What an extraordinary announcement: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16). We are accustomed to stories of the gods who are, at best, indifferent and, at worst, hostile to the world. We assume that if God loves anyone it will be those who love God. But the text does not read “God so loved the church” or “God so loved the faithful” or “God so loved the pure.” The focus is out beyond the horizon of the church. This story is about God’s deep and abiding love for the world. This is the missional energy, the “missio dei,” that is meant to be the heart and soul of the church’s witness. No wonder so many use the shorthand “Jn 3:16" as a signpost pointing to the new world of the gospel.
This outpoured love of God for the world is revealed in the gift of the only Son. As revealed in the opening chapters of John’s Gospel this child is the Word become flesh (John 1:14). He is the incarnation in human form of the divine Word that speaks and, in speaking, creates. God gives of God’s very essence to the world in an act unheard of among the gods, an act of self-sacrifice on behalf of the world. We expect the creation to give back in love to its Creator. Instead, it is the Creator who, in Jesus, reaches out to a lost and broken creation.
The pastoral implications of God’s out-reaching love are massive. It means that God is to be found where the Son of God is to be found, living incognito in the world. Notice that in the space of two chapters in John’s Gospel Jesus is found first meeting in the dark of night with the Jewish leader Nicodemus—a classic insider—and then in the noon day sun with a Samaritan woman—a forgotten outsider. While he can sometimes be found in the synagogue and the temple, Jesus is usually seen in the streets where he is feeding, healing, teaching, forgiving. He has been given to the world to embody—to incarnate—the love of God for the world. The church which claims his name is called to be a daring witness with this true testimony: that God loves the world.
Yet how often the world hears a different message. How often the gospel sounds not like love but like condemnation. How often the church comes across as “holier than thou.” It can seem as though God is eager to divide, to judge and to separate, to save some and abandon the rest. Jesus reacts to such misunderstandings: “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” (John 3:17). The “missio dei” is life-giving and life-saving. This is not a rejection mission. It is a rescue mission. This is the inclusive love of God. It is life from above for all who are perishing.
But not all who are perishing want this life or trust the One who offers it. And so there is a judgment, a dividing line between those who trust the One who comes bearing the love of God and those who cannot place their trust in him. The inclusive love of God will not force itself upon those who opt out. There is a judgment, says Jesus. There is condemnation (John 3:18-19). But it is not the judgment of God. God does not damn. The judgment occurs whenever we choose to hide from the light of God’s sacrificial love. Choosing to stay in the darkness is an act of self-condemnation. It means condemning oneself to more of the same old, same old. Some of us who love the darkness live imagining that eternal life is to be found in the accumulation of possessions or of prestige or of power. For some of us the darkness is a land of addiction to short term fixes that can never fully mask deep, long term pain. Even the church finds itself wandering in this dark place when it tries to domesticate Jesus, telling him what he can and cannot say and telling him who he can and cannot save. More often than not the evil deeds that are done in the dark have become so habitual, so commonplace, so much a part of our way of life that we barely recognize that this way of life is out of sync with Jesus. Yet believing in Jesus, trusting him, means being in sync with him, living in harmony with God’s extraordinary love for the world.
This is a difficult passage. It presents real pastoral challenges. Some come to the text having received messages that they are “no good,” “going to hell,” “God-damned.” They need to be shown the text’s emphasis on God’s expansive, inclusive love open to all who trust it to be true. Others come to the text having heard that there is no judgment, no condemnation, no living hell. They need to see that the love of God revealed in Jesus demands a decision to believe or nor to believe, to live in response to the sacrificial love of God for all people or not. To say no to the love of God in Jesus is to choose a life in the familiar darkness of the world we have been taught to call reality. It is to be condemned to the living hell of the “real world.”
It is worth noting that the Easter conclusion of John’s Gospel returns to these themes of God’s love for the world and of our response in belief. There the risen Jesus breathes new life on his disciples while commissioning them as ministers of God’s reconciling love: “If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven” (John 20:23). Then Jesus responds to the doubt and the faith of Thomas with a new beatitude: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (John 20:29). Trusting belief in Jesus’ power to make new is, it turns out, a mysterious blessing to be received. So, too, is the forgiving love that is Jesus’ fingerprint in the world.
- Edwin Searcy (from "Feasting on the Gospels - John, Volume 1")