Listen to the audio of today’s Reflection:
16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. 19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.
This passage is part of John’s account of a conversation between Jesus and the Pharisee and Jewish High Council member Nicodemus. It probably doesn’t need to be said that this reading begins with the most often-quoted verse in the entire Christian faith, John 3:16.
Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night. Christian commentators have traditionally interpreted this fact as evidence of a Pharisee trick. But I tend to think that Nicodemus wanted to talk to Jesus without it being known to the other Pharisees. You might remember that at a later point during Jesus’ ministry, Nicodemus defended him against the condemnation of the other Pharisees. But there’s at least some question about why Nicodemus came to Jesus by night.
It seems to me that one of the most important points John makes in this passage is that the life and ministry and death and resurrection of Jesus was literally an “act of God” – an action God took out of love for the world. Followers of Jesus often call him the ‘Son of God’ – and of course that’s the way he’s described in this passage. But we need to remind ourselves regularly that this expression is a metaphor. We can’t lose sight of the fact that Jesus was and is God – he was in fact the human manifestation of one of the three persons of the Trinity.
So when we speak of Jesus as God’s “one and only Son,” it seems to me that the goal of Christian tradition is to express the idea that the relationship between the two parts of the Trinity we call the Father and the Son is personal – they share the same substance. (Maybe something like human fathers and sons share DNA.)
God had sent messengers to his people on a number of other occasions. Some of them were human messengers – we call them “prophets.” Some of God’s messengers were supernatural beings we call “angels.” But those messengers were servants – ‘employees,’ in a sense. But in Jesus, God personally entered human life, to show us how to live that life authentically, and to suffer death on the cross for us.
It seems to me that one part of this verse that lots of Christians don’t think about that much is the part that says that God appeared in the form of Jesus out of love for the world. Christians have a kind of ambivalence toward “the world” as the enemy of God and his people. That’s an expression that comes out of the letters of Paul. But we need to be a little careful about that. When Paul is talking about the world, he’s talking about the worldly systems that sinful human powers set up. It’s dangerous for followers of Jesus to adopt rhetoric that describes the world as our enemy.
If God loved the world so much that he died for it, those of us who claim to be his people shouldn’t feel justified – and even sort of self-righteous – in regarding the world as an enemy. If God loves the world, we’re called to love it, too – even though the powers of the world might not love us back.
This famous passage also talks about the subjects of judgment and condemnation. Those who call themselves Christians seem to talk a lot about how God is going to judge and condemn all those who reject Jesus. But this passage expresses a very different vision – that what God did in Jesus was meant to be a rescue, not an act of condemnation.
The Friday study group was actually talking last week about this very subject. And one of the members of the group brought up an interesting take on the subject of judgment from by the famous Christian writer C. S. Lewis. Lewis wrote that although Christians tend to picture God angrily pointing sinners to hell. But Lewis said the truth is probably that God is brokenheartedly calling, “No, come back!” to those who reject his love and choose to walk away from his presence, basically insisting on going to hell in spite of him.
Those who come into the heavenly kingdom, Lewis said, are those who say what Jesus said, “Not my will, but yours be done.” Those who condemn themselves, on the other hand, are the ones who say, “Not your will, but mine be done.”
Which brings us to the last couple of verses in this passage, in which we get a glimpse of what the life of true discipleship looks like. Jesus has come into the world as a great light that illuminates the truth about God’s will for us. Our lives are meant to make the love of God a reality in the world. That love is expressed by taking responsibility for the flourishing of our neighbors, and of creation as a whole. We are to live out the same sacrificial love Jesus demonstrated, sacrificing of our material resources, but also sacrificing of our ego, our self-interest, and even our rights for the sake of others.
We may not always agree about what the details of the life of love are supposed to look like, but Paul says that the basics, at least, are impressed upon our hearts and minds. We know instinctively that it’s wrong to exploit and abuse others. Human sinfulness leads most of us to do those things sometimes, anyway – and deep down, we know it. Some people are so consumed by their own sins that they skulk about in darkness, hiding from the light of Christ so they won’t have to be confronted by the truth about themselves.
But those who are truly committed to following Jesus try to live more and more in his light. And when their sins are illuminated by the light of Christ, they confess and repent of them, then move on. Their lives are gradually transformed as that light becomes one of their defining characteristics. Those lives start to reflect the light of Christ into the lives of those around them. That’s the goal we’re all called to – to become the kind of people of the light who bring glory to God, not by judging and condemning others, but rather by living out the same love God has for the world – every day.
Let’s pray together: Lord, we pray that you will open our hearts to receive your love for the world, and move us to express that love in our daily living. Use us as instruments to reflect your light into the lives of others, so they are drawn to your Son, as we have been. Amen.