Proof Texts

Fourth Sunday in Lent, March 10, 2024: Numbers 21:4-9; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21; Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22

Today our gospel includes John 3:16, which for many evangelical Christians is the central text of their faith: “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.” I remember my surprise when one of my students, a faithful evangelical, tested my Christian identity with it. I failed: I was a good Episcopalian who had never been told that John 3:16 was the be all and end all. But I’ve come to appreciate it. The promise of eternal life for believers is powerful.

But this is not the only gospel passage that talks about salvation and eternal life. If there was a proof text in my church growing up, it would have been not a verse, but a passage, Matthew 25:34-40:

One major strand of theological debate over the past 2000 years has been about the relationship of these two passages, both of which promise eternal life. Is it faith, or is it works? Is it what you believe, or is it what you do, how you treat “the least of these”.

It seems obvious to me that in some ways the answer is both. And that it works both ways. For some, like Francis of Assissi, belief turns us to serving others. For some of us it works the other way: serving others gives us a glimpse of God that supports belief. In either case, faith and works are not in opposition.

Most of us at some point have not helped someone who needed help, whether a homeless person on the street, or someone begging for money, or someone else. And we’ve always had a good reason: our own resources and needs, time, or even fear.

When I acknowledge my failures, I am deeply grateful for the simple promise of John 3:16. But I always try to keep myself in mind of Matthew’s words too. They give me guidance in my life.

This post is in memory of Susan Pickles, who quizzed me on John 3:16, but was eventually surprised that I cared about scripture. In 1997, her husband killed her and her two children as she sought a divorce.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *