If you have ever watched baseball on TV pre covid, when there were crowds in stadiums, you would notice the camera pan over the crowds and inevitably the camera would pan to some person holding a John 3: 16 sign. If you were to ask the person why they had a that sign, they would say the were evangelizing.
Now the term evangelism comes from the evangel, the Good News, the Gospel. And yet somehow it never comes across as good news for many people. While it may be the most famous passage of the Bible, it carries a lot of meanings depending on how this verse is taken up and for what purposes.
The most common reading of John 3:16 goes like this, For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believes in him will not perish but have everlasting life. Everlasting life, that is a good thing, that seems good. The hitch is the terms perish and believes in him.
The term evangelism is no longer seen by many as genuinely good news. Instead it is seen as what you do to get folks to become Christian.
And the way they become Christian is that they come to believe in Jesus. And not just in the life of Jesus or his ministry. But rather they should come to believe in a list of claims about the personhood of Jesus.
That he came, he was crucified, that he rose again so that our sins might be forgiven. That he was God and he sits at the right hand of the Father to judge the world at the end of time. If you believe this, you might attain not just everlasting life, but heaven. If you don’t believe this you will perish, not death but rather that you will go to hell. Christians are saved, the rest of humanity is damned.
That may seem like good news if you are in the in group, those going to heaven. If you are in the out group, I hope you can hear how this is not good news. And even for those of us who are Christians we can get terribly worried of whether we believe in the right things about Jesus. Maybe we have doubts, maybe we’re not sure what it means to talk about the resurrection or the forgiveness of sins.
I’ve been a Christian all my life and I’ve been told by enough folks that I’m in the out group, that I’m not destined for heaven because of my doubts or my politics or how I was baptized or what church I go to or what my sexual orientation is.
But what I want to propose in this sermon is that John 3:16 is meant to be genuinely good news. And if our reading has made it bad news for most of the world, we’re doing it wrong, we’re not taking up the meaning of this text.
So hear the good news which really starts in John 3:17 which includes this line “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved” Whatever else is happening in this passage, it’s good news because it’s a story of a God who wishes to save the world, not condemn it.
John 3:16 is always taken in isolation, without 3:17 it can be a source of condemnation of those not in the in group. But when John 3:17 is included a more complete picture emerges, one in which there is no out group, because in fact God is seeking to save the whole world.
I want to examine some of the other phrases from this passage. Believes in him. As I noted, this is taken as belief in certain propositions about who Jesus is.
But when we use the phrase believe in someone, as in you say to your spouse that you believe in them, you tell your kids, I believe in you, it has little to do with propositions at all. To believe in someone is to trust them, to admire that person, to say that you support them in the effort they are doing.
If we use that sense of the term, to believe in Jesus is to believe in his cause, his ministry, how he related to other people, feeding people, healing them, teaching, breaking down walls and divisions between people. And if we believe in this, if we follow Jesus, we will do likewise.
There believing in Jesus is not beliefs in propositional claims, in trust in him and a desire to be like him in all we do. That saves. And that can be good news. In such an account, we wouldn’t say salvation is being in the group and not being in the out group. Salvation is when we live like Jesus and there are no in and outs, all are loved by God.
And that brings us to another part, for God so loved the world. This gets easily put aside, like a cough and a settling in before the real statement begins. And in some ways, this all breaks down to the question of prepositions.
There’s not a clear consensus among NT scholars on the preposition being used. Should it be rendered believe in Jesus? That is the translation we are familiar with. Others suggest it could be with. That changes the sentence, For God so loved the world, that whosever believes with Jesus they might be saved.
Believes in what? If we believe with Jesus, Jesus isn’t the object of belief. What is? Many scholars believe the object of faith is the statement, for God so loved the world.
If we believe like or with Jesus that God so loved the world we will be saved. The word belief in the Greek is pistis, which means faith, trust, confidence. If we have faith, if we trust that God so loved the world, like Jesus did, we will be saved.
The Good News in this story then is God loves the world. If we believe in Jesus we believe in his ministry which is a reflection of God’s love for the world. In either case, the Gospel is God’s love for the world.
Salvation and eternal life can be awkward topics for some of us in mainline churches. Is it heaven? It could be but we may not be talking about a spatial location, but something more.
As 1 John 2:17 puts it this “world is passing away with all its allurements, but he who does God’s will stands for evermore” Eternal life to be a quality of life one has by participating in God’s good intentions for the world. God’s will is eternal and when we participate in that, we share in the eternal ourself.
But what is clear in this account, is that the division between this life and eternal life is ended. Salvation is for us today and for all time. But it begins with the trust and assurance of God’s love for the world.
I work as the campus pastor at United Campus Ministry at MSU Billings and working with college students it becomes that it’s not easy being their age today:
“According to the American Psychological Association, 68 percent of Centennials (those born after 2000) feel very or somewhat stressed over the nation’s future. Moreover, they feel this stress over social crises at a level that is higher than the rest of us”.
And it makes sense. They are going to inherit our planet. So, the debates about racism, climate change, the worries about student debt it’s going to fundamentally affect them for a lifetime.
Student debt statistics show that there are more than 44 million borrowers who collectively owe more than $1.5 trillion in student loan debt. The average student in the class of 2017 owed $28,650.
And it is worse for students of color, first generation students, kids from lower income families and those raising families. And those are MSUB students by and large
And with work and family and keeping up with classes, this creates anxiety. The kind that does not account for any personal life issues that can pop up in the middle of this intense period.
According to a 2018 report from the American College Health Association, more than 60 percent of college students said they had experienced “overwhelming anxiety” in the past year. Over 40 percent said they felt so depressed they had difficulty functioning.
While MSUB does have a counseling service, and I can be a listening ear, most students absorb this all their own. And that is too much. No one should absorb all the hurts and worries on their own.
Now at United Campus Ministry some of these issues are unpacked in personal coaching. Sometimes it is unpacked in our faith discussion group, Table Talk, where students share their lives to ask questions about the Christian faith. We are the church for them on campus, we get to embody God’s love.
Because amid these worries is the lurking question, where is God. And does God care about me? Am I loved? Am I lovable and worthy? I’ve run into too many students who would say no. UCM exists so students can move to saying yes. To me that is evangelism.
It’s not converting them to become Christians. It’s providing a space where students come to know and experience the love of God for them, in their uniqueness, in their full individuality. That is not just a belief I would hope students hold, but an experience they know in their bones.
Some of that is the listening ear. But it’s also why we advocated for the levy that supports public college funding in Montana and keeps tuition from getting out of control. It’s why we worked with various agencies to meet the financial needs of an international student who had been cut off by his parents. It’s why we sponsor Out at MSUB, the LGBT student group on campus. It’s why we’re working with the Health Ambassadors at MSUB to meet the counseling needs of students.
It begins to look like salvation when every area of life is addressed so students can become who they are called to be before God.
I can think of new higher callings than to bear God’s goodness that God loves every person in this community and that through the church, in small and large measures, will come to experience it as true in every area of life.