One verse in the Gospel of John, verse 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish, but might have eternal life,” has become a slogan, often emblazoned in placards displayed at sporting events. Why has this verse gained the attention of ordinary people who do normal things like cheering on their favorite team? The answer is that it compresses into a single sentence the entire gospel, and even reminds us of the grand narrative behind the gospel.

Today’s reading from the Gospel of John is a conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. Nicodemus seems to represent official Judaism; he is a Pharisee and “ruler of the Jews.” Though Nicodemus is a member of the Jewish establishment, he is impressed by Jesus and wants to learn more. Later on, Nicodemus will insist that Jesus be given a fair hearing and then, with Joseph of Arimathea, will courageously attend to Jesus’s burial. 

In speaking to Nicodemus, Jesus seems to be addressing Judaism itself in a non-polemical and positive way. In contrast to the somewhat negative tone the Fourth Gospel uses to speak of the “the world,” Jesus here speaks of God’s immense love of the world as it actually is, not an idealized world of justice and peace, but the world that is resistant to God and characterized by darkness rather than light. This is the world that God loves, a world marred by pain, stupidity, hatred, sin and death. The good news is that we are in this world so loved by God. We do not have to earn God’s love. God does not avoid our flawed world, but comes into it and enables us to experience within it divine love in its fullness. 

What response can we make to the light that God brings into the world we actually live in? The answer is given in the first line of the Gospel, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. “Lifted up” originally referred to the Israelites in the Exodus from Egypt who were bitten by desert serpents and then cured of the poison by gazing at the bronze serpent that Moses erected as an antidote. All who gazed upon it were healed. So, in the Gospel according to John, Jesus is the one “lifted up” in the crucifixion. If we look upon him with faith, we will be healed. As the biblical scholar Brendan Byrne remarked, “Confronting at one and the same time their own evil and supremely costly divine gift that takes it away, [people] come to know God revealed as Love, reaching out to draw them into the sphere of undying divine love.”