What is the World that God so Loves . . .
At football and baseball games, among other events, you are likely to see someone flash a sign with the phrase John 3:16. The assumption of those who share this sign is that the person -- probably at home watching TV -- will get the urge to find out what this cryptic sign means. After all, who is John 3:16 -- that is an awfully odd last name. Of course, many of us know that John 3:16 refers to a passage of scripture in which Jesus, as interpreted by John, says to Nicodemus, a Pharisee who wishes to know the meaning of Jesus' message:
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" (John 3:16 NRSV).
The assumption in this text is that God loved the world so that he sent his son into the world, so that whoever believes in him will have eternal life. What is often assumed, but is left unspoken here is that God sent his son into the world to die on the cross, and as a result of believing this message, humanity might experience salvation and eternal life. It needs to be said that in this context nothing is said about a cross, only belief in Jesus -- but what is it that needs to be believed lest, as we read in the following verses, they face judgment and death?
Well, in our conversation this morning about the Gospel of John, Ron Allen reminded us about John's view of reality. It is a dualistic message, but different from the one found in the Synoptic Gospels. There the dualism is one of time -- a new age intersecting with an old age. Here it is a dualism of space, with Heaven standing above the World. Heaven is where we find love, justice, light, sight, etc. The world on the other hand isn't the physical world -- rocks and trees, and stuff like that -- but the domain of the devil, where hate, darkness, blindness, etc. reside. In this scenario, as I heard Ron tell it (and I don't have my notes in front of me), Jesus resides with God in the Heavenly realm, but has come down into the world, so as to show those who find themselves caught in the World, might find their way to the Heavenly Realm. Thus it's not necessarily the cross that is the means to salvation, it is accepting Jesus as being the light, the way, that leads us out of the darkness of the world into the light of the Heavenly Realm.
The problem with this scenario is it tends to be exclusive -- if you don't believe you're condemned. But, as Ron noted, in the gospel itself there is the basic confession that God is love, so there is the antidote to the exclusivism present in the text.
So the final question might be -- if God loves us so much that God would send a light into the darkness, how might we who have experienced the light, become bearers of the light (without this becoming a moment of exclusivism)?