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. John 3:16
This verse is the legacy of the Christian tradition. It is the most important biblical verse to grapple with in this moment of our common life. It cuts to the heart of the question of Christian identity. Is it a clear and concise statement on Christian supremacy? Should its exclusive tone be challenged? Does it have a place in a pluralistic world? Is the best we can offer as a “progressive” Christian community to simply ignore it and the people who have claimed a narrow interpretation as ultimate truth?
This verse is the line in the sand that keeps evangelicals and mainline Christians from coming to any sort of unity. What do we do with it in a world where global awareness and movement means that differences in appearance, belief, culture, values, are unavoidable.
The question inherent here is playing out in our world in countless ways. On campuses in particular, a place where we have traditionally upheld the practice of rigorous debate on divergent perspectives, it has come to a head again and again. At the heart of these debates is whether freedom of expression has limits, whether my need for inclusion can infringe on yours? And it’s complicated. For a long time those with relative power have relieved their guilt by increasing the circles of inclusion but gradually our linear, dualistic thinking is starting to fail us. We are beginning to see that increasing circles of inclusion are being challenged as in fact creating exclusion for some.
Most notable is the controversy surrounding U of To professor Jordan Peterson, who received extensive news coverage last fall with his attack on political correctness and his refusal to use gender-neutral pronouns in the classroom. Peterson’s employer has said both that they support his right to academic freedom and speech and that he should cease and desist if he doesn’t want to run afoul with the Ontario Human Rights code.
At Dalhousie University last year, the Student Society president spear headed efforts to opt out of Canada 150 celebrations on campus claiming she wouldn’t stand with “privileged white people,” or be proud of “over 400 years of genocide.” The school’s response swung from initial condemnation to eventual apology. It’s as if the administration didn’t know what to do with this woman of colour who was fighting back with venom. Our predominant ethos of inclusion is showing its shadow side and we don’t know how to respond.
At UBC the debate is specifically around John 3:16 and its claims. There is an upcoming election for student society and one candidate, Andy Lim, is using John 3:16 as the cornerstone of his bid for student president, saying “It’s clear from the scripture that believing in the gospel gives eternal life and I want to bring that good news to all students.”
Except it is not so clear for some, like student Samantha Solomon. At the all candidates debate when Mr. Lim said that there are not enough Christians at UBC, Ms. Solomon, a Jew, challenged: “What is enough Christians at UBC?” In the student paper she employed a simple metaphor to press back on Lim’s platform. She wrote: “I don’t like ketchup. Yes I have tried ketchup and I still don’t like it. When I go to the grocery store I see ketchup and I know that it is an option. My friends like ketchup and they can eat ketchup if they want, but I don’t want to.”
If you’re at all like me you’re already trying to sort out if you are a ketchup is right for everyone whether they know it or not kind of person or a condiments are optional sort of person. It’s our biological starting place to put it all into categories, to quickly determine whom we can trust and whom we need to be leery of. This is why I’m much more inclined to go for lunch with a progressive Jew than I am with a fundamentalist Christian. It’s why I put off difficult conversations with people I think I’m opposed to, rather than risking the discomfort of coming face to face with someone who challenges me to question myself. This is why our friends tend to look and sound a lot like us.
At first blush you have to admit that Mr. Lim seems to have a point. It says right here in John’s gospel that those who believe in the Son are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already. I don’t know if it’s our job to correct or support his interpretation. It may be best to get clear on how you hold this verse, how it speaks to your life. It can be risky to pull one verse of scripture and use it as a proof text.
In this instance these claims are made within the context of the story of the Pharisee Nicodemus. He steals away to the bed and breakfast where Jesus is lodging in the middle of the night, quite likely because he’s not sure what his peers would think if they saw him talking to this travelling preacher. He’s profited heartily from the status quo, and frankly Jesus is the last guy in the world who someone with power and privilege like Nicodemus should want to associate. Here under the veil of secrecy Jesus tries to explain to him just how expansive the love of God is. Which makes it rather ironic that this verse s it expands Nicodemus’s idea of who God loves has been used to keep people out. A message of abundant inclusivity has been used to promote a rigid closed-minded theology. It’s strange.
But there’s more: to this Pharisee who would know his scriptures inside out and backwards, Jesus says remember Moses and the serpent? Let me remind us of that one.
The story from the book on Numbers in a nutshell goes like this: The Israelites have been in the wilderness for quite some time things are rough. So they complain against God and Moses, they grumble, they insist it wasn’t so bad back in Egypt, if this is what you call freedom we’re not interested.
In response to their griping God sends fiery serpents, which if you ask me was not a very compassionate thing to do. Anyway, with the fear of God in them, or the fear of snakes, some folks repented. For those people God instructed Moses to erect a serpent of bronze. Anytime someone looked at the bronze serpent they would be healed. Anytime they looked at the image of the thing they feared most, they would be healed. Every time we look into the heart or the eyes of the thing or person we fear most we will be healed. Every time we face our fears we will know eternal life.
I don’t know the best way forward when it comes to engaging these campus conversations, or others closer to home. But I wonder if the starting place might be looking in the eye the person in each of those stories who most makes you want to run the other way. Are the serpents not the thoughts that eat away at us and keep us in a posture of defensiveness with all that would threaten our status quo, our way of seeing the world? And isn’t it fair to say that when the venom of doubt gets into our veins we start spreading the poison?
The Israelites were instructed to look at the bronze serpent and be healed. Nicodemus is instructed to look at the cross and be healed. When we gaze into the heart of our fears we are healed. When I sit down to coffee with the evangelical Christian I am healed. When we extend a hand of friendship to that person who seems so single minded, we are healed. Looking at the cross is in invitation to stay with the thing that makes us so afraid it has the potential to bring us to Easter morning. Or to put it in the words of this text, to eternal life
I wonder what UBC student president hopeful Mr. Lim sees when he peers at the cross. Does he see eternal damnation instead of eternal life? Does he see in the cross judgment rather than life?
Theologian Frederick Buechner says that: “We think of eternal life, if we think of it at all, as what happens when life ends. We would do better to think of it as what happens when life begins.” Eternal life is what happens when we say yes to love, a way of life that opens up when our grip on ego and false gods makes way for a more authentic self. Maybe we find it in the places we most fear to go. It’s possible that faith in Jesus may not just preserve and protect you for all eternity; it may actually compel and convict you right now. Eternal life is inextricable from the cross and this continues to confound us.
None of which makes it any easier to navigate the times. It’s complicated and I don’t have a prophetic or definitive word for you today, I wish I did. A way forward in these curious and trying times won’t be found in drawing our lines in the sand deeper. If we want to follow in the way of Jesus we can’t hold out for eternal life after our final death, we need to be looking into the heart of every little death we face every day, and maybe there in the shadow of the cross we will come to see a light that is completely unexpected. Of this I am sure God’s love is broad and wide, it’s our fears that build walls and fences.
 UBC paper