Probably the most familiar verse in the Bible is John 3:16. Christians crow about how this verse contains the entire message of the Gospel in one succinct statement.
Perhaps its real fame, though, has come through the unlikely source of televised sports. Who hasn’t seen the “3:16” sign as extra points sail through goalposts, free throws swish through nets and batters take a third strike?
One of the key words in the verse is “whosoever.” It seems to be a pretty inclusive term.
Over the years, however, I recognize my propensity to read “whosoever” as meaning me and those I like.
We can only read John 3:16, well by reading the the rest of the story that it’s placed in. It’s part of the commentary that John adds to a conversation that Jesus has been having with Nicodemus.
Nicodemus, we’re told, is a Pharisee and a member of the Jewish ruling council (3:1). The religious system that framed Nicodemus’ understanding of acceptability and inclusion in God’s kingdom focused on strict adherence to the Law of Moses and ceremonial purity.
Much of the traditions and rituals focused on Temple worship.
Richard Rohr notes that in this system of Temple worship, the acceptance and availability of God were clearly defined by the very design of the Temple.
At the center of the Temple was the Holy of Holies. Only the High Priest could enter, and he only once a year.
Next was the court of the priests and Levites. This space was reserved for the religious elite.
Outside this court was the court of the circumcised Jews. It’s pretty obvious who had access here and who didn’t.
Then came the outer court where Jewish women were allowed. However, because of purity laws surrounding menstruation, birthing and ritual purity, they rarely had access.
Outside this court was a sign warning non-Jews not to enter or be punished by death. (Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation)
This paradigm was about as opposite of “whosoever” as we can get.
Jesus had been preaching his “whosoever” message all along. He broke through the walls of exclusion by eating with tax collectors, touching lepers, interacting with women, laying hands on dead people, and intermingling with foreigners, including Gentiles and Roman soldiers.
Jesus’ love and acceptance had no boundaries. It was a value he was willing to die for.
I tend to create my own set of rules to determine which circle I belong in. I have my own purity laws I use to my acceptability to God. “The better i perform my duties and control my sinful impulses, the closer to the inner circle I get.”
I also have my circles I place others in. I assume I get to determine their level of belonging.
Like Nicodemus, I need to hear the gospel of “whosoever.”
And like Nicodemus, I will wrestle with its implications.