John 3:17: In The Pink

One thing I think you have to grant us: Davies and I are pretty in pink.

You see that this morning, Davies and I are wearing pink vestments. I get the pink set for the 8 a.m. service, and he will wear them for the 10 a.m.

They were a gift to me from a former parishioner after she heard me in a sermon lament that I’d always wanted to wear pink vestments for Rose Sunday, but had never had the chance.

Then they went in a closet and I never remembered to bring them to church for the correct Sundays either in Advent or Lent. But this year was the year!

And Davies has been a hilariously good sport about it as you might have noticed if you saw his fabulous picture on Facebook also wearing my pink heart-shaped sunglasses.

So why are we wearing pink today?

Well, the official name for the 4th Sunday of Lent is Laetare Sunday, and this Sunday has several traditions around it.

“Laetare” is the first word of the traditional Latin introit to the mass for this Sunday: “Laetare Jerusalem: et conventum facite omnes qui diligitis eam,” which means, “Rejoice, O Jerusalem: and come together all you that love her.” That’s Isaiah 66:10.

It’s also called Refreshment Sunday, and it’s a chance to take a break from our Lenten solemnity. It’s like an oasis in the desert, or a chance to leave the wilderness, come back into town, and have a couple of beers at the local watering hole.

Christians have realized for a long time that as noble as our aspirations of self-denial and fasting are in Lent, we’re human, and we need a break. Forty days is a long time.

The gospel says that Jesus had angels ministering to him while he was in the desert. We don’t get that, but we do get a day off before the last push toward Holy Week.

Given that it coincides with losing an hour of sleep changing over to Daylight Savings Time, we could all probably use a break today.

Today is also known as Mothering Sunday in the Church of England, which could mean one of two things. It was a day when servants were let off work to go home and see their mothers, or alternatively, it’s a day to return to your mother church, the parish you attended in your childhood.

It’s also called Rose Sunday, which is where we get the pink.

But actually the “Rose” in “Rose Sunday” comes from a tradition in which monarchs, rulers, and military leaders were given a Golden Rose blessed by the Pope as a symbol of their ruling authority. It also reinforced their promise to maintain political and military support of the Pope.

So there’s a lot going on with Laetare Sunday, but we here at the altar, and by “we” I mean “me,” mostly like it because we get to wear pink. You may observe that I have kicked my Laetare up to eleven by wearing pink earrings and pink shoes—we won’t press Davies to follow suit.

So Laetare Sunday is about taking time to do things a bit differently, look at things in a new way, and celebrate joy even in the midst of our contemplation of mortality and sin. In that vein, it’s worth looking at our gospel text today.

The verse that probably jumped out at you was John 3:16, because it’s so familiar.

Your eye and your ear go to it because you’ve heard it all your life. You may have memorized it 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.”

This is the verse you see on signs at football games and spraypainted on overpasses.

Why? Because people realized long ago that John 3:16 is a very short, compact, and effective way of summing up the gospel.

Like any overused tool, however, John 3:16 has had a lot of unfortunate connotations start to cling to it over time.

It has become a shorthand for much more than the simple Good News.

It is now often taken by outsiders to represent the exclusivity of Christianity, the exact opposite of John’s intent.

When someone who is not a Christian reads “John 3:16” on a billboard or bumper sticker, they are not very likely to associate it with welcome and invitation.

Sadly, they are much more likely to associate it with exclusion, self-righteousness, and condemnation.

Such is the reputation of Christianity to the outside world, and saddest of all is the truth that that reputation is all too honestly earned.

It cuts deeply because we have to admit that in some branches of Christianity today, and certainly throughout history, John 3:16 and indeed the entire Bible have been grossly misused. Christians have relished scripture as a tool to beat people down with shame and tell them why they’re going to hell if they don’t align with our ideas of God.

What are we to do to counter our grim reputation?

How are we to articulate the salvation of Jesus Christ in a way that actually reflects the truth of our God who loves without borders or boundaries, without limits or worthiness tests?

Well, it turns out that we can start with the very next verse in our text. We can move from John 3:16 as our symbol of identity, to John 3:17.

John 3:17 says, “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Stop and think about the full meaning of John 3:17.

It’s by the same author, right next to the verse that has lost its tone of welcome.

And it’s a message of joy, of jubilation, of redemption and grace and love. It’s a verse worthy of rejoicing, worthy of Laetare Sunday.

It’s not about conditions or beliefs or even spiritual encounter or a salvation experience.

It’s not about baptism or doctrine or fulfilling a covenant.

It’s not about requirements or tests or earning enough points to get to heaven.

It’s about God saving the world, free and clear, radiant with generosity and love, all through God’s initiative, not our own.

We don’t have to do anything or say anything.

We don’t have to have water poured on our heads, repent of our sins, or commit to a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior.

God saves the world because God loves the world. End of story.

Now notice, I’m not saying that baptism, repentance, or relationship with Jesus are a bad thing or unnecessary. Not at all.

But we have to remember that all of those actions are a recognition of God’s grace already freely offered.

We’re not moving ourselves from the “unsaved” column to the “saved” column through those acts.

Everyone is already in the “saved” column, right here according to the Bible.

Baptism, repentance, and prayer simply proclaim that truth with gratitude and commitment to our continued transformation.

Notice also that John 3:17 speaks of a communal salvation, not an individualistic one.

It’s not about whether I get into heaven and what I have to do or not do to ensure my own comfortable afterlife.

It’s about the whole world being saved together by Jesus coming into the world.

This is community salvation by means of Incarnation. We are healed and transformed because Jesus came to us.

So consider making John 3:17 the thing you write on posters for football games rather than John 3:16.

It doesn’t mean that John 3:16 isn’t true, it absolutely is.

But John 3:17 is the message the world needs to hear, the message the world doesn’t know, truly Good News of Jesus Christ. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

John 3:17 is Laetare news. It’s refreshing news that gives us new strength and hope as we prepare for Holy Week. It is news that lifts our hearts, gives us joy, makes us want to wear pink.

Pink is considered a feminine color—that’s why I enjoy wearing it and why it’s so funny to see Father Davies wearing it.

But the richness of Rose Sunday demands that we go deeper into this symbol.

Where do we get the color pink? From a combination of red and white.

Red and white are deeply symbolic colors of where we are in our Lenten journey.

Here, three-quarters of the way through the Lenten season, we getting closer and closer to Holy Week.

Holy Week is dominated by red, red for the Blood of Christ shed for us on the Cross.

And white is the color of Easter, the color of resurrection and new life and the rising dawn illuminating the empty tomb. Easter beckons from just a few short weeks away, and yet seems so unattainably distant now.

Red for suffering and love, white for new birth and joy. Put them together and you get pink.

And so for us, pink is not some trite and childish fancy, whatever jokes we make on Facebook.

Pink is the symbol of Rose Sunday because it reflects the deep ambiguity of mingled suffering and joy that is the heart of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

And so we say not just “Laetare, Jerusalem,” and “Laetare, Zionsville,” but “Laetare, all people everywhere.”

Rejoice, for you are loved.

Let it put some pink in your cheeks.



The Very Rev. C. Davies Reed and The Rev. Whitney Rice, pretty in pink


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For a Lenten devotional on forgiveness, please go here.