Last revised: April 30, 2021
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4TH SUNDAY IN LENT — YEAR B
RCL: Numbers 21:4-9; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21
RoCa: 2 Chronicles 36:14-17, 19-23; Ephesians 2:4-10; John 3:14-21
Opening Comments: Redeeming the Christian Religion
In 2020 the trial begins this week for the murder of George Floyd, another instance of the American system of justice being on trial for its subjugation to racism. Will we finally come to a fair judgment that takes us a step forward to healing our justice system?
I propose that one of the primary themes of the Gospel of John is that the trial and execution of Jesus places all systems of human justice on trial. On the evening before his own trial begins, Jesus tells his disciples point blank:
And when the Paraclete [the Greek title for the Defender of the Accused] comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and justice (dikaiosynē) and judgment (krisis): about sin, because they do not trust (pisteuō) in me; about justice, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned. (John 16:8-11; my own modifications of the NRSV with the key Greek words in parenthesis)
Mimetic Theory helps us to understand the anthropology of human systems of justice enslaved to sin. Human institutions are founded in religion of sacred violence and structured with Us-against-Them dualistic thinking. They originate around ritual blood sacrifice and then slowly morph into Law as the central institution, always justified by the gods and the culture’s religion. The trial and execution of Jesus — followed by the Resurrection as an acquittal in a ‘higher court’ — mark the beginning of a desacralization (secularization) of the religion-based violence of our human legal systems. The judgment upon Jesus by the Sanhedrin and Pilate are instead seen, from the perspective of the resurrected Forgiving Victim, as a judgment on our judging — a judgment on our very systems of justice.
Today’s Gospel Reading from John 3 begins this theme of God’s judgment on our human justice. But there is a crucial translation issue to attend to first. In verses 17-18 the verb krinō, to judge, is translated as condemn in many translations (e.g., KJV, NIV, NRSV). This needlessly places a negative slant on things. There are positive instances of judging, after all. To translate krinō as condemn is to prejudge the verdict — which is actually a great clue as to why God might be judging our judging. We tend to prejudge in ways that lead to condemning and punishing, especially along the lines of our prejudged Insider-Outsider groupings. We prejudge one of Us as being good; and we prejudge one of Them as being bad, worthy of condemnation. Thus, our justice systems tend to fall in line with our prejudices structured by Us-vs-Them. Once someone is perceived as one of Them, we are more inclined to judge them negatively, to condemn them.
This is how policing works in America along racial lines. The Us-vs-Them of Race subconsciously compels police to judge someone as dangerous or not, as someone who requires deadly force or someone who deserves the benefit of the doubt. White folks, especially if they bear markers of being middle class or above, more often receive the latter treatment, the benefit of the doubt; people of color more often do not. Police officers, unless they receive significant anti-bias training and conditioning, carry around all the racialized tapes and images prevalent in our racialized culture, leading to the tendency for police to prejudge people of color as needing deadly force to contain them.
And what happens after deadly force is improperly used against people of color? We prejudge police not toward the negative judgment of condemnation but to give the benefit of the doubt. Even if the police officer involved is not white, they work on behalf of white people. Policing systems were created to protect and serve the ruling class, the folks in charge — historically, that clearly means white people. All police, then, are one of Us in that sense, and they are given the benefit of the doubt rather than condemnation.
Moreover, our tendency to prejudge negatively or positively along lines of Us-and-Them hinders our attempts at truth-telling and subsequently working to fix the problem. It makes “Us” more inclined to hear judgments from “Them” as condemnation. How do many white people, and by extension our police, perceive the Black Lives Matter movement? As seeking to somehow condemn the white system of justice. We find it difficult to hear the truth from Them because we automatically hear it as condemnation deserving punishment. We hear the message of BLM as, They want to get back at Us.
Punishment. That’s the other deep problem lying behind our human systems of justice, which Jesus comes to expose and judge. Once we condemn, our tendency is mostly to move on to punishment. We rarely think or act in terms of restoration. So if the BLM movement is seeking for us to see what’s amiss in our justice system, we immediately see it in terms of punishment rather than restoration. If our justice system is seen to have been ‘sinful,’ then the BLM movement must be calling for white people to finally pay for their sins. The BLM judgment of our justice is prejudged by many white people in a wholly negative light, which must therefore be resisted.
So let’s not translate krinō in the frame of condemnation and punishment, so that we can properly hear that Jesus is bringing us Good News about the possibility of restoring our justice system. Yes, we must first see God’s judgment on our justice system, but it is not in order to simply condemn and punish it. We must first see the truth of how our justice systems tend positively or negatively based on Us-vs-Them. And this truth-telling is not for the sake of punishing but rather for restoring. Within that frame of the Good News Jesus brings us, through his willingness to be condemned and punished by us, we can see and hear movements like BLM not simply as condemnation but as the call for all of us to work together on setting things right.
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Last week, we highlighted the work of N. T. Wright in leading the church into a Post-Christendom reading of Scripture that centers us once again in this world, rather than in the next. This week’s Gospel doubles-down on that theme because of the thorny phrase “eternal life,” a staple of the Christendom reading of salvation. Wright argues that zōēn aiōnion is an attempt to translate Hebrew/Aramaic phrases about the two central “ages” in Jewish eschatology: “this age,” corrupted by sinful disobedience to God, and “the age to come,” when the Messiah leads God’s people into obedience. So Wright tries to capture that by translating zōēn aiōnion as “life in God’s new age.” (For more, see the exegetical notes for the Gospel Reading below, and Wright’s translation of John 3:1-17.)
This week’s element for a New Reformation is to translate our thinking from “eternal life” to “life in God’s new age,” from the afterlife to this life. Our thinking had been in terms of two places, two qualities of life: mortal life on earth and eternal life in heaven. Wright maintains that for Jews there is only one place, Creation, comprised of the heavens and the earth. So we might say that Jewish thinking is not in terms of two places but two times, two qualitatively different eons (derived from the Greek work aiōnion) in history.
