As a native Californian, who likes traveling to other parts of the country, some of the most iconic things that people think about when they hear I’m from California, besides the beaches and great weather, is In-N-Out Burger. People want to know if it lives up to the hype. Something that most people don’t know, however, is that In-N-Out prints bible verses on all their cups and food wrappers. One of most common places I remember seeing John 3:16, from today’s gospel, is on my soda cup when I’m there. The reason it has been so impactful thinking about it now is because it felt so random. What could In-N-Out have to do with the gospels? But after sitting with that question, and thinking about it a little more it started to make more sense.
In-N-Out owner Lynsi Snyder talks about her Uncle, and how he was the one who put the Bible verses on the cups and wrappers in the early 90’s, just before he passed away. Her Uncle had recently accepted the Lord and wanted to put that “little touch of faith on the brand,” as she says.
Here’s the thing, the In-N-Out soda cups are a great reminder that these seemingly insignificant signs and symbols, are usually calling us to something greater. For example, God often speaks to us through the ordinary things in our everyday lives. How often are we paying attention? There is usually no big show, or sign, but rather the small intimate moments in which God speaks to us throughout the day. John 3:16 is arguably one of the most quoted verses in the Bible. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.” It may be such a commonly quoted verse, however, that many of us haven’t taken time in a while to really think about what the Gospel of John is sharing with us. Now every time I go to In-N-Out or see the John 3:16 quoted somewhere I am invited to actually pause, and take a prayerful moment to reflect, even it if it’s in the middle of a fast-food restaurant or on the road. Today’s Gospel cannot just be reduced down to one short little phrase “3:16” and that’s it, we move on. We have to pay attention to the little signs and invitations God sends in our daily lives, even if on the bottom of a paper cup.
Today, on this Fourth Sunday of Lent we are invited into this reflection on the deeper meaning of John 3:16. I actually find great value in John 3:17 also, “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” I’ll be honest and say that when I was first praying and reflecting on today’s readings in preparation for my sharing, I was a little upset. I was hoping to get a more familiar reading, about the Good Samaritan or something that I could easily relate to my justice work, but God had different plans for me this Lent. I have always seen John 3:16 as something that people liked to put on posters and billboards because it was convenient. I was upset because many people use this verse of John 3:16 to exclude others--that only those who believe in Jesus shall be saved. I just don’t believe that is what today’s gospel is about. I also struggle because John 3:14-21 could be used as an excuse, as if some people were thinking, “As long as I believe and have faith, I can do no wrong in God’s eyes. God sent his Son to save us and even if we mess up or do wrong, we are forgiven.” To me it felt like the easy way out. If we know that we are always going to be forgiven, then we have no incentive to act in a way that’s in line with our faith. So, I sat and prayed with the gospel for a few more days over that next week and I started to realized that I had it all wrong.
Contrary to what I was judging in others, I was the one who was choosing the easy way out when I first read these verses. It is easy to condemn and judge someone for the ways that they could use or could understand this reading, but what if I looked at myself and others the way that God does. God continues to invite us to draw closer to her. God looks at us and sees possibilities and light, even when we can’t see it--especially when we don’t see it. God does not give up on us. So then, why should I give up on us? Who does that make me?
In our lives today, it is so easy to find things to condemn about ourselves, others and the world, but what if we didn’t choose that. What if instead of judging others, we loved others and saw their light and potential, not just the darkness. Today’s gospel ends with the reminder, “But whoever lives the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God.” The truth is that God loves us no matter what. Therefore, I am called, we are called to respond to that love and grace, with compassion, graciousness, and gratitude. Instead of seeing people just for their “dark sides”, we are called to be the light.
One area of my life where I am being called to live this out has to do with the racial reckoning that many people in this country are going through right now. For many, this is may be the first year or the first time that we are really being faced with our own racist tendencies as people, and as a nation. As a woman of color, is would be easy and tempting for me to sit back and judge and condemn others for their actions and inactions in response to racism, and specifically anti-black racism. That’s what I found myself doing initially. I felt like John 3:16 was excusing people from the consequences of their actions, when in reality today’s gospel does the opposite. It liberates us and frees up our hearts to do the work that God calls us to do.
Lent is a time each year of deep self-reflection. These days can bring up the “dark” parts of us and we can get trapped in the cycle of shame and judgment of ourselves, feeling like we will never be worthy of God’s love. That is the power of today’s gospel, the truth in today’s gospel. It shakes us out of this cycle and reminds us that it’s not true! God does love us, not because we deserve it, as the second reading reminds us, but because it is gifted to us freely. God comes into our lives and journeys with us during this dark season of Lent, and sees our goodness and potential. That is the good news! God doesn’t condemn, and nor should we.
Fr. Greg Boyle, someone who I have learned from closely these past few years talks often about compassion. He says that we are called to stand in awe of what people carry, rather than stand in judgement of how they carry it. That is at the heart of the readings today. We are graced through God’s love, unconditionally, and once we are freed from the things that hold us back, we are then energized to do the work that we have been called to do—to love. And love is the way to justice. As Cornel West famously says, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” This is how we are called to live out John 3:16.
Today, we are just a little past the midpoint of Lent, so may the truths of today’s gospel stay with us as we continue on this journey toward the light of Easter. How are we being called to love during this time of Lent, and like the story we began with, how are we being called to put our little touch of faith in the world, too? Someone intentionally put those verses on a soda cup for us, so how are we intentionally putting these messages and invitations out in the world for others?
Alyssa M. Perez
Alyssa M. Perez
Alyssa Perez works as a Resident Minister and the Assistant Director of Alternative Breaks and Advocacy at Loyola Marymount University (LMU) in Los Angeles, CA. She received her Master of Nonprofit Administration degree at the University of San Francisco, and her Bachelor of Arts in Theology and Political Science at LMU. She served as a Jesuit Volunteer in Belize City, Belize (’15-’17) where she worked as a reading instructor and librarian at St. Martin De Porres Primary School.
Alyssa serves on the Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice Steering Committee, is a facilitator for Ignatian Solidarity Network’s (ISN) Arrupe Leader Summit, and is a contributing author for ISN’s Rise Up Lenten Series.
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