Photo Courtesy of Richard L. Bryant
Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple, Inc.
If you were fortunate enough to attend a MacExpo or Apple Product launch when Steve Jobs was speaking, you learned to stay to the very end. The best things were revealed last. It became one of Jobs’ trademarks to come to the conclusion of his remarks and as he was about to walk off stage say, “oh, and there’s one more thing I forgot to tell you about.” Among those “one more things” were the iMac and the iPhone. Steve Jobs’ “one more things” have changed the way we see each other and the world around us. The “one more things” were the best ideas the Apple creative and technical teams had to offer. Apple’s “one more things” have remained as constant presences in our lives.
What is our “one more thing”? Are Christians still waiting to reveal the one thing that will make people go “wow”? What will make the post-truth world sit-up take notice? Some would argue, as this week’s lectionary passage does, that John 3:16 is our “one more thing”. John 3:16 works like a Christian iPhone. It functions as a magic handheld device, when used properly, it will guarantee the owner eternal salvation. If you push the right buttons and say the magic words to Siri, you too can be saved. The holder of the device will be saved from technological mediocrity and from our ideas of hell, damnation, and eternal separation from God. Twenty-seven words, when repeated, launch the perfect get of jail free app; even more the most wayward sinners. How did this come to be? Are we absolutely sure this is our one more thing?
I’ve always thought of John 3:16 as a potential weapon. Yes, certain verses of scripture can be turned into instruments of mass theological destruction. John 3:16, because of its popularity, resonance, and simplicity can be dangerous if not handled properly. On many occasions, I’ve seen it take on a “say it or else” quality from preachers, youth leaders, and evangelists. The choice is simple: believe this verse about who the son of God is or life ends at death. If they can’t say or accept these words, God might not love them, God’s death for them was in vain, and eternal life is off the table. Our “one more thing” becomes this: take God’s promise of love and use it to scare people into loving God. I don’t know much for certain but I’m willing to bet that’s not what we ought to be doing with any part of the Bible, let alone John 3:16.
Some seventy years after the death of Jesus, someone using the name John, write the Gospel according to John. Around the 100 AD, someone recreated a conversation between two men, Jesus of Nazareth and Nicodemus the Pharisee. Their original meeting was held in secret at night. According to the text, only the two speakers were present. The meeting the author describes occurred seventy years earlier, in the early 30’s. Both men, Jesus and Nicodemus are no longer on Earth. The author, had he been present to hear the details of this secret talk, would now been in his 90’s, a miracle for 2nd century Palestine. John 3 is a historical recreation of a conversation that may or may not have occurred. It’s more like Shakespeare than scripture. Our “one more thing” verse is ripped from the story of tensions within the Jewish community about whether to accept Jesus at face value. Seventy plus years after Jesus’ death, can we even be sure he said those words or someone wasn’t trying to put those words into Jesus’ mouth? Maybe seven decades after Jesus’ death, memories got hazy. Have we built “our more thing” on seventy years worth of memories in a preliterate culture? I can’t remember what I had for lunch the day I met the Dalai Lama. And that was a pretty big day.
However, if we’re going to ride this horse to the end of the rodeo, I do think there is “one more thing” we’ve missed. It’s right there in front of us. We miss it because it seems to clash, internally, with the message of John 3:16. Our one more thing, are you ready for it, is John 3:17.
While John 3:16 opens the door to perishing; John 3:17 states, “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” There’s nothing there about dying and people losing the opportunity for eternal life. There’s a ringing endorsement for not condemning and saving people.
You may not want to admit it but John 3:16 has been used to condemn people for thousands of years. The people in charge use it to feel empowered and those in the pews feel beat up. If you left after the altar call, you missed the big reveal of the “one more thing”.
The one more thing is this: we’re to get out of the condemnation business altogether. I’m not sure God even needs us to remind each other of our own mortality. Death is an ever present reality. But what would it look like if we stopped condemning those who don’t look like us, pray like us, love like us, and thinking in the back of our mind: unless people mindlessly repeat John 3:16 they are going to burn in hell.
The Rev. Richard Lowell Bryant serves as pastor of Ocracoke United Methodist Church on Ocracoke Island in North Carolina's Outer Banks. He blogs at Richard's Food for Thought, from which this post is republished with the author's permission.