The adjustment to Jewish thinking due to the Messiah Jesus is that those two ages haven’t happened in linear succession like this:
Jesus the Messiah makes possible a new living into obedience to God’s loving desire. Disciples of the Messiah are able, in the Spirit, to enter into a new Way of being human. It is not a matter of waiting until after earthly death to enter into “eternal life”; rather, “life in God’s new age” begins with the gift of the Holy Spirit as life in discipleship to Jesus.
One final thought (spurred by feedback from a reader, and one that Wright also continually emphasizes): in our age of individualism, it is important to keep in front of us always that God sent Jesus to save the WORLD (kosmos)! Our salvation, our healing as a species, is part of a much larger project. And the call to discipleship to participate with God in that project is part of the healing process. Joining with God in saving the world is saving us, too.
Reflections and Questions
1. This lesson is chosen, no doubt, to go with the John 3 allusion to the serpent on the pole being lifted up. John 3 puts the story to Christological use. Its original roots in mythology are a different story. It would take quite a study to find all the parallels in mythology and to assess the way in which the Hebrew tradition appropriated such stories. The most obvious link is with the Asclepius, the ancient Greek god for healing. His symbol was two snakes entwined around a pole (which I believe is where the AMA gets its symbol). The idea was that opposites which war within are brought into harmony, resulting in healing.
2. A sermon could make use of modern medical practices as illustrations. I have given sermons on these texts around the theme “Facing the Snake the Bites You.” Modern medicine has seemingly gotten away from the links between our physical and spiritual health. Does its focus on physical causes and treatments, especially its ‘addiction’ to using drugs, merely cover over the deeper symptoms of our sickness? Conversely, does the cross of Jesus help us to really get to the roots of our sickness by making us “face the snake that has bitten us”?
Looking at a snake on a pole to be healed from snake bite is resonant with the notion of pharmakon in Greek culture: a drug is a poison that, taken in the right dosage, is also a remedy. The pharmakos, often translated as “sorceror,” was one accused of evil and run out of town and often killed — in other words, the scapegoat. Scapegoating is thus like taking a drug: the poison of violence is taken at just the right dosage in order to bring a relative measure of peace. For more on this and the connection to healing, see Epiphany 7B.
3. Sermons/blogs from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & Peace: Tom Truby, a sermon in 2012, titled “Deliverance“; a sermon in 2015, “Looking at Snakes“; a sermon in 2018, “It Is Hard to Look at the Poisonous Serpent.”
1. 2:3: tais epithymiais tes sarkos (“desires of the flesh”) and tekna physei orges (“children by nature of wrath”). Mimetic theory is an anthropological thesis that makes explicit the close connection between mimetic desire (epithymia) and wrath (orge). In fact, that connection is within the word for desire itself since the other most common Greek word for “wrath,” in addition to orge, is thymos, a root to the word epithymia. I have done some digging about epithymia previously (see notes for Proper 18A) when reflecting on Romans:
Girard himself also has some helpful comments on a root word, thymos, in Violence and the Sacred, pp. 154, 265. I decided to dig deeper for myself and was stunned by what I found in Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the NT (TDNT). Here’s an etymology of words that could stand as solid corroboration of Girard’s theses! The two central themes of Girard, desire and sacrifice, are bound together in the etymology of the ancient Greek words, even more than of what Bailie and Girard had previously made me aware. Here’s an overview, before going a bit more in depth. The most common Greek words for “sacrifice” (including in the NT and LXX) are thyo (verb) and thysia (noun). Derived from this are thymos, most often translated as “anger” or “wrath” (often used interchangeably with orge in designating the wrath of the gods), and epithymia, or the verb epithymeo, meaning desire. Essentially, these are both strong desires (1) thymos relating especially to the sacrificial cult; and (2) epithymia relating to the sorts of desires which lead to sacrificial crises. epithymia can mean any strong desire or yearning, but very often has a negative connotation, sometimes translated as “lust.” . . . the verb epithymeo is what is used for the rendering of the tenth commandments prohibition against “coveting.”
A one sentence summary of Girard’s anthropology could be summed up in the relationship of these words: thyo (sacrifice) is what we humans resort to in order to keep in check our epithymia (covetousness), all the while hiding our problem with epithymia (mimetic desire) from ourselves by attributing the need for thyo (sacrifice) to the appeasement of the thymos (wrath) of the gods.
My digging in the TDNT suggested even deeper relationships among these words. The article on thymos / epithymia by Buechsel (Vol. III, pp. 167-172) is especially revealing. (It also points the reader immediately, in its heading, to the huge article on orge [vol. V, pp. 382-447], which has a section on the interchangeability of thymos and orge in translating the “wrath” of God in the LXX.) Here’s how the article on thymos starts (with a better etymology of thyo than the article on thyo [vol. III, pp. 180-190]):
“thyo originally denotes a violent movement of air, water, the ground, animals, or men. From the sense of ‘to well up,’ ‘to boil up,’ there seems to have developed that of ‘to smoke,’ and then ‘to cause to go up in smoke,’ ‘to sacrifice.’ The basic meaning of thymos is thus similar to that pneuma [‘spirit’], namely, ‘that which is moved and which moves,’ ‘vital force.’ In Homer thymos is the vital force of animals and men…. thymos then takes on the sense of a. desire, impulse, inclination, b. spirit, c. anger, d. sensibility, e. disposition or mind, f. thought, consideration. The richly developed usage in Homer and the tragic dramatists is no longer present in the prose writers, e.g., Plato, Thucydides. For them thymos means spirit, anger, rage, agitation. In Jewish Gr. thymos is common in this sense…. Everywhere in the NT it means ‘wrath.'”
I find this fascinating! Especially the comparison to pneuma as a vital force. Oughourlian has advocated for mimeticism as the universal vital force that animates living beings (akin to gravity which governs the movements of physical objects; see ch. 1 of The Puppet of Desire). From a biblical perspective, especially when informed by Girard’s anthropology, we might say that that vital force divides in two, blows in two different directions, thymos and pneuma. The first is mimetic desire fallen into rivalry and the descension into wrath, the wrath we ultimately project onto the gods through our sacrificial cults. The second is the true vital force of life, a loving, non-rivalrous desire, also known as agape, which only God truly originates, a Holy Spirit. We need to put on Christ to live in this pneuma, while “making no provision” for epithymia.
