March 30th, 2003
© John M. Connan
“This is how much God loved the world: he gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life.”
There is no more well-known or better-loved text in the New Testament than John 3:16. It is at the heart of our faith. We believe that the life God intended for everyone is found in Jesus as Lord and Saviour. We believe love is the meaning, purpose and driving force of life. We believe that that love was lived out for us in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. We believe love is not only what God wants, but what God did in Jesus, and does for us through his Spirit.
Karl Barth was the most influential theologian of the twentieth century. His books, when piled one on another, would reach a metre or so into the air. His thoughts were profound and influential, though not always easy. One of his doctoral students once asked the great man to express in one sentence the heart of the Christian faith. He was startled by the simplicity of the response. “The whole of the Christian faith can be expressed in the English children’s hymn: ‘Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.’”
The centrality of our faith – love: God’s love for us through Jesus; God’s love producing within us a new quality of life; God promising his eternal, unending presence with us: “eternal life.”
Yet we’re left wondering. Even there, almost at the beginning of John’s story of Jesus, this promise of love and a new quality of life depends on the vilest of deaths: Jesus lifted up on the cross; Jesus dying so we might live. God giving his Son; God losing his Son; God loving through the pain for the sake of the world; God loving so there’d be hope for the world.
It sounds like spin, the sort of spin we’re hearing from the battle-fields of Iraq; the necessity that soldiers and civilians, in the crusade to unseat Saddam Hussein, must die that others might live.
It’s as though this love that lies at the heart of our faith depends on suffering and death. It’s as though, if this love lies at the heart of all existence, it’s more demanding than we can begin to imagine, almost beyond human comprehension. It means it’s a quality of love not part of the way of the world. It’s a love that has an unearthly quality – a divine quality, originating not on this earth, but from beyond this world.
And, isn’t that the truth!
We’ve become so used to the way “love” has been debased that we can’t take in these words: “God loved the world.” We love chocolate. We love our pets. We love our footie team. We love people, our friends, our family, our children, our husband or wife. We make love. Just what do we mean?
What sort of love makes the world go round? The love everybody talks about every day? The love we find in John 3:16?
If it’s the ordinary love that to which everybody gives lip-service everyday, we’re in trouble. We know the state of the world. We could all tell moving stories of selfless love shown to us and to others. But we could tell even more stories of selfishness, brutality and evil; forgotten and neglected people; people pushed aside and marginalised; people treated with total contempt. The world may have had John-3:16-love built into it at creation, but its life denies it.
The trouble is that John-3:16-love demands choices.
We know we need to make choices all the time. We always have. We always will.
But this is an age of choices: we expect to have choices. We go to the supermarket and expect to make choices: the cheapest; the best value for money; the best quality. We need a new car and we expect to have a range of models. I often wonder just how many standard model cars there are – before the options make each car “unique.” There’s even talk of designer babies – avoiding the unexpected and choosing a baby’s features in advance; with options to make your unique child even more unique!
It’s an age that demands choice, but it’s an age that, when choices are to be made, looks either to painless, easy choices or to short-term advantage.
Maybe that’s the way it’s always been. The promise of a quick buck has always tempted people to turn away from hard work and long-term investments. We’ve always expected results, but this age wants results and wants them now. Maybe whenever it’s been possible for a choice to be painless, that’s the way we’ve taken. But pain-killers have never been so popular. And I don’t just mean headache tablets or morphia to alleviate dire pain. Any drug that promises to take away the pain of life is more popular than ever.
And this reading from John is in the end about choices – hard choices.
It’s about the offer of God’s love for you and me, for our family, for our friends, for people we know and people we may never know. It’s about God’s offer of love to the good, the bad, the indifferent, and even the downright evil. It’s about God’s offer of a new quality of life – with his eternal, unending presence promised as part of that. It’s about a love which is costly and demanding. And while it’s an “unconditional” offer, it comes with a built-in condition.
The fact is that every offer has a built-in condition: either you accept or you don’t. There is and can be no other choice.
The way John tells the story about God’s offer of love in Jesus, there’s no other choice; accept it, or you’ve rejected it.
Once God gave his Son, everyone – as a consequence – was offered the choice of believing or not believing, of being among the saved or the condemned, of being in the embrace of love or in the clutches of death. Once the offer is known, the choice must be made.
“Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” An unconditional offer – with a built-in condition – and built-in consequences!
The choice is ours.
 John #:16. The Message.
 AHB 166.