By Father Casey

This weekend our gospel features what is almost certainly the most famous verse in the New Testament: John 3:16. “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.”

As familiar as these words may be, overuse may have removed most of their power. Many Christians take the story of Nicodemus, in which this verse appears, and package it as though all Jesus really cares about is a single decision. All you have to do is recite a formula in which you declare your belief in Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior, and then, poof, it happens. You get your ticket to heaven punched.

The writer Dallas Willard compares this version of the faith to a grocery store bar code. When we profess belief in Christ and say the “magic words,” God simply changes our bar code, so that when we die and arrive at the pearly gates, the heavenly scanner will register us as the brand of person who gets let in.

But when you really examine the stories of Jesus in the gospels, including this one, you see that he was far less concerned with what happens when we die than he was with the shape and meaning and depth of our life. Or, as the writer Rob Bell puts it, “What we find Jesus teaching, over and over again is that he’s interested in our hearts being transformed, so that we can actually handle heaven” when we finally experience it.[1]

God did not “so love the world that he sent his only begotten Son to the end that a lot of us would have our bar codes changed out.” God wants us to feel the Spirit blowing through our souls and filling us with life. Because the goal of salvation is the transformation of lives, not just performing some sort of cosmic transaction to swap our existential bar codes.

It boils down to a distinction between substance versus surface. Most of us are willing to make surface changes, to let Jesus slap a new bar code on us, or else to make a few tweaks and modifications to our lives, as though Jesus is just another lifestyle blogger with tips for self-improvement. But the belief Jesus invites us to is about more than bar codes or “3-easy steps to becoming a better you”. It’s about being remade. It’s less like attaching a tiny sticker to our souls than it is like the messy work of being born.

Ultimately, my friends, we want more than a bar code faith because we believe in more than a bar code God. God’s love is the force that brought all things into being, and will bring all things to their fulfillment at the end, and that love is about more than slapping stickers on us. It is the sort of love that reaches the depths of every corner of the cosmos, including every corner of our souls, to remake us.

[1] Rob Bell, Love Wins (Harper Collins, 2011).

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