God so loved…

This week’s blog explores the lectionary Gospel for Lent 4, John 3.14-21

Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship, Diocese in Europe

‘The Cross is a tree set on fire with invisible flame which illumineth all the world. The flame is love.’ (Thomas Traherne). The picture above is one of the beautiful stained glass windows created in Hereford Cathedral in honour of the 17th century Anglican mystical writer Thomas Traherne. The window was designed and created by Tom Denny. For more examples of Denny’s exquisite work see http://www.thomasdenny.co.uk

Prayer of thanksgiving linked to John 3.1-16
Holy One, we hear your music in the roar of the sea,
In the song of a people,
In the quiet breeze rustling through the trees.
We thank you God: that you so love our world.

Holy One, we sense your power in the flickering of fire,
In the yearning of our spirits,
In the dispelling of shadows.
We thank you God: that you so love our world.

Holy One, we feel your caress in the gift of our humanity,
In our desire to be whole,
In the blessing of peace.
We thank you God: that you so love our world.

Normally, when the Fourth Sunday of Lent arrives our progress through the Lenten season – and the Lenten lectionary – loses out to Mothering Sunday. I wonder if that will be the case in quite the same way this year? – ‘lockdown’ or its lesser equivalents do seem to mean that the traditional rites of ‘saying it with flowers’ probably won’t be able to take place as usual next Sunday.

In any case, for the coming Sunday, I decided to focus this reflection on the lectionary selection for Lent 4, rather than the Mothering Sunday alternatives, which I have looked at often in the past, and will probably do so again in the future. I will look in particular at the lectionary Gospel John 3.14-21. Interestingly, given that it has displaced a reading for Mothering Sunday, it has however something important to say about the fatherhood of God.

This of course includes the iconic verse, John 3.16, ‘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.’

In my mind this is for ever pigeonholed as ‘the bus verse’. When I went to my secondary school I had to travel there by bus, and I remember that for quite a number of months this verse (accompanied probably by a bit of comment or explanation the detail of which I have long forgotten) had a prime place among the ‘adverts’ with which the inside of the bus was decorated. I would read it every day. My 11 year old self was both fascinated and fearful. I don’t think I was silly to feel fearful, I am sure the general tenor of the ‘advert’ intended to convey the negative impression that only a few select would be ‘saved’, while the destiny of most was to ‘perish’.  It took me a very long time before I could think about John 3.16 in positive terms. Indeed part of my personal purpose in writing the prayer above based on this verse (back c.1998) was to compel myself to dig deeper into its gentle graciousness.

Over the last 25 years or so, I have found myself coming back to explore the Gospel of John many times from different facets: its reflection on the comparative roles of women and men, its glorious sacramentality and symbolism, its sometimes very ‘difficult’ role in terms of Christian-Jewish relations. I have truly found it a biblical book which, to quote St Augustine of Hippo, ‘Is deep enough for a elephant to swim in, and a child not to drown.’

Given that quite a lot of my other biblical exploration during this same period has focused on the Book of Genesis it is perhaps not surprising that I have found myself drawing comparisons between the Gospel of John and Genesis. I see John as ‘A New Genesis’, sharing with us the glory of a new creation, made possible by the ‘Son of Man’ (e.g. John 3.14) who spans the chasm between earth and heaven. Jesus then is fully inaugurated as the ‘new Adam’ at the precise point in the story when he stands before Pilate as a chained prisoner (John 19.5) wearing a crown of thorns and purple robes of mockery and is greeted with the jibe, ‘Behold the Man.’

One intriguing link between John and Genesis that I have only recently explored more deeply is however linked to John 3.16. In the second half of this Gospel we hear a great deal about love. In the first half of the Gospel comparatively little. In fact the first time that the verb ‘love’ is used in this Gospel is here, in John 3.16, ‘God so loved…’ After this ‘love’ only appears on a few more occasions, until we meet it in the account of the raising of Lazarus (John 11). That seems to open the floodgates, and especially in the Farewell speech of Jesus (John 13-17) the Gospel text is then soaked profoundly with ‘love’.

