A Provocation: Fourth Sunday in Lent: March 11, 2018: John 3:14-21

John 3:14-21
3:14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,

3:15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

3:16 “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.

3:17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

3:18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.

3:19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.

3:20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.

3:21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

A Question or Two:

  • Why do translators insist on bringing Evil into this scene when the two words translated as “evil” mean, more properly: 1. “broken and worn out things that are thrown away,” and 2. “pointless?”
  • It is rather a different thing to say that someone’s deeds are evil than to say that they are pointless.  And “pointless” is the word Jesus uses in this scene.

A Few Longer Reflections:

Two things:

  1. Making sense of this scene requires thinking again about what “believe in” means.
  2. If God did not “send the Son into the world” (whatever that means, exactly) to condemn the world, why do so many Christians invest so much energy in condemning the world?  Asking for a friend.

The first matter (“believing”) seems so simple.

People of faith are often called “believers,” so we MUST know what that means, mustn’t we?  So does it mean that we believe God exists (think of the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz: “I DO believe in spooks.  I DO believe in spooks.  I DO, I DO, I DO believe in spooks.”)?  Apparently not.

Interpreters have spent a lot of time arguing that “believing in” has to mean “trusting in.”  This works, both as a reading of the text, and as a foundation for theology.  This understands “believers” as “trusters,” as people who, at the root of their being, rely upon God.

But trust is a funny thing.  There are people I trust.  Period.  And there are people I do not trust, and perhaps may never trust, never again.  Trust is built up, and lost, through experience in relationship.

But this is what makes for theological complications in this way of reading.  In the abstract, it is easy to affirm that God may be trusted, in all things and in all times.  But real theology, like real life, is concrete and relational, not abstract and clean.  In real life, and real relationships, people I know claim, on the basis of experience, to have lost trust in God.  Elie Wiesel, in his book, Night, notes that in the midst of his experience in the hands of Nazi murderers he never doubted God’s existence, only God’s character.  And the book of Job raises similar questions in any attentive reader.

But if this scene from the gospel of John is about trust, then such loss of trust leads to condemnation.  This will not do.

The word could also be rendered simply as “believe.”

In that case, what is at stake is “believing God.”  I’m not entirely sure how I would read that line of interpretation.  This reading implies an on-going relationship, which seems promising.  And this way of reading the scene seems to make room for both Wiesel and Job: both believed God when God spoke pardon and kindness, when God rejected pettiness and partiality, when God was revealed high and lifted up.  Both believed that God properly establishes justice and enacts mercy.  And because they believed God, they called God to account for not stopping the trains to Auschwitz.

I am still suspicious of any theology that finds it productive to meditate on condemnation.  But it seems less pernicious to link condemnation to the refusal to call God to account than to link it to being honest about having lost trust.  The two options seem opposite to each other, and it seems wiser to set honesty on the side of salvation.

This last possible reading is tied to another.

The Greek word behind all of this wondering is πιστεύω, which can mean all of the things interpreters have postulated, and can be as elusive as this discussion makes it.  It helps, perhaps, that the gospel of John is a Jewish writing.  The verb, πιστεύω, is related to the noun, πιστις, which (in a Jewish text) is best read as referring to “faithfulness.”  And “faithfulness” (in a Jewish text) refers to living a life of Torah observance.  

Such patterns of life are distinctive, being tied to a person’s teacher.  One of the things students learn from their rabbi is how to shape their lives in accordance with the rabbi’s teaching,  This shaping might be called πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν, literally “living faithfully into him.”  This would mean that this scene from John’s gospel offers “salvation” (whatever that is, exactly) to those who shape their lives in accord with the Messiah.  

Does this mean shaping one’s living and working and hoping by the promise that all things will be turned right-side-up, that justice is both a promise and a possibility?  That would mean that God offers rescue and restoration to those who dare to hope.  Such daring hope is surely a gift from God, and surely gives life.

Or does this mean shaping one’s living and working and hoping by the model of the crucified Messiah?  This is a more complicated shaping.  It is tempting to say that this means shaping life by an even more audacious hope, the hope of resurrection.  And perhaps I will say exactly that in a little while.  But any proper theology will first stop, stunned by the death by torture that makes resurrection necessary, the only road to hope.

Reading crucifixion with real theological seriousness in not easy.

It requires continually finding a way to focus simultaneously on justice and on failure, on succeeding and on falling short, on promising life and on the grinding reality of death.  The resurrection of the Messiah only comes after Rome has tortured him (and his evident promise), tortured him to death.

Maybe that is the point.  Maybe pattern of life rooted in Jesus the Messiah is a pattern that knows that Rome always wins fights like this.  And God raises the Messiah anyhow.

Maybe that is what the Torah observance we learn from Jesus finally comes down to: ANYHOW.

Death wins.  But anyhow….  Yet another generation needs a movement tied to #MeToo, or #NeverAgain, or #TimeIsUp.  But anyhow….

“Anyhow” is another word for “#ShePersisted.”  I could live with that.  Maybe that is the point, since this is finally a story of resurrection.

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