For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. (John 3:16)
Have you ever noticed that though our world keeps getting smaller and smaller thanks to new and emerging technologies, we still have some cultural intricacies that cause moments of discomfort as we get to know one another? For example, giving someone a thumbs up in America means that everything is great, whereas in Europe it usually means the number “one” and in other parts of the world… well, it means something that we shall not mention. Point being that there is a lot that we lose in translation.
The same can be said about our scriptural texts. Though we understand that we are reading a translation of another language, we often forget that some words have a different meaning across the cultures. What is more, there are tenses and declensions and sentence structure – as the old song goes, let’s call the whole thing off.
Seriously, though, we need to remember that what we are reading has far more going on behind it than what we may first see in the lines of writing. As an example: in the English language, we are taught that if we use the word “because” it means that what follows is the cause of what came before. She can do anything because she is fierce. He is a jerk because he never listens to people. The second half of the sentence is the reason for the first.
The writer of the gospel of John does not use “because” in the same way. Instead of it designating the cause of the reaction, the word describes the reality that comes from the first part of the sentence being true. For example: those who love me will keep my commandments. Fair enough, there is no because. However, the same is true: the evidence that someone loves Christ is that they will keep Christ’s commandments. Contrary to popular opinion in the Christian culture, keeping Christ’s commandments is not a prerequisite of following Jesus. It is the result.
This Sunday’s passage includes one of the most famous verses in all of scripture: John 3:16. Straightforward enough – God’s love for the world is the cause for such a gift. The passage then goes on to talk about what this love really means for the world as it is.
This passage has been used to condemn so many people. However, the point of it’s message is in verse following it’s famous counterpart: God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. We mistranslate John 3:16 when we forget that the point is God’s action, God’s love, God’s salvation. What is more, we can cause such pain and suffering of our own when we take what follows, in verses eighteen to twenty, and use them as a weapon to tear down those with whom we disagree or do not like or think should be condemned. When we do, we damage the text. Even worse, we damage our relationship with God.
Jesus’ words in this passage speak not of cause and effect, but of reality. The reality is that those who truly live in the light will open themselves up in love because they are already in God (since they love because of God’s action first). The reality is that there are some who are so comfortable with the pain, suffering, or who, in a terrifying thought, enjoy the benefits of making others suffer, that they will not come to the light. They understand what they are doing is against God. They know that they are breaking their relationships – with God, with others, with themselves. They do not want to give up this pattern of behavior, for any number of reasons.
Jesus is offering us a picture of how the world is in these verses, not giving us the causes of those who are saved versus those who are condemned. Too many have been hurt because we, as followers of Christ, have lost the meaning of this text in the ways we translate it to the rest of the world.
In order to keep the “translation” accurate, we must take into account the integral reality of who God is. In this gospel, Jesus (and God) is may be many things, but at the heart: God is love. So those who live in love are the followers of this God. It is not a prerequisite, but if your life is not showing love, then, sorry to break it to you, you are not following Jesus.
This love is not permissive, but it is empowering. Jesus encourages us to speak truth to dark places where hatred, pain and suffering live. Jesus strengthens those the world deems weak and welcomes the unwanted – so should we. Jesus focuses his earthly life on educating those who are not allowed to learn, healing those who have no access to resources that might make them well and those who are beyond what we ever dreamed could be made whole, and building up any that the world brings low. Jesus also spends a lot of time bursting the bubbles of privilege, entitlement, and domination. Imagine what the world would be like if this love was let loose – through us? Imagine how different it would be if we stopped allowing our misunderstandings, our misguided viewpoints, our mistranslations to get in the way of the love God is imparting to the world?
A key portion of any Lenten reflection is to examine our own lives, our own hearts, our own souls, and find all the places where love has not yet taken hold. Make sure that what we are doing is truly what God desires and not just what we want. Then begin the process of unbinding those places that the love of God might come in. Jesus, in this passage, is describing the reality of what is, not what will be. There is still time – for there is no length to which God will not go to show how much you and I are loved.