“Love and Light”
by Matt Morin
March 18, 2012
It can be seen scrawled on subway doors, or spelled out in smoke by sky-writing airplanes. It has been plastered below the eyes of professional quarterbacks and adapted for use by NASCAR. It is printed at the bottom of paper cups at In-N-Out burger, and on the inside of plastic shopping bags at Forever 21. On January 8th of this year, it was the top Google search term in the United States. And the rock-star Bono has even gone as far as to announce that together with the Gap and Target, he intends to build three-hundred-sixteen clean water wells throughout Sub-Saharan Africa by the end of this year.
I am referring, of course, to John 3:16, and as these examples show, it is a verse of Scripture that is extremely popular outside of the Church’s liturgical setting. By the way, that part about Bono and the Gap is not true; I completely made it up. But the fact that it even seems plausible shows just how much cultural purchase John 3:16 has—and therefore, how important it is for the Church to reclaim this Holy Scripture from the lips of those pundits and professionals who peddle it for profit.
That John 3:16 has circulated so widely in our contemporary context has much to do with the efforts of 20th-century Evangelicalism. As one who was raised in a mega-church from a very young age, I became accustomed to hearing this verse referred to as “the Gospel in a nutshell.” And in college, I recognized John 3:16 as the grounding text for Campus Crusade’s “Four Spiritual Laws.” So, if you want to “evangelize” or “share the Gospel” with somebody—there is no better way to do it than by reciting John 3:16.
After all, proclaiming that “God loves the world” seems like a brilliant apologetic strategy! Everybody loves love; everybody knows that love is good; love is all you need; and everybody knows that sometimes Christians have a bit of a PR problem. So if you want to make your message attractive—start with love. “For God so loved the world…”
The difficulty with the Evangelical strategy as I have described it—that is, with assuming that there is something called “love” that all people, at all times, and in all places can recognize and want—is that the love described in John 3:16 is, well, quite odd.
Listen again: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” So God gave away God’s only son? To people who, according to verse 19, love to commit evil deeds? That certainly doesn’t sound like love; at least not to the popular imagination that has been fed a steady diet of sentimentalism.
And it is no use attempting to translate this verse with the help of the Church’s Trinitarian theology. For then, we might say that the phrase “God gave his only begotten Son” is a short-hand way to describe the unfathomable act whereby God’s own self is given to the creation. So, God gave away God’s self? To people who, according to verse 20, hate God? That certainly doesn’t sound like love; at least not to the popular imagination that has been fed a steady diet of self-interest.
In short, we should not assume that all people just naturally know what love is. It is right and good to proclaim that God loved the world; but it is a deep error to assume that those outside of the Church mean the same thing as we do, when we use the word. It may very well be the case that the world simply does not know what love is.
Indeed, it is not even clear that the Church knows what love is. It is not at all clear that we Christians prefer the light of God’s love of over the darkness of our own evil deeds.
Like Nicodemus, the one to whom Jesus speaks in this passage, we come to Jesus under the cloak of night.
Like Nicodemus, we know that Jesus has just cleared the Temple courts— in the passage immediately prior to this one.
And so, like Nicodemus, we recognize something of a unique authority in Jesus, but we are unwilling to associate with him in broad daylight. After all, it’s not a terribly great career move for this Leader of the Pharisees to be seen sitting at the feet of a man who has just disrupted Temple worship; the keepers of “Tradition” do not look happily upon such disruptions.
But all the same, we are interested. We are curious about Jesus. Like Nicodemus, we will come to him, call him “teacher”, and listen to some of his ideas.
Because, like Nicodemus who was a member of the Court of the Sanhedrin—we wish to render just judgments for the sake of the world that surrounds us. The type of authority that Jesus showed in the Temple sure could come in handy for those of us who wish to track down warlords in Uganda, or help craft the laws of the world that hates our Lord.
But of course, this is the very thing that Jesus will not allow us to do. For, if as verse 17 states, the Son of God did not come into the world to judge the world, then what makes us think that we can? And if God’s love is that act whereby God gives her Son and self to the world, what reason do we have to believe that our being made loving will be any different? “The Son of God did not come into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world”—and that means being saved from ourselves; being rescued from our illusions; being delivered from all of the scheming, controlling, and calculating that we do in our vain attempts for security.
It is as Herbert McCabe says: God’s love is a gift; it is pure overflowing generosity. But it is a gift that can do terrible things. God’s love might make you kind; God’s love and forgiveness might make you patient—not jealous or violent. It might prevent you from being arrogant or boastful, or insisting on your own way—so that you do not rejoice in wrongs, but only in what is right. It might make you bear all things, believe all things, hope all things. Well, you know what happens to people like that; they are taken advantage of; they are used and despised. If we should find ourselves in need of a reminder of the fate that befalls those who love the world, we need look no further than the cross – yes, the cross towards which we are heading in this Lenten season.
This is the only way. There is no other way to love; indeed any other description of love is simply false. “There is no genuine love for the world except the love with which God has loved the world in Jesus Christ.” These are the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. They are not words on a plastic shopping bag, or paint on the eyes of a professional athlete. They are the words of a faithful disciple—one of the Church’s saints who paid with his life in a Nazi concentration camp, for having been loved by God—and for having embodied God’s love in the world. And as such, they are words that gesture towards the only begotten Son of God; they are words that are filled with the grace of One who is true God from true God; they are words that witness to the One who is Light from Light.
For, it is the martyr—the one who dies to make Christ known—through whom the light of the coming day shines most clearly. The death of God’s faithful reveals the perversity of the world’s order; the death of God’s faithful reveals the kingdoms of the world to be sites of profane violence; the death of Gods’ faithful shows the rulers of the world to be desperate murderers; the death of God’s faithful allows the world to look upon itself, to see who it is, to see how it craves evil and hates what we call love.
We see Nicodemus twice more in John’s Gospel—neither of which are in the dark of night. The next time is in John 7, when he is speaking to the Pharisees in defense of Jesus—already he is moving in the light, and towards the light.
The final time that we meet Nicodemus is in John 19, at the foot of the cross. There in broad daylight, with Joseph of Arimathea, he receives the broken body of our Lord Jesus, and prepares it for burial. Thanks be to God.
 Herbert McCabe. God, Christ, and Us, 27-28
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Discipleship, 96