open, but then that velvet rope appears in verse 18, where we read “he who believes.” “Oh, did we say ‘whoever’? Uh … well, what we really meant was….”
This certainly doesn’t seem consistent with what I have come to believe about God! I have always believed that God accepts us all, loves us all equally, and excludes no one. That, I believe, is one of the most basic characteristics of God. Knowing that this passage was aimed primarily at the Jewish community of John’s day with whom his group was “on the outs” helps us a little bit, I hope, to reconcile the two sides of today’s equation.
But, on the other hand, it raises a valid point. We know that we have to draw the line somewhere! Every church struggles to determine what the criteria are for membership. What makes a person a member of the United Church of Christ? What makes a person a Lutheran, a Catholic, an Episcopalian, a Baptist…
That is really a secondary question, though. The big question is: What makes a person a Christian? Wars have been fought over that. Yet after the last shot was fired and the dust had settled, the answers were often still not as clear as the original question.
Again, to quote Dr. Aymer: “John’s Gospel highlights a tension in the library that is the New Testament. On the one hand, those who follow the theological reasoning of Paul argue that salvation is a function only of God’s grace. On the other hand, the Gospels, James and other writings give evidence that salvation is also a function of what one does. The velvet rope keeps changing position, with self-appointed bouncers appearing at random keeping “those people” out. So, what can we do with this tension?”
I think that the first thing we can do is remember that Jesus, not us, is the one who decides “who’s in and who’s out.” At the end of the day, it’s not up to us. As soon as we point out the spots on someone else’s vest, they point out the spots on ours. We need our criteria, but these criteria should never get in the way of doing the real work of the church, which is accepting others the way God accepts them: Wholly and unconditionally.
Over the course of the centuries, theologians have been hard at work writing book after book on the subject of what a person needs to do in order to be a “true Christian.” The Heidelberg Catechism, for example, which was for centuries a cornerstone of the Evangelical and Reformed branch of the United Church of Christ, runs to some 200 pages of questions and the accepted answers from which there was to be no deviation if a person wanted to be confirmed. Other denominations have their own books, some of which are even longer.
Yet the earliest statement of faith was two words: κύριος Ἰησοῦς – our English equivalent is three words, the short sentence “Jesus is Lord.” That was it. That was all you had to say to become part of the Body of Christ. This is because, as the Apostle Paul tells us, no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Spirit – and if you have been visited by the Spirit of God, and sincerely make that statement, you have all the “credentials” you will ever need. No books. No rules. Everything else is there for instruction, not for either inclusion or exclusion.
It is one of the characteristics of human nature that we often complicate things beyond all measure. But our job is not to pass judgment on others or to make them toe the mark we arbitrarily scratch in the sand. Our job is state our conviction that Jesus is Lord and bear witness to the Good News of Jesus Christ. That’s our calling and our mission. Some of those people to whom we deliver this Good News might not be at all the sorts of people we would like to hang around. For example, we think today of the Apostle Paul as one of the towering figures of the church, and he certainly is that; but it took even the Apostle Paul years to be accepted as “one of us” by the other Apostles. Eventually they came around; they adjusted their velvet rope to let him in. When we proclaim the Good News, by our words, but mostly though our acts of kindness and love, we might attract others who will become members here, and we will welcome them with open arms. But many others will not; and that’s OK. And there will be still others who will ignore our invitation, and continue on in their darkness as though nothing had happened. All we can do – all we’re supposed to do – is make the offer, and let the chips fall where they may.
For everyone deserves the invitation. Everyone deserves to be among those who believe in Jesus and who will not perish, but have everlasting life. Because, remember, God sent Jesus into the world, not to condemn it, but to save it!
And so, we have a part to play in saving the world! As we go forth into the world today, let’s choose not to be bouncers adjusting that velvet rope, but rather hosts and invite the people we meet to the greatest party, the greatest joy, this world has ever seen!
In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity. AMEN.
 Indiana Jones in “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” © 1981, Lucasfilm, Ltd.
 Lose, David, “Lent 4B: God’s Offensive Love,” Dear Partner, http://www.davidlose.net/2015/03/lent-4-b/
 Aymer, Margaret, “John 3:14-21: Bouncers and the ‘In’ Crowd,” Huffington Post, 03/14/2012