The Bible in a Nutshell

John 3
It’s the bible in a nutshell:  John 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. You see it on banners at sports events, on bumper stickers, greeting cards and refrigerator magnets. It’s even on my stole today, made by member Karen A! This verse from the Gospel of John has become almost ubiquitous.

Since it’s everywhere, we often think we know what it means – that anyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is saved. Of course, that is part of its meaning. But to understand what this bible in a nutshell really means, we have to look at its context. And it comes from an unlikely story – a story about a non-believer, Nicodemus.

Nicodemus was an unlikely person to come to see Jesus. He was a leader of the Pharisees, the sect in 1st century Judaism that was renowned for their purity of practice. They took the Levitical command: “Be holy as I am holy” literally, and they carved out all sorts of rules on how to be holy. This approach had the advantage of connecting everyday living to faith in God; It had the downside of excluding all those who for various reasons couldn’t keep the rules. And there were a lot of those: the physically disabled, people with illnesses, the poor who could not afford sacrifices, foreigners, tax collectors and the party hearty crowd. The Pharisees also worshipped at the temple, as sacrifice was part of their regime of holiness.

So this leader of the ultra-pure sect came to see Jesus. Jesus, who turned water into wine at a wedding so that the guests could party on. Jesus, who busted up the temple the day before and kicked out all people selling animals for sacrifice. Jesus, who made friends with women and Samaritans and healed on the Sabbath. Some people paint Nicodemus as a seeker, wanting to know more in order to believe. But I think it is just as likely that Nicodemus was sent to get the dirt on this Jesus whose every action challenged the Pharisee way of life.

Notice that Nicodemus speaks in the plural: We know that you are a teacher who has come from God. He flatters Jesus, hoping to find out just what Jesus will admit to. But Jesus does not take the bait. Instead of admitting or denying his identity as God’s son, Jesus instead talks about the life of faith. It is a spiritual birth, a new life beginning in baptism with the water and the Spirit. It is a Spirit that will not be contained or told where to go, but rather like the wind which blows on whomever it chooses.

Against the picture of Nicodemus’ exclusive religion, Jesus paints with bold new strokes: For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. It is not just the people who measure up that God loves. It’s not even just the people. God loves the entire world — all creation.

I think this is an important thing to note. Because a lot of times when we think of John 3:16 we think of right belief, of professing that Jesus is Lord. And if people don’t confess that, then they are wrong; they are out. But Jesus came for non-believing Nicodemus. And Verse 17 says: 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. Jesus is not about condemnation, not about who’s in and who’s out. He is about saving the whole world. How much more universal can you get than that? And yet our prejudices often get in the way of us including the tax collectors and sinners of our day. Somehow, we Christians have yet to understand what Jesus’ love means.

Perhaps the first place to understand the radical inclusivity of Jesus is in our own community. I have always thought that one of the requirements for true Christian community Is that there is at least one person you can’t stand in the group. Otherwise, you’re a club, right? That person who drives you up a wall with their attitude or politics or worship habit forces you to deal with your own exclusivity. Forces you to reckon with your own desire to define where the Spirit blows, and what it means to be a Christian.

It reminds me of Roger. Roger was one of those guys who retired early and made church the place where he invested his considerable ambition. And Roger was ambitious. He had grown up poor, and never quite overcame the need to prove himself. So when it was time to renovate the church, Roger was at the head of the fundraising team. When it was time for a new council president, Roger jockeyed for the position. When the grounds needed attention, Roger was out there, weeding and planting annuals.

Now it’s not that Roger didn’t do good work; he often did excellent work. It’s just that he had this personal axe to grind, and it often came out in his interactions with others. If others weren’t stepping up to the plate to get things done, Roger had biting words about their commitment to the church. If his version of an idea didn’t get air time, he’d try to push it through, even if it meant bullying someone else. He was a generous man, but there were almost always strings attached. Eventually, Roger got in a big disagreement with another leader and feeling his influence had run out, Roger left the church.

As I think back on those days, I consider how we as a Christian community dealt with Roger. Did we embody John 3:16, God so loved the world? Did we love Roger? Some people wrote him off as a controlling jerk, but others worked with him. Sometimes they set limits for his behavior, but more importantly they accepted him as he was: A man with mixed motives who wanted to serve God—in other words, like the rest of us.

The measure of the community’s love was shown almost ten years later. Roger had been a member at another church, and he had mellowed over the years. He had a number of knocks—a daughter had a stroke, a son divorced. Roger himself got sick with cancer and had treatments that lasted for three years. He found it was better to accept things as they were instead of trying to control the outcome. He had a more compassionate and forgiving heart. And now that he was thinking about his last years of life, he wanted to come back to his old church.

But would they welcome him? People could have ignored Roger, or greeted him with cool reserve—after all, there had been that yelling match and nasty letter. But people did not mention the past.0 They smiled and hugged him. They welcomed him back with open arms.

John 3:16 makes a great slogan; it is the Bible in a nutshell. It is important, though, that we make it more than a slogan.  It’s important that we live it. ‘God so loved the world’ means that our exclusive tendencies have to go. We need to lay aside the ‘isms’ that plague our world–sexism, racism, ageism, cultural chauvinism. But the first step is to open ourselves to the one in our community who challenges us–to love them and forgive them and appreciate something of who they are. The universal message begins right here, in the simple act of being accepting of one another.

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