“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.” John 3:16 is a verse that many know by heart. So much so, that you may see John 3:16 on a bumper sticker and nothing else. Of course, in Arkansas, many associate John 3:16 with a recovery program based on the acceptance of Christ to overcome addictions.

Still, this verse found in John is at the heart of many Christian denominations. Accept Christ, and you will be granted eternal life. That’s it. Accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior, and your sins are forgiven, and you will go to heaven.

Personally, I have always had trouble with this theology. It is, for me, too simplistic. Granted, I do think those who make this the cornerstone of their faith do say that if you truly accept Jesus in your heart, you will be changed. I can’t argue with that—still, I want to see a deeper understanding of our faith presented.

In the Pauline Letter to the church in Ephesus, we just heard, “God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which He loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace, you have been saved… through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” Granted, this isn’t all that different from, “whoever believes in Him will have eternal life,” but I like the fact that it focuses more on grace and mercy and God’s gift to us.

And, I really like how this passage ends, “We are what [God] has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” It is the “to be our way of life,” that gets lost in quoting only one verse from the Gospel of John. Being a Christian is so much more than accepting Jesus as our Lord and Savior. Being a Christian is about discipleship. It is, or at least should be, a way of life.

Just before John 3:16, which may be the best-known verse in our Bible, John quotes Jesus as saying, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life.” This is a reference to the passage in our reading from Numbers where God instructs Moses to make a pole with the image of a poisonous snake on it so that the people who are bitten by a snake and look upon it will live. Jesus says that He will be like the snake on the pole, He will be lifted up [on a cross] so that whoever believes in Him will live. When we look upon Jesus on the cross, we should see what it means to give oneself to God. It requires sacrifices for the good of others. It requires us to put God’s will first.

The overarching message of the scriptures is that God is calling us to turn our focus outward—to focus on God’s will, which is simply to love God, love our neighbors, and love ourselves. When we love God, one another, and ourselves, we live a life of faith, a life that affirms life, true life. It isn’t life focused on living forever; it is a life that is focused on the here and now.

I want you to listen to this poem by Helen Mallicoat that is a reflection on the story in Exodus where God calls Moses to lead the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt. Moses asks God: “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is His name?’ what shall I say to them?” God responds, “I am who I am… Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” Mallicoat’s poem is titled, My Name is “I AM”.

I was regretting the past And fearing the future. Suddenly my Lord was speaking: “My name is I Am.” He paused. I waited. He continued, When you live in the past With its mistakes and regrets, It is hard. I am not there, My name is not “I WAS.” When you live in the future With its problems and fears, It is hard. I am not there. My name is not “I WILL BE.” When you live in this moment, It is not hard. I am here. My name is “I AM.”

God exists in the present, and we are called to serve God in the present.

Being a Christian is not a passive act. It requires us to keep our eye upon the cross and to live in the present, where we can follow Christ’s example of service to others. Our presiding bishop, Michael Curry, teaches us that the Way of the Cross is the way we are to follow. The Way of the Cross is the Way of Love. It is so much more than the way to eternal life; it is a way of living in the present.

Let us pray.

Help us, Lord, to keep our hearts, minds, and soul focused on Jesus, that we might live in the present… in your presence. Fill us with your love that we might share it with others. We offer our prayers in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.