John 3:14-21: The "In" Crowd Page 2
While John 3:14-17 are necessarily exclusionary of some, for most Christians – and particularly for progressive, feminist, gay and lesbian, and other typically excluded Christians – this velvet rope still functions as an open invitation. Indeed, more than one excluded Christian has used the “whosoever” language of John 3:14-17 as an argument for full, unimpeded inclusion in the Christian church.
But John's velvet rope does not just require belief for admission. It also requires actions. This is the restriction put in place by 3:19-21. John's restriction was probably put in place against secret Christians or Christians who lived a double life under the oppression of the Roman Empire. But, the argument of what consists “evil deeds” done in secret vs. “true deeds” done in plain view can certainly translate to today's culture wars. This sort of argument is precisely why a Christian minister like Rev. Graham might have the temerity to declare someone who has publicly and repeatedly expressed belief “in the name of the son of God” (3:18) to be “not really a Christian.” These self-appointed theological bouncers have established a checklist – stated or assumed – of public actions and stances that one must perform or endorse in order to be allowed admission to the status of “Christian.”
Be clear. Progressives do so also. Consider the viral rants by Bill Maher and Stephen Colbert about America not being a Christian nation. Both of these are based not on belief but on public actions and stances, this time on behalf of progressive concerns.
John's gospel highlights a tension in the library that is the New Testament. On the one hand, those who follow the theological reasoning of Paul argue that salvation is a function only of God's grace. On the other hand, the gospels, James and other writings give evidence that salvation is also a function of what one does. The velvet rope keeps changing position, with self-appointed bouncers appearing at random keeping “those people” out. So, what can we do with this tension?
Perhaps wisdom is found not in John 3:16 alone, but in remembering Jesus' words later in the same gospel: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” (John 14:6). Rev. Graham, political pundits and other self-appointed theological bouncers would do well to remember this verse. For the testimony of John's gospel is this: when it comes to admission to Christianity, the ultimate bouncer, and indeed the only valid bouncer, is Jesus.
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Rev. Margaret Aymer Ph.D., D. D. is Associate Professor for New Testament at the Interdenominational Theological Center and a Teaching Elder in the PCUSA.