In view of my interest in the relationship between John and Genesis, what however intrigued me is that the first time the verb ‘love’ occurs is in Genesis 22.2, at the beginning of the story of the near sacrifice of Isaac, ‘Take your son, your only son, whom you love, even Isaac, and go, sacrifice him…’ Though by contrast with John’s Gospel following on this instance the word ‘love’ appears only a few more times in Genesis – largely describing either the love for a parent for a child, or the love of a man for a woman.

However I find it either a powerful coincidence, or perhaps a deliberate intention, that the first time that ‘love’ appears in both books, it is in relation to the ‘giving up’ of an ‘only Son’.  I think there is a connection. It is reinforced by the way that the Greek word monogenes, translated as ‘only’ in the NRSV and ‘one and only’ in the NIV (John 3.16, 18) , is regularly also used in biblical and Christian texts to describe Isaac as Abraham’s ‘only son (see e.g. Hebrews 11.17).

The story of the ‘near sacrifice’ of Isaac became a rich seam which has been extensively mined over the centuries by both Jews and Christians. Indeed our mutual reflection on this theme influenced one another, see e.g. the painting of The Sacrifice of Isaac by the Jewish artist Marc Chagall hinting at Jewish and Christian dialogue on the theme.

Jewish tradition increasingly viewed Isaac as intentionally offering himself as a sacrifice, for the ultimate benefit of his descendants. It was referred to as the Aqedah (the ‘Binding of Isaac’). As far as Christians were concerned, traces of allusions to the ‘theme’ can certainly be found in the New Testament (e.g. Romans 8.32) and were more completely developed in later theology. In Christian reflection on the topic, of course, what happened was that the story of Abraham and Isaac was used as an analogy to describe the Father’s offering of the Son in the passion and death of Jesus Christ.  God the Father ‘plays’ two roles in this analogy: he reflects both the figure of ‘father Abraham’, but also the role of the deity to whom Abraham is offering Isaac. This both transforms the story, and affects our understanding of the very nature of God.

What I think is also interesting is that the object of the Father’s love in John 3.16 is not (at this point) ‘the Son’ – but the ‘world’. If one thinks about the analogy with Genesis, in which Abraham’s love for his son is mentioned, to find the word ‘world’ replacing ‘son’, as John 3.16 does, potentially takes our breath away. Later on in John’s Gospel of course, the mutual love of the Father and the Son is referred to again and again (especially in John 13-17), and their ‘oneness’ is stressed, but perhaps it is telling that the very first time the word is used in the Gospel it is the ‘world’ that is privileged as being its object.

There is quite a lot else I could say on this topic – I have just had published a 6000+ word article on the subject God So Loved the World – Amos – 2020 – The Ecumenical Review – Wiley Online Library! (I think it is available still via this link) One of the insights I explore there is the way that in the Gospel of John words linked to the root agap- (love) seem to lead us in the direction of willing suffering.

But for now, as I draw this reflection to a close, I want to mention briefly a Zoom Bible study session I led on Saturday for about 65 participants. It was called ‘Christ crucified! Why?’ and offered a whistle-stop tour of theories of the atonement. As often when I offer such sessions I am never sure quite where they are going to end up. Frequently, not exactly where I expected – but that can be all to the good! In this case, towards the end I found myself responding to a query about the relationship between the Father and Son in the crucifixion of Christ. Was God the Father presiding juridically and impartially at a distance over Christ’s death? I told the group what is the case, that my own reflection on this topic had been worked out in the furnace of living in Beirut during some years of its civil war and the Israeli invasion of 1982. In the context of the human suffering I witnessed during those years I have felt since that it is vital that when we say ‘God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself’ (2 Corinthians 5.18) God is profoundly affected by the suffering of this world. To draw a comparison, as I have done here, between the sacrifice of Isaac, and the Father’s giving of his Son, does, I believe make it clear that the ‘wounding of God’s love, and marring of God’s image in us’, and God’s response to it, is a pain which is felt in the very heart of God.

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