Revised Common Lectionary Readings: Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21
This week’s gospel reading includes one of the better known sentences in the New Testament: “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” (John 3:16). It is a sentence that likely comes laden with many layers of meaning as a result of the various contexts in which we have encountered it, including banners at church gatherings and placards are sporting events. These words are less likely to be lifted up at peace marches or social justice rallies, but why not?
In their broader context, these words serve as a reminder that eternal life—that our salvation—does not depend on our own actions, but on the gift of Christ. To be sure, there is a strong appeal to the importance of belief in this passage, but we are mistaken if we think that it is our belief itself that saves us. As the letter to the Ephesians reminds us, “for by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”
Mennonite Central Committee has been entrusted with carrying out important works in the areas of relief, development, and peace on behalf of our supporting churches. We are not a missions organization, and we do not seek to plant churches. Nonetheless, our work is guided by the shared convictions that unite the member churches of the Mennonite World Conference. This includes the following conviction that is reminiscent of John 3:16: “Jesus is the Son of God. Through his life and teachings, his cross and resurrection, he showed us how to be faithful disciples, redeemed the world, and offers eternal life.”
Moreover, MCC has not been afraid to trumpet this conviction from our own banners. Our purpose statement notes that “MCC endeavors to share God’s love and compassion for all in the name of Christ by responding to basic human needs and working for peace and justice.” And the familiar slogan “Relief, development, and peace in the name of Christ” appears on our letterhead and at the top of our websites. We take great pains to ensure that, as noted in John 3:21, “it may be clearly seen that [our] deeds have been done in God.”
On the other hand, it is also important to be mindful of the limited work that shared convictions, purpose statements, and slogans—even if inspired by a biblical vision—are capable of doing. After all, John’s Gospel, like the rest of the New Testament, was addressed to the followers of Jesus, not to outsiders. Declarations about the salvific role of Christ are thus best viewed as affirmations of the faith of those in the know, rather than challenges to the faith of who have not already been steeped in the gospel message and nurtured by a community of believers. As one New Testament scholar put it, this is less a “document for proselytism” than it is “propaganda for the converted.”
Thus MCC’s declarations that our work is done in the name of Christ may be a more helpful reminder to our staff, volunteers, and supporters than it is to the people we work with in Canada and around the world. We are reminded of whose name we are working in—of who is empowering our work. Perhaps then we shouldn’t worry about making banners or placards with Bible verses on them for our next peace march!
Indeed, there are times when Christians need to lift up the Son of Man in different ways. There are times when we need to use different words in order to be heard. In the halls of Parliament, for example, we need to be conversant in the language of public policy. To be sure, there is no need to hide our underlying convictions. But neither is there any excuse for not doing the hard work of trying to articulate these convictions in a way that reaches those who may not share these same convictions, or who understand their implications differently.