1. James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong. There is a several page section suggesting a unified reading of the letter to the Ephesians entitled “Redeeming the Time,” pp. 229-232.
2. William Loader, “First Thoughts,” Epistle for Lent 4B. Loader challenges the common individualist reading today of such a proclamation of God’s grace — an individualist reading that often coincides with politics and economics of self-interest. He writes,
The world of transactions for profit frequently invades such reflections and reduces them to market commodities. One common way has been to see salvation as the ultimate luxury (manufactured by God) and to cultivate those qualities deemed to deserve it and hold proudly to them. We are then ‘God’s special people’ – the worthy, who can then strut our stuff and tell the rest of the world that they should be like us. Even when the persistence of the tradition succeeds in convincing people that it is not something we deserve, but is God’s gift, theological accountancy reduces the transaction to the level of the markets again by imagining that God needed to be paid off to be free to love (on the assumption: who’d want to love, if they weren’t paid for it!). Then we are told that God instigated a self payment by engineering the punishment of his son. Accountancy wins. The ledger was squared. Despite God’s daring and generosity our values are then upheld, because we have found a way of reducing the whole thing to being just like the transactions which are fundamental to our economic system, now globalised.2:8-10 give us a chance to see beyond the reductions to the real foundations of the divine vision. In fact the language shows that it is really about God’s creative generosity. God’s intention all along has been that people become what they were made to be and the ‘earth be filled with the glory of God’. God’s glory is God’s goodness. The move which the passage celebrates is not a move from this world to the next, from the outer to the inner world, from the world to the church community, but a move from a death way of being to a life way of being – here and now.
Reflections and Questions
1. For me, these ten verses should never be read without reference to the following eleven verses. Protestants have too long read verses 8-10 as the climax of the Gospel message and ended there. Grace. We have a message of grace. Yes, that’s true, but the next eleven verses show us exactly what the fruits of grace look like, especially this: “that Christ Jesus might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace. . .” (Eph 2:15). The Good News of grace is precisely that God in Jesus the Messiah is working to end Us-vs-Them! If we leave that out, we might think something along the lines of a grace for Us but not for Them — which is exactly what has happened. We turned the Good News of no-longer-Us-vs-Them into its opposite, a cementing of Us-vs-Them for all eternity, into the reward of heaven and the punishment of hell. We turned grace into anti-grace by not reading and understanding the entire chapter as a whole. We can never imagine grace for some but not for others if we follow the grace proclaimed in vs. 8 with the “therefore” in vs. 11 followed by the content of grace as precisely the abolishing of Us-vs-Them in favor of one new humanity. What could be more Good News than that in this age of polarization?!
2. It strikes me that these ten verses are a marvelous condensed version of the Pauline theology in Romans 3-6. There are the themes of salvation by grace through faith (Romans 3); dying and rising with Christ (Romans 6), though Eph 2 goes beyond this by having also seated with Christ in heaven already; and the theme of God’s love saving us while we were still enemies (Romans 5). It is the latter theme that has become increasingly important to me in recent years. The point of greatest uniqueness of the Christian ethic is its emphasis on love to the great depth of loving one’s enemies. I’ve realized more clearly that this derives from God’s love in Jesus Christ, that God loved us even while we were “dead in our sins,” expressed in passages such as Eph 2 and Romans 5:8-10. I wonder also about John 3:16; see below.
2. Another connection to Romans 3-6 involves what comes immediately after the proclamation of God’s grace, namely, the payoff for human community:
For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace. . . . (Ephesians 2:14-15)
The reflection on Romans 4 two weeks ago (Lent 2B) emphasizes the importance of Jesus fulfilling the Jewish Messiahship by virtue of fulfilling the promise to Abraham and Sarah that they would be parents of all nations. Without framing it as the fulfillment of promise, this passage makes the same overall point about bringing all of God’s children together through Jesus Christ.
1. zōēn aiōnion, “life everlasting.” The first two appearances of this phrase in John are in John 3:15-16. It occurs 3 times in Matthew, 2 in Mark, 3 in Luke, 1 in Acts, 3 times in Romans, 1 in Galatians, 2 in 1 John, and 14 in John (with one a piece in 1 Timothy and Jude). Most commentators bring out the immediacy of this phrase for John, namely, that it begins right now for those who believe. It is about a quality of life in this world more than about some other-world to come in the future. In the context of mimetic theory, I have found it meaningful to experience this promise of eternal life as being in deep relationship to the unending source of life itself. We are able to imitate the self-giving life of Jesus Christ with the promise of being connected (as branches to the vine) to the unending source of life. We need not fear death. We need not fear a life of self-giving generosity in the midst of a world of the forceful grasping after life that leads to death. When believing in the Resurrection and the Life, one won’t really die in the sense of not being conquered by the forces of death in this world. Those forces may yet win some battles, but they will not prevail in the end — not when one is connected to the source of life itself.
N. T. Wright in his New Testament translation (The Kingdom New Testament) renders zoen aionion as “the life of God’s new age.” And in his book How God Became King (one of my favorites), he gives an excellent explanation, not only of the translation, but also what’s at stake:
The second expression that has routinely been misunderstood in this connection is “eternal life.” Here again the widespread and long-lasting assumption that the gospels are there to tell us “how to go to heaven” has determined how people “hear” this phrase. Indeed, the word “eternity” in modern English and American has regularly been used not only to point to a “heavenly” destination, but to say something specific about it, namely, that it will be somehow outside time and probably outside space and matter as well. A disembodied, timeless eternity! That is Plato, not the Bible — and it’s a measure of how far Western Christianity has drifted from its moorings that it seldom even realizes the fact. Anyway, granted this assumption, when we find the Greek phrase zoe aionios in the gospels (and indeed in the New Testament letters), and when it is regularly translated as “eternal life” or “everlasting life,” people have naturally assumed that this concept of “eternity” is the right way to understand it. “God so loved the world,” reads the famous text in the King James Version of John 3:16, “that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” There we are, think average Christian readers. This is the biblical promise of a timeless heavenly bliss.
