Header for Views from St Peter's


Views Index | Events | Home page


Fourth Sunday in Lent, 11th of March, 2017
Colleen Clayton, Klingner Scholar and Lay minister at St Peter's, Eastern Hill

John 3:14-21

My sermon today is the fourth in our Lenten series entitled, "Friends and Companions".

The friend and companion I have brought with me is Fr Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest who founded the Centre for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His teaching is ecumenical and he grounds all that he does in the Franciscan practices of contemplation and self-emptying. He does not see these practices as ends in themselves. Instead, they are developed in order to enable an engagement with the world that he refers to as 'radical compassion'. This is particularly expressed towards the socially marginalized.

I first came across Richard Rohr via a friend who shared some of his material with me. I was really struck by the way in which he expressed the meaning of the Gospel; it felt fresh, new and exciting. When Fr Hugh asked me if I would contribute to this series of sermons I looked at the Gospel for today and immediately wanted to introduce you to my friend Fr Richard and to share with you some of his material from a series of meditations he did last year on the atonement.

John 3:16 was probably the first memory verse that I learnt as a child. "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."

The reason that I was given for the emphasis on learning and remembering this verse was that it provides a summary of the Christian faith; it spells out the message of the atonement; how humanity in all its brokenness, is to be brought to reconciliation with God.

When I was at secondary college, the Gideons came to our school each year to present to every Y7 student a small copy of the NT with the Psalms and Proverbs. In the front of it, written in 16 different languages was John 3:16. This verse, so important as a 'snapshot' of Christianity, has been translated into over 1,100 languages.

However, what I didn't realise when I first learnt this verse, or when I received my Gideons' New Testament, was that, as with the Bible as a whole, John 3:16 contains within it a world of theological nuance. Depending on which theory of the atonement you favour, the theology and the way of life that flows from this verse may differ widely. And, in case I am in danger of losing you at this point, let me say that far from this being a hair-splitting, nit-picking exercise in semantics, the way in which we translate and interpret verses has the exciting possibility of transforming the way in which we understand our relationship with God, with each other and with the world.

The atonement — the reconciliation of God with humanity through the person of Jesus Christ, lies at the heart of Christian belief. Salvation is never seen as something that humanity can achieve through our own efforts. The New Testament writers speak over and over again of the salvation that God has brought about through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

What God achieves, that is, humanity's salvation, is clear. How that salvation is brought about however is not clear. The New Testament offers a variety of metaphors; we are justified by faith, saved through the victory of the cross, redeemed by the sacrifice of Christ that establishes the new covenant. But there is no theory of atonement in the New Testament and no single theory has been developed by the church since then either.

C.S. Lewis put it like this;

Now before I became a Christian I was under the impression that the first thing Christians had to believe was one particular theory as to what the point of this dying was. According to that theory God wanted to punish men for having deserted and joined the Great Rebel, but Christ volunteered to be punished instead, and so God let us off. ... What I came to see later on was that neither this theory nor any other is Christianity. The central belief is that Christ's death has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start. Theories as to how it did this are another matter: A good many different theories have been held as to how it works; what all Christians are agreed on is that it does work.[1]

The theory of atonement that C.S. Lewis is describing here is called Penal Substitution; Christ changes God's heart by taking our punishment and appeasing God's wrath.

Using the theory of Penal Substitution, John 3:16 can be expanded like this;

"For God so loved the world: This expresses a main Christian conviction that God loves the world.
That he gave his only Son: this is understood to mean both that Jesus is the only Son of God and that God gave him to die for the sins of the world. The "giving of the Son" means that Jesus died in our place, so that we can be forgiven.
So that everyone who believes in him: What we need to do is to believe in Jesus as God's only son and as the one who died for us. This is the path of salvation.
May not perish but may have eternal life: The consequence of believing in Jesus is survival of death and everlasting life, meaning heaven."[2]

I remember as a teenager when the theory of penal substitution was first explained to me I didn't like it. It seemed to me then that if God really is all loving and all powerful, he would be able to come up with a better, more just plan than sacrificing his innocent, beloved Son to be reconciled with the creation he loves. The sense of this theory as an unsatisfactory explanation of the basis of salvation grew in me when I had children of my own, knowing the way in which I love and forgive them. If one does something wrong I do not require the other to suffer in order that I can find it in myself to forgive.

