March 19, 2009

For God So Loved the World

by Debra Dean Murphy
Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:13-21
(Fourth Sunday in Lent)

With a group of friends, I'm reading a new book entitled Why Go to Church? The Drama of the Eucharist. Written by a Roman Catholic priest--Dominican and Englishman Timothy Radcliffe--and commissioned by the Archbishop of Canterbury as his Lent Book for 2009, this text is interesting reading for us American Methodists in the suburban south.

In a chapter on preaching (the book takes in the whole of Word and Table), Radcliffe warns against taming the Bible's strangeness in the Sunday sermon. "The beauty of the Bible," he says, "is that it is not clear, simple and unambiguous. Its words are puzzling, intriguing and slippery."

He could have been talking about the appointed texts for this week, especially the Revised Common Lectionary's appointed reading from Numbers (Catholics read from 2 Chronicles on Sunday). The account of the plague of snakes and the serpent on a stick in chapter 21 is puzzling, for sure. (Let's face it, it's plain weird). It has perplexed Jewish and Christian interpreters for centuries, and no single, definitive interpretation has won the day.

The Numbers passage is paired with the gospel text because John mentions the strange, puzzling incident: "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" (John 3:14-15).

And here's where the text gets all tame again. These words from John are so familiar, perhaps especially so in the revivalist culture of southern Protestantism, that we assume that everything in this text is "clear, simple, and unambiguous."

Isolated from all that precedes and follows it, John 3:16 has become the gospel distilled to soundbyte, to manageable bumper-sticker slogan--the whole truth and nothing but the truth, all you need to know to be a Christian. Believe in Jesus. Accept him into your heart. (The phraseology, interestingly, is found no where in the Bible).

As another great churchman, Peter Storey, has put it: "Some tell us that following Jesus is a simple matter of inviting him into our hearts. But when we do that, Jesus always asks, 'May I bring my friends?' And when we look at them we see that they are not the kind of company we like to keep. The friends of Jesus are the outcasts, the marginalized, the poor, the homeless, the rejected--the lepers of life. We hesitate and ask, 'Jesus, must we really have them too?' Jesus replies, 'Love me, love my friends!'"

John's gospel knows something about friendship. And it knows something of friendship's connection to "belief" (a word that appears five times in these eight verses from John 3). "Belief," says Radcliffe, "is the beginning of friendship with God." It isn't mere intellectual assent to doctrinal talking points. It isn't "head knowledge" that culminates in "heart knowledge" (accepting Jesus).

We are friends with God, according to Radcliffe, not because we think or believe certain things about God but because we see things with God--through God's eyes, as it were. Learning to believe in God is learning to see all things in the way God sees them: infinitely worthy of our understanding, interest, and care. It is to love the world as God so loved the world.

Jesus did not come to tell us about friendship with God. He is God's friendship with us made flesh and blood. Of course, they killed him for this. "People loved darkness rather than light," observes John. But the good news we are making our way towards this Lent is that the light has overcome the darkness, and God has saved us for friendship with himself.


Nola Byrum Boezeman said...

Thanks for bringing fresh insight to John 3:16, Debra. This is the first verse I learned to memorize as a child and I might guess that many Christians can say the same.

I’ve been reading Radcliffe’s book, too. I have friends who ask this very question, the title of Radcliff’s book, “Why Go to Church?” Radcliff points out that people can accept Jesus, but it is the Church they don’t want to accept. “Why go to church on Sunday morning when I can cultivate a beautiful relationship with Jesus in the comfort of my own home?” John 3:16 standing alone, without the rest of the Bible, prompts one to a faulty way of thinking – I believe in Him, I shall not perish, I have eternal life. What else matters?

I think it is true, though, the point you make and what Peter Storey says – Jesus does ask “May I bring my friends?”, making this seemingly simple verse more complicated and challenging.

When it comes to believing in the Church, Radcliff also says, “Confessing that the Church is holy, we claim that Christ’s victory over sin on Easter morning cannot be undone.” He continues, “However corrupt and sinful members of Christ’s body may be, love has anticipated our failures and forgiven them. We may be sinners, but our belief in baptism, the resurrection of the dead and eternal life are all ways in which the resurrection continues to happen among us, homo resurgens, Christ now rising.

Anonymous said...


If I may engage in some dialogue with you on this post, don't you, yourself, tame the Bible's strangeness with the last line of this post? In my reading of John, I only find him to say that "the light shines in the darkness, has not not overcome it" (1:5; see also 9:5). John 3:19-21 appears to say the same: we are confronted with the choice of remaining in the darkness or coming out into/looking up toward (3:14-14) the light where our works (erga), our inner selves, who we really are, will be revealed. Traditional Christian theology wants to make that comforting, categorical statement the light has overcome darkness, but John--the strangest of the gospels--offers a different, less comforting theology. We must look (up?), trust/believe, come and walk/live in the light so that the darkness does not overtake us (3:14-15; 9:5; 12:32-36). For John, it appears to me, light and darkness coexist; neither has fully overcome the other and we have commerce with both.

I know this does not adress everything in your post, but the nature of the relationship between light and darkness is what stands out for me.

Grace and Peace,

Anonymous said...


I agree that John's is a strange gospel, but I can't concede your claim that, for this evangelist, the struggle between light and darkness has not yet been decided. John 1:5 might be better rendered: "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not master it." This captures the double meaning ("did not overcome" and "did not understand") and indicates that the darkness has been defeated.

But to your point: John's theology here is both comforting and ominous, assuring and unsettling, and the choice is ours as to whether we will now "see with God" (my original point) how the world has now been illuminated and saved by this light, this logos, this word made flesh.