Sitting behind an idling pickup truck waiting for a train, I contemplate the black and white bumper sticker just above the smoking tail pipe in front of me. “John 3:16” it proclaims. I don’t have to crack open a Bible to learn what the sentence says; I memorized it when I was a youth of twelve as part of my preparation for Confirmation. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him shall not perish but shall have eternal life.”
As a bumper sticker, just as when I memorized it, this passage has come loose from its moorings in the stories recounted right before it and what Jesus went on to say afterwards. Stripped of all its referents it hangs over our heads like a giant balled fist. “Believe in Jesus, God’s only Son, or else!”
Sewn back into place in the narrative, the passage is really about God’s love. “For God so loved the world,” is the important phrase. It is part of Jesus’ answer to Nicodemus, who doesn’t understand how a person can be born a second time, of spirit; and it is also a commentary on the comparison between the Son of Man and an effigy lifted up in the desert to keep the Israelites from dying of snakebite. God can be witnessed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the passage proclaims, and God’s love trumps everything.
This is really quite remarkable if you think about it: that God is a partner with us in all our doings; that God hungers after us like we hunger after God; that healing and wholeness are intrinsic to our union with God – because God so loves the world. It’s worth contemplating.
In my little cut-off individualism the fist makes more sense. It’s cause and effect. If you pull lever A you get the sugar pellet; if you pull lever B you get the shock. This leaves it clear what I am to embrace and what I am to avoid.
When those in my family and community pull the same lever as I do, it becomes clear who is kin and who is Other. This takes away my anxiety and leaves me free to enjoy life – avoiding the outsider and affirming my right action in the mirror of those like me.
That’s exactly where Nicodemus was hung up, exactly the perspective that doesn’t understand being born into spiritual understanding. We like to know where we are coming from and where we are going. We like to be able to make assessments and to judge wisely. In partnership with God everything is turned topsy-turvy. Mystery replaces knowing and presence in the moment replaces our road maps.
The train passes, and I watch the pickup pull ahead. In a silent prayer I wish the driver well as I uncurl the fist I have projected into the air above our heads. Where, today, will I discover God’s shocking, mysterious, life-altering presence? Where will I be born into eternal life?
Laurie Gudim is a religious iconographer and liturgical artist, a writer and lay preacher living in Fort Collins, CO. See her work online at Everyday Mysteries With others she manages a website for the Diocese of Colorado highlighting congregations' creative ministries: Fresh Expressions Colorado