In the Lectionary

May 27, Trinity Sunday (John 3:1-17)

John 3:16 is about crisis, but not the crisis of God brooding in heaven waiting on us to make a choice.

The South of my youth, a “Christ-haunted” place, to borrow a Flannery O’Connor phrase, was fascinated by the third chapter of John. Not so much with the character of Nicodemus or the full story of his nocturnal visit to Jesus, but with the sound bites pried loose from the narrative. Long before it was cool to shake a purple wig and a John 3:16 sign for the TV cameras at the World Series, southern Christians had plucked the cashews out of the nut dish of this narrative and held aloft Jesus’ pronouncements, codified in the majestic King James cadence: “Ye must be born again” and “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” These two sayings became empty vessels into which could be poured a full measure of sweaty, crisis-driven, blood-saturated, revivalistic theology.

John 3 is about crisis, all right, but it takes the whole Nicodemus story to recognize the shape of it. It is not the crisis of God brooding in heaven waiting on us to make a choice, withholding a verdict on our souls until we walk the sawdust trail. The crisis of John 3—what set a bewildered Nicodemus exclaiming, “How can this be?”—is Jesus himself, the flesh-and-blood embodied Jesus, so close to Nicodemus that he can feel his breath as he speaks of “earthly things,” of birth, water, and wind. Nicodemus thought he was the one who came to Jesus, only to discover that in the cosmic scheme of things, Jesus came to him and to all humanity. Jesus came in the flesh, sent by God—not to condemn, and certainly not to engage in polite theological discourse, but to save.

John says Jesus came because God loves the world, and not the lovable surface world of delightful music, literature, and art, the world of carefree laughter tinkling on the verandas of the privileged, but Nicodemus’s world. Though respectable on the surface, it’s still the underbelly world of night, the God-hating world of violence, torture, rebellion, and sin. Mysteriously, God loves this world. New Testament scholar John Meier observed that the standard English translations of John 3:16 obscure the “verbal and theological collision” captured in the Greek, which positions God right next to world, or cosmos—“for so loved God the world.” The point is clear: improbably, shockingly, God loves the actual world, the God-despising world. God loves the world with such ferocity that God draws near to save, even to dwell among us in the flesh. “When God loves,” says Meier, “things happen: great things, terrible things, incarnation and cross.”