I loved the Harry Potter books, despite my being an adult when they were published. I was teaching middle school at the time, and I had young children. I got to see the books through their eyes, and it was lovely. We would actually talk about the word play in the books, and kids didn’t stop to think how nerdy it might be to talk about the influence of foreign languages on the names and spells, or on the etymology and mythology and puns behind the words.
We all want to believe in magic. Even adults. After all, who wouldn’t want to be able to solve problems with just a thought or a wave of a stick or a few syllables. If they rhyme, all the better!
Yes, we may congratulate ourselves on our modernity, but really, superstition is still a huge influencer of human behavior. We want talismans, charms, or potions, magic pills that melt fat away. We look for the four-leaf clover. We may carry a rabbit’s foot or avoid certain colors of M & Ms. Black cats, broken mirrors, spilled salt, stepping on the baseline between home plate and first or on the cracks in the sidewalk? Here comes trouble.
The Bible mentions that pharaoh had magicians who could match Moses trick for trick when he was demanding freedom for the Hebrew children—at least until it came to the plagues of the gnats and the boils. But one of the verses we will heard recently as a Gospel reading has become a kind of talisman in the popular understanding: “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.”
I would guess that John 3:16 is one of the most quoted verses in all of scripture. It is also an important link between other readings as we finish our walk through Lent. God’s gift of Jesus to the world as God’s son draws those who see Jesus’s light to a life with God by believing —only through faith (vv. 16-17). Yet the verse misused becomes a type of false talisman— something people worship instead of treating as a link to God’s love.
One of my personal, petty frustrations about how this verse can be misleadingly applied is seen in the ways that John 3:16 pops-up on television. There it is, held up on a large placard in the end zone. Often there is a hip, ALWAYS male, tattooed, preacher intoning that, if you feel lost, all you have to do is pray something similar to the sentiment in John 3:16, and you shall be saved—just like that. Presumably you can then go about your business having checked-off the box to keep your soul from hell, the implication being that nothing else is required. A formula is NOT enough.
John 3:16 is not a magic trick to be used to evade responsibility for one’s shortcomings, nor is it a “get-out-of-hell-free” card. There is no magic formula that helps one evade the consequences of actions that lead a person astray—something all of us have done. Our wrongdoings should rightly elicit remorse and a determination to change behavior for both our own sake and that of those around us. Fear of hell or damnation ought not be elevated to the sole role in the lifelong conversation between God and our souls.
God loved the world—and everyone in it—so much that God withheld nothing from us in seeking to help us live the most fully human lives we could live. Not even God’s own son. We are not called to summon Jesus like a wish-fulfilling genie. We are called to follow him and walk in his ways. All in the name of love.
Love—self-emptying, other-affirming, self-sacrificing love– IS the most powerful magic in the universe, as even the Harry Potter books pointed out. And the most potent magic of love is found in the fact that we ALL are borne up by the grace of it, and be changed forever by that self-giving, no-holds back love that Jesus offers.
The Rev. Leslie Scoopmire is a writer, musician, and a priest in the Diocese of Missouri. She is rector of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Ellisville, MO. She posts daily prayers, meditations, and sermons at her blog Abiding In Hope, and collects spiritual writings and images at Poems, Psalms, and Prayers.