Mothering Sunday 2015
Rev Phil Wall
If you were asked to quote a line from the Bible, which one would you go for? Which verse do you think you could remember, instantly, without fear of misquoting? A couple of years back, the American Christian newspaper, The Christian Post, conducted a survey, asking Christians just that, and the verse that came out overwhelmingly on top, with over twice the amount of reference as the second most quoted verse was? Anybody? Yes…John 3:16… For God so loved the world that he gave his only son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.
Not so long ago you could see signs reading John 3:16 all over the place– in sports crowds and gigs, on fridge magnets, mugs and bumper stickers. Just three years back, an American Football game between the Denver Broncos and Pittsburgh Steelers, caused a stir when the statistics of the game apparently correlated to the verse. The star quarterback, Tim Tebow, seen here, passed the ball for 316 yards; the ratings for the game peaked at 31.6% of US households and the Pittsburgh Steelers possessed the ball for 31 minutes and six seconds. Some of our sisters and brothers across the pond took to social media to suggest that these statistics were by no means a coincidence but rather a sign that demonstrated the truth of Christianity, manifested through Tim Tebow, the most talked about Christian in America. Sometimes, I think, Richard Dawkins might have a point! But whatever we think about such an outlook, the fact is that John 3:16 is probably the best known verse in the Bible, one that is often used, as this sign suggests, as a summary of all of scripture. A sentence that condenses our knowledge of God, the universe, and humankind to just a few short words.
And, perhaps as a one-verse summary of the Christian faith it’s not a terrible choice. For starters, it sets the whole of time and space within a love story. For God so loved the world…It’s a tale which starts with God and the love God has for the world. It’s a verse which reminds us that from creation to the end of history, in the life of Jesus and in our journey of faith, God’s love suffuses all.
It’s also a verse that has God’s son, Jesus at the centre. God’s love for the world leads to the free, gracious giving of his son, who came to us as one of us, to live, die and rise again as he lived out God’s love. And it’s a verse that invites us to respond – that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. So…the love of God, the gift of the son, the invitation to join in and the hope of eternal life…perhaps there is good reason as to why this is the best known verse in the Bible.
So why then, did it stir up so much debate when some of us here considered this verse, and surrounding passage, at the Lent Bible study this week? Why did it provoke questions of truth and revelation, inter-faith dynamics and the very nature of God? Might this verse be more complex than bumper stickers and American football statistics might allow?
Well perhaps we might consider the issue of translation. Those of us who watched Wolf Hall were reminded that the Bible did not descend from on high in English or even in Welsh, in spite of it being the language of heaven, and saw just how controversial the translation of it into English actually was. Today, there is no such thing as ‘The Bible’ but many Bibles, each a version, an approximate translation of the original language…and that’s not even taking into consideration the fact the Church doesn’t agree about the original material, which books to include or which order they go in… From the King James to Good News Bible, New Revised Standard version to ‘Good As New’, there are thousands of different translations of the Bible, each with differing emphases and perspectives on the text. So, last week, after I mentioned the commonly held translation that Jesus turned gallons of water in wine at the wedding in Cana, I was fascinated to hear John tell me that some scholars, including himself, translate the passage in a very different way, believing the writer of the gospel to be teetotal. The different translation shines a different light on what we’re reading.
Similarly, with John 3:16, the way in which the Greek is translated might offer us different perspectives on its meaning. Some of you here might have cringed earlier when we read the verse as ‘God so loved the world…’ as the original Greek word found here is kosmos. For God so loved the cosmos that he gave his only son. For God so loved the galaxies and supernova, loved the sun, moon and stars, the beasts of the ocean deep and birds of the air…for God so loved all of creation that he gave his only son…So often, this verse is translated as world and even reduced to just ‘humanity’. I wonder how our understanding of God might be enriched, our care for God’s creation increased if we are reminded instead of God’s love for the cosmos. Our translated scripture can transform and reform us, can breathe new life into the church…but it can also distract from and distort God’s story when we assign infallibility to our language.
And even if our translations serve us well, can we really reduce claims about God, life, the universe and everything to a series of nouns and adjectives, verbs and conjunctions?
