There is a graphic artist named Brian Andreas whose work I can’t really describe to you. He uses a lot of primary colors, representational but non-realistic images, and words to create prints called StoryPeople. In one of them that I saw recently is this quotation (I don’t know if it’s original to Mr. Andreas or quoted from someone else):
I had no idea that when I invited life to take over that it actually would and now I’m somewhere miles away from any place I know and life keeps waving its arms and grinning like a crazy person saying “This. Is. So. Great.”
I thought of that when I encountered, again, what may be the most famous verse from the Gospel of John in today’s lesson: “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.”
“Eternal life” is the term Jesus uses in John’s Gospel to describe what he calls “the kingdom of heaven” or “the kingdom of God” in the Synoptic Gospels. Only twice in John’s Gospel does Jesus use the term “kingdom of God” and both them occur in the same context from which today’s gospel lesson is drawn, the nighttime conversation with Nicodemus the Pharisee.
Elsewhere in John’s Gospel, when identifying himself as the good shepherd, Jesus reiterates what he here tells Nicodemus, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” It is that exuberant abundance of life in the kingdom of God that I think Mr. Andreas captures in his image of life “waving its arms and grinning like a crazy person saying ‘This. Is. So. Great.'” I think that’s what life is meant to be now and what it is meant to be forever.
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. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
The famous verse is incomplete and prone to being misunderstood without the less famous following verse. The two must be read together and, in fact, must be read in the context of the whole conversation.
Nicodemus has come to Jesus with a bunch of questions: “Rabbi,” he says to him, “We know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Although John does not relate them, I suspect that Nicodemus asked Jesus what many of us learned as “the five Ws”, the questions every good journalist asks of his or her subject, the questions every good writer of fiction or history answers for his or her reader, the questions which have come down to us from the rhetoricians of classical antiquity, sometimes ascribed to St. Augustine of Hippo: “Quis, quid, quando, ubi, cur, quem ad modum, quibus adminiculis?” (Who, what, when, where, why, in what way, [and] by what means?)
“We know that you are a teacher who has come from God,” said Nicodemus. I can hear him asking the follow-up: “Why have you come? We know who and what and when and where . . . but why?” Jesus makes it clear that Nicodemus and those he represents really don’t know the who and the what and the when and the where, that he is “a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things.” Nonetheless, Jesus answers the “Why?”
“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.”
Back when I was in graduate school the first time, there was a weird guy known as “Rainbow Man.” His name was Rollen Stewart. He seemed to be everywhere, at every televised sporting event. He sported long mustache and a crazy beard. He wore a rainbow-colored wig in the style that, at the time, we called a “‘Fro”, that big, tightly-curled hair-do that only African-Americans could really pull off (Rainbow Man was a white man, not black). And he carried a sign: “John 3:16” Not the verse itself; the sign just had the reference – the word “John” and three-colon-one-six. You had to know the verse, which many of us did having memorized it in Sunday school, or look it up (which I guess was his hope). But there was never any mention of that important follow-up verse.
Left on its own on the Rainbow Man’s sign, the verse looked and sounded judgmental, a warning of impending punishment. The answer to Nicodemus’ “Why,” however, is not punishment but salvation, not that anyone should perish but that everyone – “the world” – should live. That’s why the follow-up verse is so important. That’s why Jesus spends time explaining to Nicodemus the who and the what and the when and the where, and he does so be reaching back into Jewish history to a story about Moses and the Hebrews, to a time during the Exodus when God was angry with them and caused poisonous snakes to trouble them but gave them a way to be saved by gazing upon the image of a brass serpent raised up on a pole. (This is the story told in today’s Lectionary reading from the Book of Numbers.)