But it isn’t. In the many places where the phrase zoe aionios appears in the gospels, and in Paul’s letters for that matter, it refers to one aspect of an ancient Jewish belief about how time was divided up. In this viewpoint, there were two “aions” (we sometimes use the word “eon” in that sense): the “Present age,” ha-olam hazeh in Hebrew, and the “age to come,” ha-olam ha-ba. The “age to come,” many ancient Jews believed, would arrive one day to bring God’s justice, peace, and healing to the world as it groaned and toiled within the “present age.” You can see Paul, for instance, referring to this idea in Galatians 1:4, where he speaks of Jesus giving himself for our sins “to rescue us from the present evil age.” In other words, Jesus has inaugurated, ushered in, the “age to come.” But there is no sense that this “age to come” is “eternal” in the sense of being outside space, time, and matter. Far from it. The ancient Jews were creational monotheists. For them, God’s great future purpose was not to rescue people out of the world, but to rescue the world itself, people included, from its present state of corruption and decay.
If we reframe our thinking within this setting, the phrase zoe aionios will refer to “the life of the age,” in other words, “the life of the age to come.” When in Luke the rich young ruler asks Jesus, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (18:18, NRSV), he isn’t asking how to go to heaven when he dies. He is asking about the new world that God is going to usher in, the new era of justice, peace, and freedom God has promised his people. And he is asking, in particular, how he can be sure that when God does all this, he will be part of those who inherit the new world, who share its life. This is why, in my own new translation of the New Testament, Luke 18:18 reads, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit the life of the age to come?” Likewise, John 3:16 ends not with “have everlasting life” (KJV), but “share in the life of God’s new age.”
Among the various results of this misreading has been the earnest attempt to make all the material in Jesus’s public career refer somehow to a supposed invitation to “go to heaven” rather than to the present challenge of the kingdom coming on earth as in heaven. (pp. 44-45)
2. John 3:3: gennethe anothen, “born again,” or “born from above.” This verse is not in today’s lection but is crucial for interpreting the passage as a whole — especially in the contemporary “evangelical” Christian scene of emphasizing being born again. John’s Jesus is using a pun in the Greek around the word anothen, which can be interpreted as “again” or “from above.” Modern evangelicals miss the pun, but not as badly as Nicodemus, who takes it literally in terms of asking about getting back into his mother’s womb. Jesus’ response to Nicodemus shows that he is speaking more in the sense of being born “from above” — being born into God’s reign (“reign” having a spatial connotation of being over) through the Holy Spirit. (See especially Breuer’s reflections below, #8.)
3. Vs. 3:14, hypsoō, “lifted up.” This is the first of three passages in John where Jesus refers to his being crucified as being “lifted up.” As the first, it establishes the reference of the serpent in the wilderness (Num 21; today’s First Reading). The second instance comes within the crucial dialogue with “the Jews who had believed in him”:
So Jesus said, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own, but I speak these things as the Father instructed me. And the one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what is pleasing to him.” (John 8:28-29)
And the third instance comes at the beginning of Holy Week when some Greeks are looking for Jesus (next week’s Gospel Reading!). They overhear the voice of the Father from heaven and become puzzled.
Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. The crowd answered him, “We have heard from the law that the Messiah remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?” (John 12:30-34)
Five instances of hypsoō, overall — four of them in the Gospel Readings for Lent 4B and Lent 5B.
4. krinō and krisis, “judge” and “judgment.” In these verses John 3:14-21, this word group is also translated as “condemn.” But I’m not sure why. “Judge” is a more neutral word. It can be both a positive judgment, like “innocent,” or negative judgement, “guilty.” It doesn’t even have to be a courtroom setting. krinō is as flexible as the English in being generally about making a decision, one way or another. “Condemn” is clearly a judgment of negative connotation. So why assume the negative judgment? Here is how verses 17-19 read if you always translate the krisis/krinō word-group as judgment/judge:
Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not judged; but those who do not believe are judged already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 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.
I invite you to check out all the many instances of John talking about judging and judgment: “Word Study on Judge/Judgment (krinō/krisis) in John.” Next Sunday’s Gospel from John 12 is another important place for Jesus’ declarations about human justice. I believe the impact of John’s prolonged use of krinō/krisis is to subvert our human world “justice” based on judgement which is so quick to condemn — hence, we even translate the word for judge as “condemn.” From beginning to end, we see that a basic element of Jesus’ mission is to judge our human judgment. Continuing to insist on the rightness of our justice is revealed as insisting to live in darkness.
In mimetic theory, especially with Raymund Schwager‘s theological exposition of it (see Jesus and the Drama of Salvation), there is a self-judgment that happens because we choose to live by the Satanic judgment of bringing accusation against the Other. Here in John 3 it states that the judgment is a self-judgment of choosing to live in darkness rather than light. Jesus comes to reveal to us the light of a God who doesn’t judge us in the fashion of Satan the Accuser. In fact, in Jesus God sends us the Paraclete, the Defender of the Accused. But we don’t seem to want live in that light of grace. We trust the ordering power of Satanic judgment more than the grace of Jesus, and so we continue to choose to live in the darkness of ordering our human community according to the judgments of the Accuser. We bring judgment on ourselves by continuing to live by that judgment.
5. pisteuō is used five times in these verses. pistos as a word group has been shaded away in recent scholarship from “belief” — and even “faith” to the extent that it denotes more of a thinking state than a relationship — to “faithfulness” or “trust,” denoting a relationship. What about the verb? Should we translate it as “trust” rather than “believe”? If we took all the suggestions in these exegetical notes the passage reads:
[Jesus said,] “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever trusts in him may have the life of God’s new age. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who trusts in him may not perish but may have the life of God’s new age. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who trust in him are not judged; but those who do not trust are judged already, because they have not trusted in the name of the only Son of God. 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. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 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.”