Fortunately for me, and others like me, penal substitution is not the only theory of the atonement; it is not even the earliest theory. It was first suggested about a thousand years ago and it is still a dominant theory, however there are other, far more life giving ways of considering what the incarnation and sacrificial death of Jesus mean.

But does this matter to anyone other than nerdy theological students, obliged to wrestle with such ideas in order to pass assessment tasks? Well, yes, it does; countless lives have been broken or lost over the way in which the Bible is interpreted and the theology and practice that flows from that interpretation. Deep pain has been felt and caused by people on both sides of many debates; debates in which each side has claimed the authority of the Bible to legitimise their own opinions and values. Interpretations of the Bible have been used to justify; slavery and the abolition of slavery; anti-Semitism and Zionism; the refusal to ordain women as well as the ordination of women. Today, the Bible is invoked by those who persecute LGBTQI people as well as by many who argue that all people, regardless of sexuality, are made in God's image. How we read the Bible matters, but it isn't simple. This is where my companion Fr Richard Rohr comes in. He used the series of meditations that I mentioned earlier to put forward a non-violent theory of the atonement. Using that theory, John 3:16 can be expanded like this;

For God so loved the world: "God's love was infinite from the first moment of creation; the cross was Love's dramatic portrayal in space and time."[3]
That he gave his only Son: "Jesus was pure gift. The idea of gift is much more transformative than necessity, payment, or transaction. The cross was not necessary, but a pure gift so that humanity could witness God's outflowing Love in dramatic form."[4]
So that everyone who believes in him: "Nothing changed on Calvary, but everything was revealed as God's suffering love — so that we could change!"[5]
May not perish but may have eternal life: "Jesus agreed to carry the mystery of suffering and not to demand perfection of creation. He taught, in effect, that it is the "only" way to be saved. We are indeed saved by the cross — more than we realize. The people who hold the contradictions — and resolve them in themselves — are the saviors of the world."[6]

There is no doubt that the story of the cross is a story of violence and horror. The theory of Penal Substitution locates that violence in God. But is the violence we see in God simply a reflection of the violence in our own hearts? Richard Rohr believes that it is. He invites us to look at the God we worship and to see God's heart of love. He invites us to see the God who chose as the starting point for reconciliation, incarnation. God offers us salvation through the birth of Jesus as a vulnerable, poor baby and through a life that brought such healing and wholeness to our broken world that he continues to feed us with his body and blood and to offer us, through his suffering and death, the way to eternal life.



  1. Lewis, C.S. "The perfect penitent." In Mere Christianity, (Harper Collins Australia, 2012).
  2. Borg, Marcus. Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power — And How They Can Be Restored, (Harper Collins, 2011).
  3. Adapted from Richard Rohr, Dancing Standing Still: Healing the World from a Place of Prayer (Paulist Press: 2014), 70-73.
  4. Adapted from Richard Rohr, Dancing Standing Still: Healing the World from a Place of Prayer (Paulist Press: 2014), 70-73.
  5. Adapted from Richard Rohr, Franciscan Mysticism: I AM That Which I Am Seeking, disc 3 (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2012), CD, MP3 download; and Things Hidden: Scripture As Spirituality (Franciscan Media: 2007), 200-202.
  6. Adapted from Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer (The Crossroad Publishing Company: 2003), 177-182.


Topical Articles

 Ministerial Priesthood
 Lay presidency
 Catholic Anglicanism
 Women bishops

Views is a
publication of
St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.

Top | Views Index | Events | Home page

Authorized by the Vicar (vicar@stpeters.org.au)
Maintained by the Editorial Team (editor@stpeters.org.au)
© 1998–2018 St Peter's Church