Jesus tells Nicodemus that, like that brass serpent, he will be raised up – in Greek the words used can be interpreted to mean either physically lifted up or spiritually exalted, and it is clear that John’s Jesus means both understandings to be appreciated – and that because of that “whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
Neither the eternal life of which we are promised nor the belief to which we are called are for the future. They are very present realities. In today’s epistle lesson, Paul underscores this current reality: “You were dead . . . but God . . . made us alive . . . and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places.” We were dead, but God made us alive now, raised us up now, and seated us with Christ on high now. Whoever believes in him has eternal life now.
To “believe” in this lifted-up Jesus means placing our ultimate loyalty and trust in him now: it means turning away from anything or anyone else who may ask us to pledge our allegiance. It means remembering that he was publicly executed as an enemy of empire, so we must turn away from and abandon the ways in which we may be complicit in and benefit from any political or economic system which oppresses others. “The ‘lifting up’ of Jesus on a Roman cross places ever before us the question of who we will serve.” It is a question we must answer in every circumstance now.
To “believe” in this lifted-up Jesus means questioning the religious norms we accept and practice; it may mean repenting of any way in which our own piety may be a barrier to understanding the new things Jesus offers and asks of us. “The ‘lifting up’ of Jesus is a stumbling block for those obsessed with decorum and conformity to tradition.” It is a stumbling block we are to avoid in every instance now.
To “believe” in this lifted-up Jesus means confronting the inconvenient truth that “eternal life” he promises, the life we are offered in “the kingdom of God” may not conform our own common-sense ideas of happiness, or health, or safety. “Those who try to make their life secure will lose it,” he told his disciples, “but those who lose their life will keep it.” “The ‘lifting up’ of Jesus reminds us that the true life God has promised us is not the life that we can secure for ourselves through self-interest and caution.” We must live the life of courage in every moment now.
About the same time that Rainbow Man was driving all over the country – Rollen Stewart claimed he drove more than 60,000 miles a year for fifteen years attending sporting events and getting his sign on television – there was a stand-up comedian named Irwin Corey. Styling himself a “professor” and claiming to be “the World’s Foremost Authority,” he dressed in seedy, oversized formal wear and tennis shoes, with his bushy hair disheveled and sticking out in all directions. His act consisted of improvisational monologues and “observations about anything under the sun [which] seldom actually making sense.” Some might think I learned my preaching style from Professor Corey . . . .
Anyway, I remember watching some television variety show in the early 1970s when Professor Irwin Corey, the World’s Foremost Authority, was a guest. The host, somebody like Johnny Carson, asked him why he was wearing tennis shoes. For some reason, his answer has always stuck with me:
“You ask,” he said, “‘Why am I wearing tennis shoes?’ This is a two-part question. The first part is ‘Why?’ Human beings have been asking ‘Why?’ for thousands of years . . . and the only answer they have ever been able to come up with is ‘Because.’ The second part of your question is, ‘Am I wearing tennis shoes?’ To that, the answer is ‘Yes.’ So the answer to your question is, ‘Because, yes.'”
And that is the answer that Jesus gives Nicodemus’ question, “Why have you come?” That is the answer that Jesus gives us: “Because, yes!”
[Because] 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. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
Because, affirmation . . . not condemnation . . . affirmation!
Because, not judgment . . . salvation!
Because, not punishment . . . love!
Because, not death . . . life!
Because, not then . . . now!
Because . . . “This. Is. So. Great.”
Because . . . Yes!
This homily was offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Fourth Sunday in Lent, March 11, 2018, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.
(The lessons for the service are Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107:1-3,17-22; Ephesians 2:1-10; and St. John 3:14-21. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)
 John 3:16 (Return to text)
 John 3:3,5 (Return to text)
 John 10:10 (Return to text)
 John 3:16-17 (Return to text)
 John 3:2 (Return to text)
 John 3:10 (Return to text)
 Numbers 21:4-9 (Return to text)
 John 3:15 (Return to text)
 Ephesians 2:1,4,5-6 (Return to text)
 Ibid. (Return to text)
 Luke 17:33 (Return to text)
 Pape, op. cit. (Return to text)