6. houtōs, “so,” in vs. 16. The English word placement makes “so” sound like an intensifier for “loved.” But the meaning of this word in Greek is more often along the lines of “so” in the sense of “in this way.” James Alison comments:
This translation treats the word not as a way of making the love intense, but of demonstrating what it looks like: “For it was in this way, you see, that God loved the world: that he gave his only Son so that whoever believes in him might not perish, but have eternal life.” (Broken Hearts and News Creations, p. 125; also available online; see more below)
Introduction to the two stories in John 3-4. The arrangement may seem haphazard, but the structure is really quite marvelous. These two stories raise the question about the encounter with Jesus. Compare and contrast the two stories:
- Nicodemus-upright leader of the Jews, strict, orthodox Pharisee, a moral paragon. A man.
- The Samaritan woman-a heretic by Jewish standards, a loose woman of moral disrepute. A woman.
- Setting: at night vs. noon.
- Theme: birth vs. marriage
But both bring out whether or not a decisive encounter between the person and Jesus is able to take place. What kind of things frustrate that possibility get in the way. The problem with Nicodemus is that he already has a coherent, integrated sense of self. He’s a Pharisee, an upright one, a leader of his people, Mr. Rectitude.
John 3 / Nicodemus
vs. 3: He comes to Jesus expecting an encounter with a teacher and a performer of signs. Jesus responds that Nicodemus must be born again. He can reach moral perfection as a Pharisee, and that still isn’t the answer. He must throw all that off and be born again. No lesser form of transformation will work. This is what Paul had discovered, too. Paul had been a Pharisee; he had been Nicodemus. And he discovered that ‘you can’t get there from here.’ No matter how morally or religiously scrupulous you become, you can’t get there from here. So the question is “What does that change entail?” And the next question is “How’s it come about?” Jesus continues with what seems like a total non-sequitur. John 3:8: “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” In other words, there is an integrity to their lives that cannot be seen. It is not an adherence to a set of rules, not a strict pattern of behavior. It is invisible in that sense; but they are obeying something much more elusive, and much freer. It is an obedience that is indistinguishable from freedom. Perfect obedience and perfect freedom at the same time. One’s life is moving to this mysterious spirit, just like the wind. We can see its effects, but there aren’t any clear markings. This passage is taken from NAS Ecclesiastes 11:5: “Just as you do not know the path of the wind and how bones are formed in the womb of the pregnant woman, so you do not know the activity of God who makes all things.” (NRSV: “Just as you do not know how the breath comes to the bones in the mother’s womb, so you do not know the work of God, who makes everything.”) It links these two images: birth with the wind. Jesus is talking about a new kind of self; a new anthropos, as Paul would say; a new coming into being. When does the first coming into being happen? And how can we come into a new one? Buber on the essential relation: the barriers of individual being are breeched, and a new phenomena appears only in this way. One life opens to another. Two participate in each other’s being. In modern psychology, psyches create relationships. In the biblical world, relationships create psyches. Selfhood is dependent on relationship. There are two ways of living in an ordered world. One way is to live in the delusion of the GMSM. The other way is to be grounded in the “one essential relation” with the Creator of all, which gives one a whole world. Having a new birth comes with the sense of having a new parent. Jesus lived out his whole life, after his baptism, centered on his relationship to his heavenly father.
2. Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers, has a great word study on kosmos, “world” in a chapter called “Kosmos: The Domination System” (pp. 51-59). He makes the point that John especially is a NT writer for whom the word kosmos has the negative connotations that could easily be translated as “Domination System.” One could substitute the phrase “domination system” in most places that John uses “world” and have it make sense. Girardians might substitute something like Hamerton-Kelly’s GMSM (“Generative Mimetic Scapegoating Mechanism”). A case in point is John 9:39: Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Here, the religious authorities believe themselves to be God’s spokespersons but have reduced religion to a male club that excludes all but the morally upright and the financially privileged. What is the judgment on them? John 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.” John 9 and 12 further develop the blindness of the leaders and the fact that their judgments on Jesus will be what, in turn, judges them. Pilate becomes another example in John 18.
3. James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong, the beginning of Chapter 4, “The Resurrection and Original Sin,” pp. 115ff. Beginning with the Resurrection, Alison traces the transformation that took place for the apostles. The fact of the resurrection first caused a transformation of how the apostles experienced death. It was a three step process: first, that “whatever death is, God has nothing to do with it.” Second, that we are the ones most intimately involved in death, that it is not merely biological but part of a sinful reality: “the putting to death of Jesus showed humans as actively involved in death. In human reality, death and sin are intertwined.” Finally, the third step is to see “that the human reality of death itself is capable of being forgiven.” Here, he cites John 3:16-17:
The victim of human iniquity was raised up as forgiveness; in fact the resurrection was the raising up of the victim as forgiveness. This it was which permitted the recasting of God as love. It was not just that God loved his son and so raised him up, but that the giving of the son and his raising up revealed God as love for us. It is to exactly this that bear witness the remarkably similar passages found in John 3:16-17 and Rom 3:21-26, as well of course as 1 John 4:9-10.