“For God so loved the cosmos… Hang on…which God? Are we talking Creator God, the Father? Are we including Jesus and the holy spirit? Do the members of the trinity have different functions? Is this the same God as Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus worship or a very different God?
“That he gave his only son,” Okay, so Jesus is considered separate here? Or is Jesus God and God’s son, the Word with God and the Word as God? And if God is Father and Son, is there no feminine in God? And what does ‘gave’ mean? Did the son have a choice? Is he a free and gracious gift or one that comes with a contract?
“So that everyone who believes in him….” What does it mean to believe? Are there certain fundamental beliefs we have to sign up to or is it an ongoing relationship? And is there a difference in believing in him as prophet or Christ, son of God or God? Can we choose to believe or is faith a gift too? And if so, why is it given to some and not others? Does God have favourites?
“May not perish but have eternal life.” Ah…the goal…not to perish. Eternal life. And yet, that doesn’t mean immortality does it, because the Bible talks of death. So what does it mean not to perish? And is eternal life based on quantity or quality of life? Does it burst into the present? Are only believers given it?
A verse which at first looks so simple, so basic, now looks more complex than some computer instruction manual! And there are many who would argue that taking one such verse out of context, is no wise thing to do anyway.
You may have heard the story of the young theology student who was trying to discern God’s desire for his life, so he closed his eyes, opened his Bible randomly and pointed. He was a little perturbed when he found his finger on Matthew 27:5 ‘Judas hanged himself’ so did it again and was even more concerned when the verse pointed to was Luke 10:37, “Go and do likewise.” “One more time,” he thought to himself, finding his finger on John 13:27 – “That thou doest, do quickly.” It’s an old joke and a terrible one at that but perhaps it illustrates the dangers of using isolated verses out of context. Sadly, many of the issues that the church disagrees on today – from the position of women and homosexuals in church to the use of corporal and capital punishment – come down to an exchange of isolated lines from the Bible. “This verse says this, well, this verse says different”…and very quickly, the Bible has gone from the story of God, creation and humanity to a weapon used to push our own agenda. Over the centuries, the Bible has been used in such a way to justify crusades, torture, the subjugation of women and slavery. I wonder how the Christians of tomorrow will view our use of scripture today.
And it must be said that it’s not just conservative or fundamentalist Christians who use the Bible to support their own behavior or outlook but progressive, liberal Christians too for many who identify as such pick out the pleasant, more palatable parts of scripture, omitting verses that contain challenging elements and ignoring passages in which God doesn’t seem too nice, in which God is said to condone violence, seek destruction, send snakes.
So where does this leave us? If we see the difficulty of a simplistic, bumper sticker faith, if we feel uneasy about using verses out of context, how do we approach the Bible? Perhaps I might quote the words of a minister with more experience and wisdom than I,
“The truth is that when we get away from the wrong kind of Bible-believing and start to discover the Bible as it is, we find a whole exciting and inspiring world opening up in front of us.” So Ray writes, in ‘Let the Bible Be Itself’, which I’m sure would make a great Mother’s Day present!
And it’s true, when we grapple with scripture, when we read the words of a community just beginning to understand a little of their relationship with God, when we study it and soak ourselves in it, we allow ourselves to be open to fresh insights, transformative encounters and whispers of God.
So let’s not simply pick out favourite verses or overlook the difficult ones, let’s not be afraid of the tensions or mysteries unresolved in the Bible but accept and explore them in the knowledge that the more we understand, the more we realize that there is more to understand. The poems and parables, sayings and psalms of the Bible can help us learn more of where we have come from and where we are going, they might tell of God’s love for all the cosmos…as might the breaking of bread and drinking of wine, the sound of choral singing or the silence of retreat, the colours of a sunrise or the joy of giving a newborn a cwtch…for all might point us toward God’s grandeur, may cast light on God’s wonder yet nothing we write or say or do can ever encapture it. For we believe in a God whose glory transcends the limitations of language. We believe in a God who is complex and mysterious yet came to us as brother and friend. We believe in a God whose love is glimpsed in the cosmos and the cross.
So may we respect the Bible and wrestle with it. May we have the courage to question what we read and the humility to be questioned by it. May we seek to describe God’s glory but remember that words can never be enough.
For the Word of God in scripture, for the Word of God among us, for the Word of God within us, Thanks be to God. Amen.