For Ash Wednesday and the Sundays of Lent, Bondings 2.0 is presenting spiritual reflections from a diverse group of students at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, who either identify as LGBTQ+ or who are involved with LGBTQ+ theological research and/or ministry. Today’s post is from Sarah Gregory, a queer Catholic school soccer mom with punk tendencies. She lives in San Francisco with her son (when he’s home from college), two cats, and mountains of books as she works toward her Ph.D. She works in the Silicon Valley and practices the fine art of living with liminality and cognitive dissonance. She prefers Lent over Advent, all in all.
Today’s readings are 2 Chronicles 36: 14-16, 19-23; Psalm 137: 1-6; Ephesians 2: 4-10; John 3: 14-21. You can find the readings by clicking here.
Perhaps it isn’t prudent to begin a scripture reflection by noting that the Gospel passage about which one is to write includes one’s least favorite bible verse. You know the one: it’s not uncommon to see it flash by on a sports broadcast where a fan – or an athlete – has it scrawled on a sign, or on their face, a la Tim Tebow. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever shall believe in him will not perish, but will have everlasting life.” That’s a bit much for a handheld sign to display, much less to write in greasepaint under one’s eyes, so it’s always just shown by its citation: John 3:16.
I assume that for many people, or at the least for those who are holding the signs or have the numbers written on their bodies, the verse is a comfort. It is a reminder of the new covenant that Jesus’ life gave to God’s people. If we but believe, we will spend eternity in the heavenly kingdom. That’s all we must do, we’re told – believe.
The verse is often described as our promise of God’s unconditional love. But a couple of verses later, what sounds like a condition is suddenly inserted: “Whoever does not believe has already been condemned.” What follows are verses about doing wicked things, and choosing to remain in the darkness.
All too often, the lives and loves of sexual and gender minority people have been considered “wicked.” Those who do wicked things remain in darkness, we’re told, so that those works are not exposed. Indeed, articles on the internet use this very scripture as a bludgeon to condemn LGBTQ people, in the name of “saving souls for Christ.” For many of us, even the citation of that verse may need to come with a content warning, simply because it has been used so thoroughly, and so extensively, to claim that we are not worthy of God’s love. In order to earn eternal life, we are told by some that we are to deny the truth that we know about ourselves. For God so loved the world … except for you. It’s bad theology, and worse – it places limits and boundaries on God’s love and grace.
When I see “John 3:16” written in Sharpie on a shoe or on a bright placard held up at a sports event, I’m not seeing an ally, much less a fellow believer. I’m sure the bearers are well-intentioned, believing they are doing all they can to save souls for Christ, but I’d hazard a guess that this evangelism pushes at least as many people away as it manages to draw in. The irony is that the people pushed away may well be those on the margins, those who already receive the messages of being not good enough for God’s grace.
I suspect I’m not the only one who may feel a little uneasy and become a little defensive when I hear the gospel proclaimed at Mass this weekend. If we struggle with belief or if we listen only to the messages that say that God’s love is in fact limited, that only some are worthy and that only some human love is valid, it’s easy to hear only a message of condemnation.
But the author of John’s gospel didn’t stop writing after admonishing readers against wicked acts. The binary posed between belief and unbelief, between salvation and condemnation – that’s not the end of the story, and not even the end of this Sunday’s readings!
I want to start a campaign to promote John 3:21 instead: “But whoever lives the truth comes to the light, so that their works may be clearly seen as done in God.” The truth of our lives begins not at John 3:16, but much earlier in Genesis 1:27, where we are told that we are made in God’s image and likeness. That includes the people on the margins, who of course were the people that the gospels tell us Jesus spent his time with. He didn’t come to save the pious alone, and he especially loved those who were condemned by the religious leaders of his day.
His life was poured out for all, and the only thing we need to do is live in truth – our truth, as we were made. God’s truth transcends labels and divisions and the boundaries that humans place on who is worthy of love, of grace, of forgiveness, of inclusion. Our job is to take the John 3:21 message into the world. We live our truth, and don’t fear the darkness of condemnation. We believe that we are beautifully, wonderfully, and fabulously made. And we trust in the grace of God’s love to carry us all to life everlasting.
—Sarah Gregory, March 11, 2018