4. James Alison, Raising Abel, pp. 45ff. In the context of discussing the revelation of God as Love, using John 3:16 as a prime example, Alison poses the story of Genesis 22 as a story that can be demythologized by John 3:16:
Now, this “giving his only Son” is not an idea pulled out of a hat. It is, itself, the demythologization of a story from the Old Testament: the story of Abraham who was prepared to give up his only (legitimate) son to God, by sacrificing him. But look at what has happened meanwhile: in the first story God is a god who demands sacrifices from humans, including the one sacrifice which really mattered, even though, in the story as we have it in Genesis 22, God himself organizes a substitute for the sacrifice. In any case, we still have a capricious deity. What we see in the New Testament, completely in line with the change in the perception of God that I’ve been setting out, is that it is not humans who offer a sacrifice to God (by, for instance, killing a blasphemous transgressor), but God who offers a sacrifice to humans. The whole self-giving of Jesus becomes possible because Jesus is obedient to God, giving himself in the midst of violent humans who demand blood, so as finally to unmask and annul the system of murderous mendacity which the world is. Once more, if you think I’m making this up, everything which I have been saying is beautifully and exactly resumed in the first epistle of John. There we see what the message is, the nucleus of the Gospel:
This then is the message which we have heard of him [i.e., Jesus], and declare unto you, that God is light and in him is no darkness at all. (1 John 1:5)
That is: what Jesus came to announce was a message about God, and God’s being entirely without violence, darkness, duplicity, ambivalence or ambiguity. This message is then unpacked by the author in the following verses, and then he gives us the famous summing up of where this process of the changing perception of God has led to:
. . . for God is love. In this was manifested the love of God toward us, that God sent his only begotten Son into the world that we might live through him. Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. (1 John 4:8-10)
Here we have the element of the discovery of the absolutely vivacious and effervescent nature of God leading to the realization that behind the death of Jesus there was no violent God, but a loving God who was planning a way to get us out of our violent and sinful life. Not a human sacrifice to God, but God’s sacrifice to humans. (pp. 45-46)
5. James Alison, Broken Hearts and News Creations, pp. 125ff. Exegetical note #4 (above) is the launching point for Alison’s essay (Ch. 8), “Strong Protagonism and Weak Presence: The Changes in Tone of the Voice of God” (also available online). Alison writes:
My motive for beginning with a grammatical niggle is that it points towards something more properly theological. If we start with “For God so loved,” then all our concentration and effort goes into imagining the emotional intensity which lies behind the manifest activity. What is really interesting is not so much what happened, about which we can satisfy ourselves with the briefest of enquiries, describing it in very spare terms. What would really be interesting is the degree in which the act was intended, the push behind it, the emotional force with which the principal agent of this activity carried it out.
If, on the other hand, we begin with “It was in this way that God loved,” then we have no prior access to some supposed interior life of God, modelled on our own. Instead it is that which is visible, that which is manifest in the activity itself, which becomes the lure for our fascination. And it is only in the degree in which we allow ourselves to be pulled inside that activity, and what we can discover starting from it, that we begin to get some notion of God’s love.
To my way of thinking, this second reading is preferable. And I have two motives for thinking like this. The first is having begun to notice the tendency in John’s text for things to be said with such blinding simplicity and obviousness that they pass us by completely, while we look for a more complicated meaning. In John, time and time again, I have the strange sensation that the very simplicity of what he sets out so clearly and straightforwardly overwhelms us because we are convinced that we are dealing with something mysterious. Returning to the simplicity of what is actually said is a work of years.
My second motive is more properly theological. In the first reading we don’t actually learn much about God, other than that God has emotions like ours; and that an example, perhaps an especially outstanding example, of God’s emotive quality would be this act of love. In the second reading, our whole understanding of God, which we have to prune of all our projections concerning God’s emotions or subjectivity, gets to be reconfigured starting only from what God has done. That is to say, it is what has been done which comes to be the criterion for who God is, causing us, bit by bit, completely to revise any other perception we might have of God. It is not a presupposition about God which gets to dictate how we are to understand what has happened. (pp. 126-27)
7. Andrew Marr, Abbot of St. Gregory’s Abbey (Three Rivers, MI) is a long-time reader and writer on Mimetic Theory and in his blog, “Imaginary Visions of True Peace,” made these reflections on this passage in 2015, “God So Loved the World.”
8. Sarah Dylan Breuer, SarahLaughed.net, the page for Lent 4B (which is posted this week at TheWitness.org). Breuer takes on the individualist “drive to re-invent ourselves” in contemporary American culture, as often manifested in “born again” theologies. Individualism goes against the whole sense of family that the birth image entails. And being born from above re-orients us to seeing God as birthing us in the Spirit that we might truly see all live creatures as our siblings. She writes:
Following Jesus is not a program for self-improvement; it’s an invitation to a community. It’s dislocation from a network of relationships that perpetuates injustice, death, and alienation so that we can be knit into a network of relationships that brings healing, reconciliation, and abundant life rooted in the eternal.Think about how many things are set by our birth in this world: We are born in a geographical location that can accustom us to unjust privilege or prevent us from access to clean water, education, the chance to live to adulthood. We are born in families that instill in us a sense that we are loved and too often a sense also that we are deeply inadequate. We are born with a skin color that will also condition our sense of who we are, what we deserve, whom we may love or fear. This world is set up in ways that try to lock us into patterns of relationship based on our birth — patterns that separate us from one another and from God.
How might the world be different if those patterns were disrupted, if you and I could be sisters and brothers in healthy relationship? . . . Let me put it this way:
What would our relationships look like if we shared one birth and were raised in one loving, supportive family? What would an economy look like that took seriously that we live and work in a world that is our common inheritance, and not a set of disconnected chunks of land and resources to be conquered like a Risk game board? What would a world look like in which we saw every child as our own little sister or brother, if “family first” included them all as our own flesh and blood?
That’s Jesus’ invitation to us today. Being “born from above” means that Jesus offers us freedom from relationships that ensnare, and the choice to relate to one another as beloved children of one loving God. It’s a choice not just for a new name:
It’s a new world of new relationships, of new and abundant life.
9. Michael Hardin and Jeff Krantz, PreachingPeace.org, the pages for Lent 4B. Like many of the other resources I’ve shared on today’s texts, Hardin and Krantz are wary of how this text is used in contemporary “evangelical” theology and its accompanying atonement theory. They write:
Today’s text was made popular in the twentieth century through the work of the American evangelist Billy Graham. We grew up hearing that God loved us and had a wonderful plan for our life. We also learned that we screwed up and God needed to punish us and that Jesus stepped in and took our beating. We were told if we believed in Jesus, God would be merciful to us and not slam us with some kind of nasty eschatological sentence. All others would go to hell. Now, this whole thing starts off right but ends up rather quickly in the dustbin of religion. To interpret this text in an exclusionist manner is to misread the text and to remain in darkness. One can only interpret this text in an exclusionist fashion if one is first committed to some kind of retributive justice in God. Therefore, it is incumbent upon us as heralds of the good news of Jesus Christ, to make sure that we do not read our scriptures from the perspective of myth, which excludes, and to make sure that we take our cue from the text itself and read “from below,” from the perspective of the victimized, from the horizon of the cross. Only when we do this will we find that we can be inclusive in our soteriology.
