First Thoughts on Year B Gospel Passages from the Lectionary

Lent 4

William Loader

Lent 4: 14 March  John 3:14-21

This passage contains the famous John 3:16. It is also not far from the famous John 3:3 about being ‘born again’. Such verses have developed a life of their own. It is worth considering them in their context. The place to start is 2:23-25, among the believers to whom Jesus refuses to entrust himself. Nicodemus then illustrates such believers. Like them he does not see and will not see until there is a radical change. Berating him in 3:10 for being a teacher who keeps missing the point, Jesus (along with the ‘we’ of the community: 3:11) wonders how on earth he can be expected to understand heavenly things (3:12). Jesus has spoken about his ministry on earth; now he is about to speak of his death and return to the Father. Thus 3:13 speaks of his ascent as the Son of Man.

This sets the scene for 3:14-15 which belong closely with what precedes. The Son of Man must be ‘lifted up’. Like the ascent in 3:13 this refers to the event which begins at Jesus’ death. ‘Lifted up’ is wonderfully ambiguous. He will be lifted up on a cross. He will also be lifted up/exalted to God’s presence. John plays on the double meaning in typical fashion. Here he uses what may have already been a traditional association between Jesus’ death and the snakes in the wilderness. Jesus is like the bronze snake which Moses fashioned and put on a pole. When people looked to it they were healed (Numbers 21:4-9). Jesus will declare in 12:32, ‘I, if I am lifted up, will draw all people to me’, part of next week’s reading.

It has been common to link these images to the idea of Jesus dying as a sacrifice for our sins and certainly to read John 3:16 in that light. John certainly knows these traditions: Jesus as the lamb of God who will take away the sins of the world may reflect it, though this need not refer to his death at all. But it is not John’s major focus. It is as light come into a world of darkness that Jesus brings salvation according to John. That is clear from 3:19-21. It is in the encounter with him that we may choose life and light. That is faith. His death and exaltation bring this encounter to a climax and open a new chapter where all the world will hear its offer.

In the famous 3:16 John is drawing on tradition. It is reflected also in 3:17, which speaks of God sending his Son. It is very old. Even Paul seems to reflect it when he writes in Romans of God not sparing his own Son but giving him up for us all (Rom 8:32) or of God sending his Son (Rom 8:3; Gal 4:4). Sometimes it links loving and giving together as the action of the Son, as in Gal 2:20 ("the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me"; similarly Eph 5:2,25). Here it is often associated with the Son dying for us. In John this is subsumed under the broader picture of the Son being the one who represents the Father and so offers life and light and truth.

However complex the background, the statements which emerge are simple. ‘God loved the world so much.’ The epistle will say simply, ‘God is love’ (4:8). To make such a statement is saying something about the whole of reality and about God’s reality. 3:17 puts it in negative terms: God does not want to condemn. God’s attitude towards us is primarily positive. In this we can trust. Jesus came that we might have life, abundant life (10:10), life from God, eternal life. Making a link with 1:14 John speaks of Jesus as God’s only son. This is another way of saying that this life is available in Jesus who is uniquely qualified to represent the Father. An only son is uniquely qualified to be a father’s representative because he has firstborn status and there are no others.

The consequences of rejecting this divine initiative are serious. John’s community will have pondered them, both out of grief and out of concern to persuade. 3:19-21 offers reasons why some reject the light. It is a fairly standard explanation of the time and has the drawback that those who accept the light are already the righteous. It does not fit so well when we think of sinners whose deeds are evil turning to the light. It almost suggests they will never do so. It has the hallmarks of a discussion in a group trying to come to terms with failure of their mission. If we joined the discussion I am sure they would say; of course, people who are sinners can change and respond. It is not really meant to be a closed system.

The note of condemnation comes strongly in 3:18. The previous verse has stated God did not send the Son to condemn. Yet to reject the Son is to bring condemnation on oneself. You choose not to have life. You take responsibility. It is a kind of ‘modern’ reworking of an old issue. The traditional language would have spoken of the day of judgement. John says: in effect judgement day takes place when you meet Jesus. That encounter is critical. If you reject the light and life he brings, you bring judgement on yourself now!

John seems reluctant to speak directly of God condemning people to eternal damnation, but it is presupposed and comes directly to expression in 3:36 (‘the wrath of God remains on him’). It is then possible to construct a gospel which focuses on God’s wrath and in which the good news is that we can be saved from God, i.e. from God’s wrath. The danger is that eternal life becomes simply a term for absence of wrath. That is clearly not John’s orientation here. But we should not ignore the negative element.

If anything John is tending away from a picture of God who wants to punish people forever towards a picture of God who wants life for people. It has not reached the point where John would have to contemplate a God who loved so much that the thought of shutting people out from love and hope beyond a certain point of time and into everlasting punishment would cause grief and self contradiction. But then John starts a lot of thoughts going – in many directions. Love is one of them.

Nor is John at the point where he would say that the love and light and life offered by Jesus is without labels, so that a Christ oriented faith might recognise it wherever it is real, including among those who may not know his tradition. John is writing in a community where specific acknowledgement of Jesus and faith in God are inseparable. Whatever our own solution to the issues of inclusion and exclusion, John’s gospel asks us to recognise that to reject the love and light and truth we see in Jesus is to choose death – wherever and whenever we do it, and to receive them means life, life which our world which God still loves desperately needs.

Epistle: Lent 4: 14 March  Ephesians 2:1-10

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