The Nut in the Nutshell
This is one of those verses many of us learned in Sunday School and we committed to memory so long ago that we think we understand it already and don’t need to think about it much. In my early years I learned that John 3:16 meant that if I believed in Jesus I went to heaven. If I didn’t believe in Jesus I went to hell. It was very matter-of-fact. I pondered as a child how such a sweet verse about God loving the world had such a menacing threat included in it. That was what I was taught to believe about what belief in Jesus meant. John 3:16 has sometimes been called the gospel in a nutshell. It has also been the basis for some very un-godly behavior. This verse has been used by some Christians as a justification to force indigenous people here and around the world to denounce their culture and faith to accept a Christian understanding that belief in Jesus is the way to eternal bliss with God.
I believe there is deeper meaning to be found in these familiar words. Somewhere along the way the idea to “believe in” became separated from the idea to “believe.” Historically we can trace the theological transformation that happened that allowed the institutional church to use this shift as a way to force conformity and modify resistance. For the ancients who first heard these words, they had no distinction like that. To believe in someone was to believe them – to believe that they were honest and truthful, to believe that they had something authentic to share. I sometimes wonder how my faith would have been shaped differently if I had been given this understanding that God loved the world so much that God sent Jesus, and that whoever believed Jesus would be made whole (saved). Avoiding condemnation wasn’t the purpose of belief – condemnation occurs when we put our trust in lies that destroy our lives. The nut in the nutshell of John 3:16 is that God never wanted condemnation and yet that is so often how we hear this text. The purpose for Jesus’ life was to show us tools that we could use to make the choices that put our lives in tandem with the reality of God’s presence.
There is a legend about an old blind man who lived on a hilltop over-looking the beautiful city of Venice, Italy. He was considered to be the wisest man around. It was said that he could answer any question anyone might ask of him. Two local boys decided to try and fool the old man, so they caught a small bird and took it to him. One of the boys held the little bird in his hands and asked the old man if the bird was dead or alive.
Without hesitation the old man said, “Son, if I say to you that the bird is alive, you will close your hands and crush it to death. If I say the bird is dead, you will open your hands and the bird will fly away. You see, in your hands you hold the power of life and death.”
Likewise in our hands we hold the deciding power of life. The decision is ours. I choose to believe Jesus because I have found that the things he taught about God resonates with my spirit. I choose to believe Jesus because he lived his faith in such a way that really upended people’s assumptions, challenged prejudices, removed barriers to God and displayed integrity. Others may choose other paths and my understanding of Jesus is that he would have blessed them in those journeys. So why wouldn’t I do the same?
Starting next Wednesday night I am beginning a series called “The Subversive Parables” which I believe show another side of how Jesus’ teaching challenged the religious assumptions of his day – the power structures, the oppressive systems and how even ordinary people can be swept up into these without noticing. The parables are an interesting communication feature in Jesus’ teaching. Hearing them with new ears may reveal some amazingly different aspects of what it means to be people of faith.
www.homileticsonline.com Deep Reading John 3:16, March 2009.