Reflection March 5, 2023
Rev. Brent Gundlah

If you’ve watched a sporting event at some point in the past forty years I guarantee that you’ve seen them, even if you don’t remember having seen them. Whether it was behind home plate in a 3-2 count, in between the uprights for a tie-breaking field goal try, or lurking over the top of the backboard during a clutch free throw attempt, they were always there — someone with a cardboard sign in his hands that read “John 3:16.” This reference from the Fourth Gospel has become, for better or for worse, a part of American sports culture.

Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Tim Tebow wore it on his eye black during the 2009 National Championship Game. Three years later — to the day — Tebow was under center for the Broncos’s playoff victory over the Steelers in which the numbers three, one and six loomed large: Tebow racked up 316 passing yards and averaged 31.6 yards per completion.

On the other sideline things were not so awesome; Ben Roethlisberger threw the game’s only interception on third down and sixteen while his team’s total time of possession was thirty-one minutes and six seconds. For the record, the Nielsen ratings for the game peaked at a thirty-one point six share.

Now, I doubt any of this really meant anything; and I don’t think Tebow gained divine favor and won the game because he gave God some free advertising. But once we’ve noticed all of these numerical coincidences, they’re hard to ignore. It’s like that song from the Seventies said: “Sign, sign, everywhere a sign.” But sometimes we ascribe more significance to things than we should.

The mastermind behind those John 3:16 signs was a guy named Rollen Frederick Stewart. He professed to being a born-again Christian who was simply looking for an effective way to get the word out about Jesus; he thought he might be onto something when he came up with the idea to photobomb ball games — and then auto races, golf tournaments and even the Olympics. And it turns out that he was right, for two basic reasons.

For starters, if you want to get your point across — whatever that point may be — you can’t beat a little free and easy publicity in a stadium filled with people and a Jumbotron, let alone a television audience of millions.

But attention spans in our day and age tend to be on the short side, so if you’ve actually managed to get people to focus on what you’ve got to show or tell them, then you’d better make your point quickly. And this is why Stewart’s John 3:16 signs were a stroke of genius. These eight characters — four letters, three numbers and a colon — have likely inspired countless people over the years to grab a Bible and look up the verse. When they did, what they found there was the second-to-last line of our gospel reading for today, which just so happens to be one of the most memorable statements ever to come out of Jesus’ mouth (or anyone else’s mouth, for that matter):

“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.”

There you have it: In just 27 words (a mere 25 words in the original Greek), Jesus summarizes the entire Gospel. It is, in a word, masterful; Jesus presents us with a version of the good news — one with a beginning, a middle and an end — in a single sentence.

“For God so loved the world.” The beginning; the fundamental assumption behind  everything; the underlying premise from which all else proceeds.

“That he gave his only Son.” The middle; the action that God’s love for us actually leads to; God coming to live among us as one of us; the whole arc of Jesus’s life, death and resurrection.

“So that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” The ultimate goal; the whole point of it all; the end.

Rollen Stewart’s signs efficiently directed us to John 3:16, but Jesus’s words there are perhaps an even better demonstration of the art of concise and effective communication. There’s a lot of times when Jesus is hard to follow, but this isn’t one of them; Jesus often speaks in riddles and parables that have confounded humankind for two thousand years, but not here. When he had to, Jesus could definitely get his point across.

But, in our sound byte driven culture, Jesus’s memorable declaration can easily lose its meaning; if we look at it in isolation from everything else that we know about God and about Jesus, if we don’t consider the totality of what it’s telling us, it too can become a mere sound byte.

These monumental words end up just being what’s embroidered on that sampler on the wall in the spare bedroom (you know, the one we rarely go in) or on that throw pillow on the couch in the living room (you know, the nice one that we only sit on a few times a year when company comes over). The words are always there, lurking in the recesses of our hearts and minds, in the background of our lives, but we don’t ever give them much thought. Because sometimes we ascribe less significance to things than we should.

And when we do that — when we stop paying attention, when we stop thinking about and reflecting upon what these words really mean — Jesus’s statement ends up being taken out of context and used in all sorts of ways — ways that Jesus himself never intended.

Consider, for example, the idea of being “born again,” which Jesus raises in our gospel reading for today. Though “born anew” or “born from above” are also solid translations of Jesus’s words here, “born again” is the one we hear most often in our place and time. And, let’s face it, “born again” is a phrase that tends to be accompanied by a whole lot of baggage these days.

What are the thoughts and feelings that this term, “born again,” bring up for you? Whatever they are, they are probably not neutral. If someone were having a conversation with someone they’d recently met about matters of faith and that person suddenly were to declare, “I’m born again,” there’s a better than average chance that their reaction to that declaration would fall into one of two basic categories.

On the one hand, they might say — either to themselves or to the other person — “Me too! I’m so glad that you’re saved, just like me!” On the other hand, they might smile politely and say (probably only to themselves): “Oh great, another Christian crazy.” In other words, people tend either to wear proudly the label of “born again” as if it were an exclusive all-access backstage pass to heaven, or to write-off those who do proudly wear that label as religious zealots not worth paying attention to.

Either way, though, such a superficial reading of the phrase “born again,” can devolve into something really sinister; it can become a way of classifying others as others on the basis of misbegotten assumptions; it can become a way of dividing all God’s people instead of uniting all God’s people.

I mean, when you get right down to it, who among us gets to determine who’s “born again” and who’s not? Who among us gets to determine who’s in and who’s out of God’s realm? We have to understand that, when we start talking about each other in such terms, we’re straying really far from the gospel path. We humans tend to do that from time to time.

It’s kind of interesting that you don’t run across all that many signs memorializing John 3:17. I wish there were more of them, though, because Jesus’s message in John 3:17 is one we need to consider in tandem with that of John 3:16. Sadly, we rarely do that and I can only wonder why.

Maybe, like I said earlier, it’s because our attention spans tend to be rather short and reading one more Bible verse is too much work for us. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s because John 3:17 presents us with an inconvenient truth. In any event, listen to what Jesus says there:

“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 world. The whole world. This is what God actually sent Jesus here to save: the entire world and everybody in it. And let’s be really clear about what being “saved” means, because that term definitely has some baggage too: it simply means restoring our relationships with one another and with God. Understanding this is what being born again, born anew, born from above, born of water and the Spirit — whatever you want to call it — is all about.

And truly being born again means realizing that our salvation does not ever require someone else’s condemnation;

it means realizing that simply reciting a creed or quoting the Bible or announcing Jesus as our personal savior or proclaiming ourselves to be born again doesn’t show anyone that we’ve received God’s grace;

it mean realizing that lives dedicated to justice and mercy for all God’s people reflect the grace God has shown us;

and, above all else, it means realizing that we are called to give our hearts, our minds and our very selves over to one another and God — whose love for us all is the source of eternal life.

May it be so.