When I was five or six years old, my Sunday School teacher suggested I memorize John 3:16. I did as she suggested and committed that familiar verse to memory (in the King James Version, the “approved” version in the church I attended): “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
Martin Luther said of this verse that it was shallow enough for a mouse to wade in and deep enough for an elephant to drown in. At age eight, I was wading: what John 3:16 said to me then was all I could hear: God loved me. God loved me more and God loved me better than anyone else ever had or ever could. God loved me enough to give Jesus to me. All I needed to do was trust Jesus and Jesus would take care of me.
At 53, I am nearly drowning in the depths of these words, trying to lean into them and live them. Here are the kinds of things John 3:16 has me pondering today:
How expansive is my love? God loved the world. The word which we translate world is the Greek word kosmos, so what John 3:16 actually says is, God so loved the cosmos. There is not a region of the universe, not a corner of space, untouched by God’s love. Everything on the earth–plant or animal, animate or inanimate—is here because, at the dawn of time, and in every moment since, God’s immense love has overflowed in the joy and ecstasy of creation. It is all here, we are all here, because of love. God lavishes love on every human being, young and old, men and women, “red and yellow, black and white,” friend and enemy, Christian, Jew, Moslem, Buddhist, Hindu, atheist and searcher. There is not a person on the earth whom God does not love.
God loves the cosmos. But what about me? As a follower of Jesus, how far does my love reach? Does it reach beyond my race, my gender, my socio-economic class, my religion, my nation? There are days, I must confess, when I find it hard to love those closest to me and nearly impossible to love that intimate stranger who is my own self. God loves the cosmos, but I have to work at just loving all of Buncombe County! John 3:16 started working on me a long time ago but it still has many lessons to teach me: How expansive is my love?
How expensive, how costly, is my love? In other words, how much of myself am I willing to give away in service to other people? Jesus died on the cross: he gave himself completely. How much of myself do I hold in reserve? How much do I hold myself back, keep myself aloof, and remain detached? How much am I willing to risk in order to encourage a friend, help a stranger or reconcile with an enemy? How much does it matter to me that people are hungry and homeless, that people are dying in loneliness and of loneliness, and that the physically sick and emotionally ill go untreated or under-treated? Does any of it matter enough to me that it affects how I use my time, money, energy, and influence?
John 3:16 tells me about a God who loved so much, and it causes me to question the both the extent and costliness of my own love.