Second, the self-giving, selfless sacrifice of Jesus is highlighted. When, in our atonement theories, we make the cross an event between Jesus and God (Jesus suffers God’s wrath or some such), we sacralize Jesus and begin the process of Christian mythologization. On the other hand, if we begin with Jesus self-giving as a fundamental Christological and soteriological axiom, then his forgiveness of us for killing him as he hung dying is the true word of the gospel.
Political, social and economic systems in the Christian West have long been tied to atonement theories although this correlation wasn’t realized until the late twentieth century. As Preachers, we do ourselves and the gospel, not to mention our congregations, little good, if we persist in announcing a christified version of all the other gods of religion. During this Lent, we are given opportunity to repent of our mimetic ways of thinking. As Bernard Ramm used to tell his students, “God forgives our theology just like he forgives our sin.”
10. N. T. Wright, How God Became King, pp. 229-232. Wright brings kingdom and cross together in a way that puts love in the middle of it. His analysis is primarily of Pilate and Jesus in John 18-19, but John 3 is certainly very much in the background:
John’s great scene between Jesus and Pilate is all about the “kingdom,” even though it takes place under the shadow of the cross; or, to put it the other way, it is all about the reasons for the cross, and those reasons turn out to be kingdom reasons. The link between kingdom and cross forms the inner logic of the whole narrative, stressing both the inevitability and the necessity (in human terms, it was bound to happen; in the divine plan, it had to happen) of the kingdom of which Jesus speaks being put into effect by his forthcoming death.
Jesus once again takes the initiative in the conversation, introducing the discussion of different types of “kingdoms.” “My kingdom isn’t the sort that grows in this world,” he says (18:36). (We note here that the regular translation, “My kingdom is not of this world,” has contributed to, and in its turn also generated, multiple misreadings of all four gospels, appearing to suggest that Jesus’s “kingdom” is straightforwardly “otherworldly.” The Greek for “of this world” is ek tou kosmou toutou; the ek, meaning “out of” or “from,” is the crucial word.) There is no question but that Jesus is speaking of a “kingdom” in and for this world. The steady buildup, over the previous chapters, of sayings, already noted, about “the ruler of this world” being judged and cast out and about the world being overcome make it clear that in the events now unfolding we are to see the ultimate showdown between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the world brought to sharp focus in Jesus and Pilate.
Part of John’s meaning of the cross, then, is that it is not only what happens, purely pragmatically, when God’s kingdom challenges Caesar’s kingdom. It is also what has to happen if God’s kingdom, which makes its way (as Jesus insists) by nonviolence rather than by violence, is to win the day. This is the “truth” to which Jesus has come to bear witness, the “truth” for which Pilate’s worldview has no possible space (18:38). It is at once exemplified, dramatically, by Jesus taking the place of Barabbas the brigand (18:38-40). This is the “truth” to which Jesus bears witness — the truth of a kingdom accomplished by the innocent dying in place of the guilty.
And, in the broader Johannine perspective, we discover that the only word to do justice to this kingdom-and-cross combination is agape, “love.” The death of Jesus is the expression of God’s love, as the famous verse in John 3:16 makes clear. For John, it is also the expression of Jesus’s own love: “He had always loved his own people in the world; now he loved them right through to the end” (13:1). And, with that, John introduces the powerful and tender scene in which Jesus washes his disciples’ feet. In between these two, we find the “good shepherd” discourse, where the mutual love between Jesus and the father leads directly to Jesus’s vocation to “lay down his life for the sheep” (10:15).
Throughout, Jesus remains God’s anointed king, crowned as such by the pagans, however ironic the crown of thorns is (John 19:1-3). As such, he is the truly human being. When Pilate says “Here’s the man!” (19:5), we are surely to hear echoes of that primal Johannine moment, the Word becoming flesh as the climax of the new Genesis (1:14). But this Genesis, this new creation, is aimed at redemption; and the suffering Messiah, wearing the ironic royal robes, which acquire a second level of irony in John’s treatment, does for his people and the world what he had said all along he would do, as the shepherd giving his life for the sheep, as the seed sown in the ground to bear much fruit. The cross stands at the heart of John’s kingdom theology, which in this stunning passage is revealed as the heart of John’s redemption theology, the vision of the love of God revealed in saving action in the death of his Son, the Lamb, the Messiah.
If the cross is central to John’s vision of the kingdom, it is equally true that the kingdom is central to the meaning he gives to the cross. Any attempt to separate out a Johannine redemption theology from the equally Johannine theology of God’s kingdom and the new creation is doomed to failure. As the trial scene winds slowly to its conclusion, more ironies emerge: the irony of the charge that Jesus “made himself the son of God” (19:7), which was of course what Caesar had done; the irony of Jesus’s acknowledgment of Pilate’s God-given authority over him (19:11); the ultimate irony of the chief priests declaring that they had “no king except Caesar” (19:15). Gradually, inch by inch, in a narrative heavy with ironic kingdom theology, we discover the theological “why” of the cross within the historical “how.” As we should have realized all along, the “lifting up” of Jesus on the cross is his exaltation as the kingdom-bringing “king of the Jews,” because the kingdom that is thus put into effect is the victory of God’s love. Kingdom and cross fully joined.
How fatally easy it would be for us Westerners to sigh with relief at this point. Ah, we think, God’s kingdom is simply the sum total of all the souls who respond in faith to God’s love. It isn’t a real kingdom in space, time, and matter. It’s a spiritual reality, “not of this world.” John, though, will not collude with this Platonic shrinkage. We remind ourselves of the earlier passages about the ruler of this world being cast out, condemned, and overthrown. These appear to refer to a being that stands behind the present earthly rulers, but also incarnates itself in them; we are not simply talking about a “spiritual” victory that leaves the present human rulers unaffected.
