United Presbyterian Church of West Orange



March 10th, 2024

Rev. Rebecca Migliore


        I’m going to state right upfront that I have a push and pull relationship with this passage, John 3:16.  On the one hand, it is a statement from the gospel of John’s viewpoint, on what God was doing in coming to be with us.  “For God so loved the world…”  God’s love was so great for us, that God was willing to share of God’s self, to have Jesus come to be with us, to live with us, to feel like us, to experience the human joys and griefs.  Even to taste death like us.  God so loved…What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul…

But on the other hand, John 3:16 has been used (at sports arenas and all other manner of gatherings) as a cudgel, to point a finger at others, claiming to know their status with the living God, threatening the wrath of God.  “Those who believe in him [Jesus] are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”

Today, I don’t want to try to explain away this hardhearted version of God’s message of love.  I don’t want to try to justify it by explaining that John’s initial readers and hearers were locked in a life and death struggle with other Jewish people who did not believe in Jesus, those who might report John and his followers to the Roman authorities , those who did not wish them well (and as such they might feel anger at such people).  I don’t want to downplay the antisemitic sprinklings in the world of John—we can’t afford this in our day and age to not hear what is being said, not just literally, but in the subtext.  I get tired to explain that we should see Scripture in its totality, such as having to place this passage alongside of the actual words of Jesus in John.  Passages like John 10:14-16.  “I am the good shepherd.  I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.

       And I lay down my life for the sheep.  I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.  I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.  So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”  The way I read this passage, we might not be privy to all God’s workings in our world.

Now I, as a preacher, have the right to skip this passage—to pick another one to preach on.  But it is a spiritual discipline, it is the very job of preaching to try to wrestle with Scripture, especially the pieces of Scripture that are difficult for us.  And that is when I revel in being a part of a community.  Part of the communion of saints—with people whose names we might know who lived long, long ago, and with those who we have never met.  I can listen to others share what a passage of Scripture means to them, and maybe in listening, I will grow in my own understanding.

This week, I ran into such a sharing.  As we remember the events surrounding the March 7, 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery (59 years ago this week), it is fitting that I share some of the words of Mary McLeod Bethune (1875 to 1955) who grew up as a young girl in the Jim Crow South and who has been described as an “educator, activist, and presidential advisor.”

She wrote: “With these words [John 3:16] the scales fell from my eyes and the light came flooding in.  My sense of inferiority, my fear of handicaps, dropped away.  “Whosoever,” it said.  No Jew or Gentile, no Catholic nor Protestant, no black nor white; just “whosoever.”  It means that I, a humble [black] girl, had just as much chance as anybody in the sight and love of God.  These words stored up a battery of faith and confidence and determination in my heart, which has not failed me to this day.”

  (Quoted in Allen Dwight Callahan, “The Gospel of John,“ in True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007)where it is in turn quoted from Gerda Lerner, Black Women in White America (New York: Vintage, 1973), 136. 

Whosoever… (as it is translated in the King James version).


The commentator who brought this quote to my attention, Alicia Vargas (dean at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary and Assoc. Professor of Multicultural and Contextual Studies) and a proud Latina, adds her own twist.  She writes

“In the context in which I live and work and serve the church—a deeply progressive region in the United States—we could justifiably expand the text’s reach still further:

--Neither Jew nor Gentile nor any other ethnic group;

--Neither Catholic nor Protestant nor those of any other or no

 faith at all;

        --Neither Black nor White nor Brown nor any other race;

       --Neither straight nor LGBTQ+

        --Neither those belonging to any of the opposing political

 parties”  (workingpreacher.com)

“The list could go on,” Vargas says, “you get the idea.”


        Whosoever seems to be arms open wide.  Whosoever doesn’t try to break us down into smaller and smaller subsegments of the human population.  Whosoever might include people who would surprise us.  But whosoever doesn’t surprise God.  In fact, when we go back to John 3:16, we see that it starts out, For God so loved the world.  Not God so loved me, or us, or our group, or our denomination, or our country, or the people who think like me, or even us humans.  God so loved the world. 

The world that God had created and looked at and smiled and proclaimed, “it is good.”  The world that contains much more than just us.  A world that groans for God’s realm, maybe more than we do.  Groaning for a time when shalom might inhabit our beautiful globe, groaning for a time when there wouldn’t need to be slaughter anywhere, groaning for a time when all God’s creation would be respected and allowed to flourish, groaning for a time when we might live in true harmony (I know this is now sounding like an old Coke commercial).  But, God so loved the world.


Yes, in John’s gospel “world” can certainly refer to everything in all creation—like John 1:9 “the world came into being through [the Word].”  Or John 1:3—“All things came into being through [the Word], and without him not one thing came into being.”  But in John’s gospel “the world” is often used to refer to THEM, to those within the human community that resist or are hostile to God and Christ.  Listen to John 7:7 where Jesus says: “The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify against it that its works are evil.”  Eugene Boring and Fred Craddock put it this way: “While the world is often pictured in the Fourth Gospel as hostile to God, it is also God’s creation.  God loves his enemies, those who have rebelled against him, and is thus the model for Christian love.”

Doesn’t that kind of turn our usual thinking about John 3:16 on its head!  Maybe “God so loved the world” isn’t just God cradling the creation God had made.  Maybe it is God’s love reaching out exactly to those places that are so much in need of God’s love.  Places where bitterness and hatred and greed and oppression and self-centeredness and fear and want and hurt and pain and anger squeeze the life out of people.  God so loved those places and those people.  God came down to be with us, especially those who were swallowed by the cares of the world. 

Isn’t that what we see in Jesus’ ministry?  He only occasionally has time for anything other than verbal sparring with those who are high and mighty.  Who does he sit down to table with?  Who does he heal?  Who does he surround himself with, but those who would not have been viewed as those in God’s favor.  No wonder the crowds gathered in Matthew’s gospel to hear him proclaimed “Blessed are you.” Not the rich nor the powerful, nor the beautiful nor the happy.  No, “Blessed are the poor in spirit…  Blessed are those who mourn… Blessed are the meek …Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness… Blessed are the merciful… Blessed are the pure in heart… Blessed are the peacemakers… Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake… Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.”

And, ALSO God so loved all those who are on the other side of the equation—the ones who were lost in their riches, lost in their search for feeling good, lost in their power, lost in injustice, lost in vengeance, lost touch with their true heart, lost in war, lost in lording it over others, lost in perpetrating all kinds of evil.  God so loved them.  God so loved the world.  Shouldn’t we do the same?

Whosoever—includes all of us.  We can be sure that nothing can get in the way of God’s powerful love for us.  As the Apostle Paul said, “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)

And God so loved the world—God’s love twisting and turning through all the highways and byways, entering every nook and cranny, leaving no one, nothing, out.

So thanks to Mary McLeod Bethune, and Alicia Vargas, and Fred Craddock and Eugene Boring, and countless other faithful people, maybe the next time I see a John 3:16 sign, I can remember:  Whosoever… and God so loved the world.  And maybe I can start singing that wonderful African-American Spiritual: “God’s got the whole world, in God’s hands; God’s got the whole wide world, in God’s hands; God’s got the whole world, in God’s hands; God’s got the whole world in God’s hands.”

        May it be so, Amen and Amen.