Sermon on John 3:14-21 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. Audio for this sermon may be found here.
Astrophysicists tell us that after the Big Bang, the universe was a primeval soup made of light. From this soup emerged particles of matter, the substance of everything that exists. Because of a physical law known as the law of conservation of charge, equal amounts of something called antimatter were also produced. Antimatter is measurably the same as matter, except for one important distinction: it has an opposite charge. As a result, when matter and antimatter come in contact with each other, they are annihilated. Now, you can probably see how this is a problem. If there is an equal number of matter particles and antimatter particles, then the universe cannot exist. But here’s the astonishing thing that physicists can’t quite explain: for every billion particles of antimatter, there are a billion and one particles of matter. This infinitesimal bias toward matter is the reason we are all here right now. To put it another way, the universe as we know it would not exist without this fundamental imbalance.
This morning, we heard what is almost certainly the most well-known passage of the New Testament. John 3:16 is virtually ubiquitous in our culture. It can be seen on signs at sporting events and on fast food packaging. Many Christians consider it “the gospel in a nutshell,” a shorthand for the saving work of Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, the singular popularity of John 3:16 has caused us to forget that it comes from a much larger narrative. And because this verse has been divorced from its context, it has also been robbed of its power.
Last week, we heard the story of Jesus turning over the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple and insisting that the house of God was not a marketplace. In this action, Jesus challenged one of the deeply held assumptions of the Jewish Law: the belief that the reconciliation of God to his people required the restoration of balance. The reason that there was a marketplace in the Temple was so that sinners could purchase the sacrificial animals and other materials necessary for them to pay the debts incurred by their sin and be blameless under the Law. The entire Temple system was predicated on this specific understanding of judgment: the idea that sin upsets a delicate balance that must be restored through sacrifice and acts of contrition. By disrupting the Temple economy, Jesus challenged this fundamental assumption about the nature of God.
In the passage we heard this morning, Jesus is speaking with someone who is thoroughly steeped in the worldview represented by the Temple system. It’s no accident that the interaction between Jesus and Nicodemus the Pharisee appears where it does in John’s narrative. Immediately after Jesus challenges the Temple economy of balance, one of the representatives of that system comes to Jesus in order to discern the nature of his mission. What Jesus tells him is nothing short of astonishing: “God did not send the Son into the world in order to condemn the world.” The word our version translates as “condemn” can more accurately be rendered “judge.” In other words, Jesus affirms that God did not come into the world for the purpose of judgment. While this statement may not seem radical to us, it represents an entirely new way of understanding the nature of God. Judgment was central to the Jewish Law, because the Law was all about maintaining the delicate balance between sin and righteousness. The Law was essentially about maintaining equilibrium; it prescribed specific acts of contrition for particular violations. Judgment was the underlying rationale for the Temple system, for the religious establishment, and for the way that people related to God. In this conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus rejects this understanding of God and insists that his mission is not about restoring balance or somehow providing an antidote to unrighteousness. God’s purpose in the incarnation was not to restore the balance between sin and righteousness or good and evil; it was to transcend these categories altogether.
It is here that we can begin to grasp the true power of John 3:16. According to this famous verse, Jesus Christ’s mission is to manifest the love of God. Love transcends the very idea of balance. Judgment assumes symmetry, that the scale will be level. Love, however, is asymmetrical, wasteful, unconcerned with the idea of balance. There is no counterweight to love. This is part of why Jesus appropriates the story of Moses lifting up the serpent in the wilderness. In the passage from Numbers, the instrument of punishment and the instrument of redemption are one and the same. There is no “anti-serpent” that will restore balance by negating the effects of the poison. John uses this example to articulate that the cross, an instrument of shameful death and punishment, will also become the means of redemption. Jesus does not try to bring balance by combating or providing a counterweight to the evil powers of this world. Rather, Jesus overwhelms and transcends these powers by willingly subjecting himself to death on the cross. The cross is the ultimate expression of God’s love because it is fundamentally unbalanced. This asymmetry invites us into a new way of being.
Most of the world’s religious and quasi religious traditions assume that the delicate balance of the universe has been upset and needs to be restored. Good needs to be balanced by evil, righteousness needs to be balanced by sin, light needs to be balanced by dark. All of these antitheses are a way of grappling with the great human dilemma: the harsh and unavoidable reality that life seems to balanced by death. The problem with this balanced perspective is that it automatically leads us to think about the world in terms of categories. We spend our time and energy discerning who or what is in or out, what side of the scale they represent. The Christian witness, however, points to a very different understanding of the world. As Christians, we affirm that God’s asymmetrical love both transcends and encompasses all binary categories. There is no condition that is unaffected by God’s abundant and unbalanced love: not darkness, not sin, not even death. This is the ultimate power of John 3:16: it is an everlasting pledge that there is nothing that can alienate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
This week, our community has grieved the tragic death of Cayman Naib. In many ways, our response has been predictable: we have tried to figure out why Cayman took his own life and we have asked questions about the pressure we put on our children. These responses have their place, but they are ultimately rooted in a worldview predicated on balance. These questions assume that if we do everything right, we can restore balance and prevent this from happening again. As Christians, however, we are called to view Cayman’s death not as a problem to be solved but as a tragedy to be mourned. More importantly, we are called to entrust Cayman to the God whose love transcends both life and death. In our grief, we are called to reaffirm our trust in the words of our burial liturgy: “whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.” We are called, in other words, to cling to the fundamental truth of the gospel, that there is nothing that has the power to separate us from God’s abundant and unbalanced love.