For another thing, the resurrection scenes in John 20-21 are not about a heavenly existence, detached from this world, but precisely about new creation, the new Genesis arrived at last. The famous tetelestai in 19:30 (“It’s all done!”) matches the synetelesen in Genesis 2:2 (“God finished the work that he had done”); on the sixth day, in both accounts, God finished all the work that he had begun and rested on the seventh. The resurrection, as John stresses, happens on the first day of the week (20:1, 19). Mary is sent to tell the others that Jesus is to be enthroned beside the Father (20:17); Peter, to feed and tend the flock (21:15-17). This is how the kingdom, which is from above, is coming into this world. The work of redemption is complete; now, with Jesus having been “glorified,” having completed his work of rescuing his people, the Spirit can be given, and his followers can begin their own work. This is how — remembering how thoroughly it has been redefined! — God’s kingdom will come on earth as in heaven. The cross serves the goal of the kingdom, just as the kingdom is accomplished by Jesus’s victory on the cross. (pp. 229-232)
Reflections and Questions
1. In 2006, I developed the theme of God’s love as the real power of this world, more powerful that the powers of sacrifice, powers of sacred violence. I also ended with the conclusion from Sarah Dylan Breuer’s essay cited above, for a sermon titled “Real Power.”
2. In 2009, I kept the same ending from Breuer but developed the beginning differently, according to a video we were viewing in the adult class — the excellent PBS drama God on Trial, the dramatic fictionalization of Jews in Auschwitz putting God on trial. The rabbi who speaks at the climax of the trial takes them through the many times when Adonai brought them victory over their enemies. Was that Adonai good when he slaughtered all the first born sons of Egypt to punish the hard-hearted Pharoah? ‘No,’ he concludes, ‘God was never good. He was only on our side. Now we know what the Egyptian mothers felt like.’
In Jesus don’t we meet a good God who refuses to take sides? God so loved the world….not just God’s own people, but the world. That is my conclusion in 2009 in a sermon titled “A New God.”
In 2012 I kept the God on Trial center (dropping the Breuer ending) and developed a similar sermon bringing in our theme of Covenant: Lent 1, the covenant with Noah, his family, and the whole creation; Lent 2, the covenant with Abraham and Sarah; Lent 3, the covenant with Moses and the people of Israel; Lent 4, the New Covenant in Jesus. But this “New Covenant” is not new in the sense of replacing the Old Covenant. It is new in the sense of experiencing God in a new way. It’s actually the same ol’ God, who has made a covenant with the world through Abraham and Sarah and their descendants, but we experience that God anew in Jesus. How so? As the God who doesn’t choose sides. As the God who chooses Abraham and Sarah, in the first place, in order to bless the whole human family. This is the God we ‘meet again for the first time’ when we are reborn from above through God’s Spirit in Jesus Christ. The resulting sermon in 2012 is “New Covenant — New God” (expanded from the original version given in worship).
3. If we consider Wink’s thesis about John’s generally negative usage of “world,” does John 3:16 give us another version of God’s love for us even while we were still enemies (see reflection on Eph 2)?
4. Or does the passage as a whole still fall into exclusionary theology between believers and unbelievers? The positive statement about not coming into the world to condemn the world in 3:17 turns into: “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” (John 3:18). Yet it is important to see in the next several verses what mimetic theory interprets as self-judgment, or self-condemnation: “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” (John 3:19). It is a matter of decision. One precludes him or herself from living in the light by choosing to love the darkness. It is a theme of judgment that will carry all through John’s Gospel, with next Sunday’s text (Lent 5B) being another important one on the theme of judgment. (John 9 is another important passage on the theme of self-judgment; see Lent 4A for more on John 9.)
5. John 3:17 seems even more crucial to me, especially from a Girardian perspective, i.e., the contrast between condemning and saving. The Girardian reading of John’s gospel highlights the two contrasting paternities: the father of lies, who was a murderer from the beginning (John 8), and Jesus’ father in heaven. A couple weeks ago I shared part of the sermon on Satan the Accuser and God the Chooser. Jesus came to reveal to us a Father whose business in not condemnation; that’s the business of the other father, Satan the Accuser. Jesus came to reveal to us unconditional love that continues to choose us, even while we were enemies, dead in our sins. Such revelation, Jesus tells Nicodemus, results in nothing less than re-birth, a change of paternities.
6. In 1997 I preached a sermon on the psychological crisis born in mimetic rivalry that centers on shame, entitled “Encountering the True God.” Shaming one another comes from a psychology of needing to derive our sense of being at the expense of another. Satan lures us into playing games of accusing one another, of shaming one another. And the effect of being shamed is most often addiction, something to numb or subdue the painful effects of shame. Addiction is behavior that tends to go in the two extreme opposite directions: self-destructive addictions that fulfill one’s sense of shame, and addictions to perfection that seek to deny one’s sense of shame. Does John give us encounters of Jesus with these two extremes in consecutive narratives? Nicodemus, addicted to perfection, and the Samaritan woman, addicted to sex and self-destructive relationships? The remedy is to be reborn to a different way of relating to the other. Jesus came to reveal such a relation in the love from the Father, a love that refuses to play the games of condemning, of shaming.
7. In 2015, our parish went off the RCL to use the lectionary suggested in Brian McLaren‘s book We Make the Road By Walking, where the season of Lent focuses on the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7. I applaud McLaren’s suggestion for a couple of reasons. One is that Lent was originally a time of preparation for those to be baptized at the Easter Vigil, and there’s no better text for preparation of disciples than Matthew 5-7 — Dietrich Bonhoeffer made the same decision in his book Discipleship. Moreover, as such an essential text, it’s one of the biggest errors in the RCL that it falls towards the end of the Epiphany season in Year A — excerpts spread across Epiphany 4A-9A. In the years that Easter is early, we miss most of this passage (the exception being today’s portion, which we hear every year on Ash Wednesday, but sorely out of context). Following McLaren’s lectionary addresses this oversight.
For the 4th Sunday in Lent McLaren’s suggested portion is Matthew 6:19-7:12 — Chapter 30, “Why We Worry, Why We Judge.”