Gospel Reflection: John 3:16

Gospel Reflection: John 3:16 April 19, 2023

Today’s gospel readings culminate in what may be the most frequently quoted line in the entire New Testament. “God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life (John 3:16).

Post-it Note on mirror that says John 3:16

Growing up, I loved watching Atlanta Braves baseball.  During the early 80s, the Turner Broadcasting System brought the boys of summer into my parents’ living room regularly.  My mother thought Dale Murphy hung the moon and actually sent him fan mail.  I wonder if he ever got it.

My parents and I watched hundreds of Braves games summer after summer back when they took the field in baby blue, pajama-looking attire. Later in the 90’s, they became a franchise powerhouse and graduated to adult uniforms.

Signs in the Seats

At a young age, I noticed someone in the seats behind home plate almost every game holding up a sign that read “John 3:16.”  At first, I thought it was some sort of stat.  Did a pitcher named John have a 3.16 ERA?  My mom explained it was a Bible verse and had me look it up. There it was – the crux of the Christian faith in one sentence held up by a guy with a foam finger and a ballpark hot dog.

Of course, that Braves fan wasn’t the only one to preach the gospel via placard at sporting events.  Many others raised their signs at football stadiums, basketball courts, and soccer arenas.  John 3:16 signs became as ubiquitous as the overpriced nachos and beer flowing from the concession stands at any number of athletic events. When I was young, I thought it was cool to see a sign of religious faith mixed in with French fries and roasted peanuts as thousands of sports fans enjoyed a Saturday afternoon.

But that all changed as I got older.  In college, I thought more about the verse and its meaning.  So, a “loving” God sent his only Son so that he could be mocked, rejected, and brutally tortured until death?  This all-knowing, all-powerful deity couldn’t solve the problem of sin without shedding the blood of his beloved child?

And what was the problem with sin in the first place?  Why would all humanity be damned because Adam and Eve couldn’t keep their hands to themselves around the forbidden fruit tree?  This loving God chose to punish their disobedient snacking by condemning all people to eternal suffering?  Really?

Questions and More Questions

I started reading up on theology and asking questions of those much smarter than me.  But I got stiff rationalizations from the catechism, trite recitations of the party line.  To me, the God of “atonement theory” seemed cruel, petty, and not much of a problem-solver.  I wanted no part of any such God.

I struggled with an actual “crisis of faith” in college and eventually confided my doubts in my school’s campus minister. I told him I simply could not believe that God would send his Son to suffer and die, no matter what celestially brilliant outcome might have been the intended result.  I said that the choices of Adam and Eve and anyone else from the dawn of time had no hold on me because I was in charge of my decisions . . . and that I didn’t believe the biblical first humans existed as literal, historical figures anyway.  I said that even if they were real, Jesus got a raw deal where they were concerned and that “salvation,” as I understood it then, was a crock.

To my surprise, he didn’t bat an eye.  I don’t remember his exact words, but I’ll never forget how I felt when I left his office.  He gave me a whole new way to look at “salvation.”

A Bucket of Water

I’d give an arm or a leg to remember the exact words he used to draw me out of the cocky cynicism I used to cover for the heartbreak I felt in questioning the faith of my childhood.  He did not speak of water and buckets, but I will.  It’s my own metaphorical spin on the life-altering truth he suggested in words I’d move heaven and earth to be able to recapture today.

What if I wanted a bucket of water?  One way to get it is to start with an empty bucket, stick it in the sink, and turn on the tap until it’s full.  Ta-da!  We get a full bucket of water.

But there’s another way to arrive at the same outcome.  I could find a bucket full of water sitting on the counter and covered by a piece of cloth.  All I’d need to do is remove the fabric, and ta-da!  We end up with the same thing – a full bucket of water.

Reframing John 3:16

I think “atonement theory” is the “fill-‘er-up in the sink” explanation for a full bucket of redemption.  It says that God sent Jesus to die as the “sacrificial lamb” needed for our sins to be forgiven.  God turns on the divine tap, so to speak, through the death of Jesus and heals the brokenness in human experience until all the gaps are filled.   In this interpretation, God directly applies the tourniquet and stops the bleeding.  Full bucket salvation.

But there’s another way to understand the significance of Jesus’ death. I think of it as “the abundance theory.”  What if all humans throughout all the ages have had the capacity for the fullness of life God originally intended for them, but through selfishness, dishonesty, or ego, they lost sight of it?

What if, through the person of Jesus, people realized in a new, exciting way that what they thought was emptiness wasn’t really empty after all?  What if they just didn’t have the eyes to recognize the divine that had been present all along, just hidden from view? If, as I have frequently written, everything is part of one divine unity that we experience through diversity, then salvation is more about “remembering” and “reconstructing.”

I think of this as the “lift the veil on the full bucket” version of redemption.  In this interpretation, God merely reminds people that despite the pain and suffering, we were never really separate from God at all. We were never really broken, to begin with.

Seeing Differently

Yeah, it’s probably a bridge too far for many folks. And that’s fine.  But if you’re thirsty, do you really care how you get your water? If water is what you need, does it really matter how the bucket gets full?

I need a faith that makes sense.  I simply can’t believe in a God who is vindictive and small-minded.  I cannot believe that the Jesus of the gospels is merely a divine pawn in a substitutionary gambit used to solve the problem of my innate depravity through supernatural sleight of hand.

But I’m not a non-believer.  I am a person of faith, just not one that holds up John 3:16 signs at the ballpark.  If it works for you or the Braves fan behind the plate, more power to you both.  I’ll just stick with my Cracker Jacks instead.  I’m a full-bucket believer who is learning to see differently.

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