In fifth grade, I went to bible camp. In many ways it was like any other camp. We sang, did crafts, swam and played games. I especially remember endless hours of fun on a giant slip and slide set up on the camp lawn. The bible stories we learned were ones I had heard before. Some of the songs were familiar, some different. But there was also something about the experience that was completely new. It was a question that unsettled and confused me. Are you saved? This question would be followed up by an urging to pray a certain prayer, confessing my sin and asking Jesus to come into my heart. That’s how I would get right with God. That’s how I could be sure my soul’s eternal destination was heaven.
“For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” John 3:16 is a key verse anchoring the evangelical theology I first encountered at bible camp. To be fair, it’s not just evangelicals who have been obsessed with personal salvation. That’s what the Protestant reformation was all about. The church as a whole has been haunted by questions such as: Do I earn salvation through my own good works, or is it a gift of God’s grace? Do I have free will to accept my own salvation? Does God predetermine who will be saved? How can I know if I am among the chosen ones, the “elect?”
“For God so loved the world. . . .” God loves “the world.” For me it’s God’s love for the world that’s most important here, that provides an interpretive key for the whole passage. The Greek word for world is translated as “cosmos.” In other words, God loves you, and me, and every person. God loves our planet and solar system and universe, all that is. And God loves us not as isolated individuals, but in the way that we are intertwined with each other. God loves us as an interconnected whole. God loves “the world.” Salvation is not about getting God to accept me. It is about participating in a reality that encompasses all of us.
In college, I came to love Julian of Norwich, a mystic of the middle ages. In Julian’s time, the world was more a more dangerous and difficult place than any of us can probably imagine. She lived through the Black Death. During her childhood, the plague killed nearly half of the people in her city. The Hundred Years War and the Peasant’s Revolt brought yet more turmoil and death. In her young adulthood, Julian herself became seriously ill and nearly died. It was during this time of sickness that she received a series of visions, which she recorded in a book titled Revelations of Divine Love. In one of these visions, she sees
a little thing, the quantity of a hazel nut, lying in the palm of my hand, as it seemed. And it was as round as any ball. I looked upon it with the eye of my understanding, and thought, “What may this be?” And it was answered generally thus, “It is all that is made.” I marveled how it might last, for I thought it might suddenly have fallen to nothing for littleness. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and ever shall, for God loves it. And so have all things their beginning by the love of God. “In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it. The second that God loves it. And the third, that God keeps it.”
Gazing on the littleness of the hazelnut, Julian saw that the world is fragile. Our personal worlds, the wider world we inhabit, can fall apart in a moment. A diagnosis, an accident, a hurting, angry person with a gun. A tiny degree of warming. Disastrous chain reactions. And yet, Julian also saw that the world is resilient. It is resilient because God loves it. Participating in God’s love for the world—that is salvation. Julian says it this way: “For until I am substantially ‘oned’ to [God], I may never have full rest nor true bliss. That is to say, until I be so fastened to [God] that there is nothing that is made between my God and me.”
John 3:16 can be found on many a bumper sticker and billboard. Read in context; however, it is part of a long, complex conversation between Jesus and the religious leader Nicodemus. Nicodemus comes to Jesus secretly, by night. Nicodemus is drawn to Jesus, but afraid to align himself publically with him. Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be reborn. As Lance Pape puts it, the learned, wealthy, influential Nicodemus will need to “let go of all he has accomplished and understood, let go and become like a newborn, ready to receive the world on completely new terms.”
As today’s reading begins, Jesus speaks to Nicodemus about how the cross is part of our rebirth. “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Humanity be lifted up,” Jesus says. He interprets the “lifting up” of his own body on the cross through the lens of a story from Israel’s years in the wilderness. The people had left Egypt but they had not yet arrived in the Promised Land. They were no longer slaves but they had not yet learned to be free. There was no water and no food. They grew impatient and afraid and began to complain. Snakes attacked. Moses prayed to God for healing for the people. God told Moses to make a sculpture of a snake and place it on a pole. Those bitten by the snakes should look at the sculpture and they would live. In order to find healing, in other words, they had to gain awareness of what was harming them, which was really their own fear. The snake on the pole, inanimate and unable to hurt them, proclaimed reassurance: despite appearances, the powers of chaos and death in the world do not have ultimate authority. God made the world. God loves it and God keeps it.
God loves the world.
That’s what I said when asked to speak at a rally at Senator Klobuchar’s office last Thursday, demanding that she live up to her words of support for immigrants, that she fight to protect dreamers and who are in harm’s way. God loves the world. God loves us not as isolated individuals, but in the way that we are intertwined with each other. God loves us as an interconnected whole. Because God loves the world, we are not made for militarized borders. We are made for relationship. We are not made to deport each other. We are made to recognize that your well-being is my well being, my freedom is your freedom. We are not made to tear apart families—mothers and fathers from children, sisters from brothers, spouse from spouse. We are made to share this home, to enjoy a community that is rich with the beauty of our differences.
“For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only child….” That tiny word “so” is important. Biblical scholar Sarah Henrich explains that this is not “so” as in “so much” but “in this way.”
The cross shows us how God loves the world: by giving, not controlling; letting go, not clinging. This is what “believing in” Jesus means; it is about trusting in the kind of love that God is. “Are you saved?” is not the question. Salvation is not a question at all. Salvation is reality. Salvation is the truth heart of it all: God loves the world.