There is a sign that is held up at almost every football game.
It just may be the most well- known Bible verse.
Martin Luther called John 3:16 “the gospel in a nutshell” because it tells us of God’s profound love for us. It tells us of the depths to which God would go to convey that love for us.
The verse leaped into popular sports culture when born-again Christians started holding “John 3:16” signs as a way to spread the gospel. The most famous 3:16 holder was Rollen Stewart. In the 70’s and 80’s, he wore a rainbow-colored wig and danced behind the goal posts at football games, home plate at baseball games and the backboard at basketball games, even the finish line of the Indy 500. Stewart said he wanted John 3:16, on as many tv screens as possible, so people would repent and believe.
Right now, Stewart should be repenting. He is serving three consecutive life sentences after a bizarre incident in which he locked himself in a hotel room, held a maid hostage and threatened to shoot down airplanes.
Despite that fall from respectability, John 3:16 has remained popular as a witnessing device among evangelical Christians. Eric Marrapodi, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor, says that’s “because it’s short and information-packed: God loves humankind, man has sinned and is destined for eternal punishment, but eternal life awaits all who believe in God’s son, Jesus.”
And faster than the Patriots can turn around a game in the fourth quarter, a verse about the love of God has changed into a verse that is telling people they are going to hell. Believe in Jesus or else.
Read one more verse. One more verse. Read John 3:17 and it is hard to support that believe or be damned interpretation.
John 3:17 re-emphasizes God’s motive for sending the Son into the world. It’s the same as verse 16 but repeated for reinforcement and elaboration. Verse 16 tells us that God so loved the world that God sent the Son. Verse 17 says God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.
God’s motive is always love and the salvation of the world. The focus is on God’s love in the Son – an amazing and saving love – not on who’s in or who’s out. God’s love in the Son is to love, bless and save the whole world.
That love is revealed as even more extravagant and life-giving when we look at the world – the world that Jesus refers to here. The word is kosmos. In the rest of the gospel of John, kosmos means the everything that is opposed to God. Every other occurrence of kosmos/world, in John, tells us about those who are hostile to God.
We might translate verse 16 and 17 as: For God so loved all that hates God that God gave the only Son and God did not send the Son to condemn even this world that despises God, but instead so that everything and everyone who rejects God might still be saved through the Son.
Now, that sounds like the Jesus who, just about two weeks before, changed ordinary water into 180 gallons of extraordinarily good wine that overflowed with goodness at the wedding in Cana. That sound like the Jesus who, just last week, was so infuriated with a system that kept people from coming near to God to worship, that he was turning over tables in the temple and lashing out in righteous indignation. That sounds like the kind of love and light that John described to us, that has come to transform the world.
It is an outrageous, scandalous love. Which probably makes it the kind of love that can save.
That kind of audacious, overwhelming no holds barred love was a stunning notion to both the Jews and the Greeks, for whom John was writing. For many Jews, the love of God was won and expressed by ritual and piety. For the Greeks that God loved was in and itself a foreign notion. Rodney Stark writing in the Rise of Christianity says, “the simple phrase “for God so loved the world” would have puzzled John’s listeners. The notion that a God would care how we treat one another would have been dismissed as patently absurd. This was the moral climate in which Christianity taught that mercy is one of the primary virtues – that a merciful God requires humans to be merciful. This was revolutionary stuff.”
It is still revolutionary stuff. It is still revolutionary to claim that the kingdom of God is not a place to be obtained by those who grow puffed and powerful on piety. Not a place to be won once and for all. It is still revolutionary to declare that the kingdom of God is a place we inhabit when we let the Spirit of God inhabit us and direct our actions with lavish love for all. For the whole world. Even the God-hating world.
There are signs that this revolutionary word is still needed. The idea that God loves everyone and we are called to see that kingdom of mercy and be part of the salvation of the world is still stunning and still timely.
In our time, hate crimes, bias incidents, threats and incendiary language against those who don’t fit someone’s idea of our nation grow.
Just last week in a well-heeled suburb of Chicago the Waldheim Jewish cemetery was grievously desecrated, bodies bulldozed from their graves with heavy machinery.
Even nearer, Carmel is debating the possibility of Muslim mosque being built in that affluent community. While the zoning board still considers the situation, apparently without bias on the basis of religion, the public discourse, the online comments and the onslaught of mail into the town teems with outrageous islamophobia.
On college campuses, the distribution of white supremacist propaganda has grown exponentially – up almost 250% in volume in the last year.
Yet, this past week, Indiana is still one of only five states without laws against crimes motivated by bias against race, gender, religion and sexual orientation.
If God’s love is for all, then we who have experienced this profound and audacious love in Christ are called to see persons of other faiths and no faith through the lens of that profound and surprising love.
There is adequate protection for free speech in our country. Those who see the kingdom of God have a moral and religious obligation to respond clearly and forcefully to bias, hatred, exclusion – even when it is tolerated by the law of the land.
Perhaps you are confident that you are not speaking hatred into the world. Perhaps you are quite certain you would show God’s love and mercy to both the Muslim and the Muslim hater, if you were to meet them face to face – you just think that hasn’t happened yet. Perhaps you think: I don’t live in Carmel, and I’m well past college age, thank God, and I can block my facebook feed or turn off the news.
But, we who have been given a second birth, who are born on the winds of the Spirit of love, we see with new eyes. We see the kingdom of God. We are called to bear the loving Spirit of God into the world – the God-hating world, the God-despising world.
God so loved the world that we are given more influence than we perhaps imagine. We can speak up when we hear bias. We can bring up the topic of tolerance, even when people don’t want to talk politics.
We can consider the Carmel situation and get our souls ready never to say “Not in My Backyard” when the underdog, the outsider, the undesirable, the new arrival comes to town.
We who know the audacious, outlandish love of God, should not underestimate the influence of a grandparent, a parent, a friend, a co-worker, a fellow resident who is willing to speak up for love, to open dialogue, to have the hard conversation.
The kingdom of God is revealed when we say with Spirit, “You know I’m a Christian and I think God loves all people and wants us to do the same.”
Turns out, we already have a sign for that. Someone noticed mine the other day.
I had jury duty, the week before last, and had to go through the security screening process under the stern gaze of well-armored officers. The second day of duty, before the growing line of people, the fork I brought for my lunch was brandished of an example of items that would be confiscated. I made the line longer by noting that forks were not on the “forbidden in the courthouse list” that we were given ahead of time.
We were all feeling annoyed with one another, when the officer who handed my bag back to me muttered under his breath, “I like your sign.”
In all honesty, I wondered if I had worn the “self-righteous citizen” name tag I felt I had been stamped with. Instead, he gestured the tag on my briefcase. It was a tag that we gave out at the blessing of the backpacks two years ago.
He read it quietly, “‘We’re all in this together, for the love of God.’ I like that,” he said.
“Thanks,” I said, hoping I hadn’t been too miserable of representation of Christianity. “So do I.”
“I like that,” he repeated more loudly. “We need more of that.”
“We do.” I said confidently.” My church gave those out.”
That’s when he looked incredulous. “They did?” he asked. Now he was almost shouting. “Your church gave that out? That’s great!”
Now that’s an indication of the sorry state of Christian witness. That someone would be shocked that a church was promoting the love of God for all people.
We have been given a bold declaration that God loves us, and God loves the whole world. If we see the kingdom of God, it is our calling to extend that love to everyone we encounter. We will see the kingdom of God together.
Hang out your sign. John 3:16 and 17. We’re all in this together, for the love of God.