1-28-18 “John 3 in Pieces, OR, John in 3 Pieces”
Part 1 - John 3:1-8
How confident are you when you’re walking around in the dark? If it’s a familiar place, you’re probably okay, but if it’s a strange place, a new place, or a place that you’re not used to being in during darkness, then your confidence might be nil. I like it to be very dark when I go to sleep at night.
And some nights I actually wear a sleep mask to make it darker for me if the room is to highly illuminated. In instances like that, I choose darkness.
At other times, darkness is thrust upon us. I was traveling with a church youth group one time and we explored some caverns in Virginia. The guide took us down into this cavern via an old mining elevator, and as we descended deeper and deeper into what one person described as “the pits of hell,” the light from above grew dimmer. We relied on a single incandescent bulb in the roof of the open slatted elevator to light our way down. When we got down to the cavern itself, nearly a half mile underground, there were electric lights strung all along our pathways. In one large cavern, they instructed us to find a place to sit - they didn’t want anyone moving around - and they turned off all the lights in the cavern, shrouding us in the deepest, blackest darkness I’ve ever experienced.
Being “in the dark” can be both an actual occurrence for us, like being deep in that cavern, as well as a metaphorical state - being ignorant, uninformed, even clueless. For Nicodemus in our story today, I think it was a little of both. John writes that he was a “Jewish leader” and that he came to Jesus “at night.” Why did he come at night? Well, we learn later in John’s gospel that not only was Nicodemus a Jewish leader, but he was also a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish leadership council, and a teacher of Israel. We also learn that at some point he becomes a follower of Jesus. So he comes to Jesus at night, most likely so that he won’t be seen by others. But he comes “in the dark” because, when it comes to God, Jesus tells him he’s pretty clueless.
And like many people, hemming and hawing in order to avoid asking the actual question that they want to ask, Nic starts with some flattery. “Rabbi, (a title of respect) we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could do these miraculous signs that you do unless God is with him.” Notice how John even puts the idea of “signs” into Nicodemus’ mouth instead of his just calling them miracles. Signs point toward something.
And Jesus’ answer - ignoring the flattery - points to something that goes right over Nicodemus’ head. “I assure you,” Jesus says, “unless someone is born anew, it’s not possible to see God’s kingdom.” The word translated here as “anew” can also be translated “again,” but can also mean “from above.” Jesus is saying that unless a person is “born from above, it’s impossible for them to see, to recognize, God’s kingdom.” Even when it’s right in front of them.
So of course, after this, Nic has questions, which should come as no surprise in a Gospel that contends that signs alone are inadequate for understanding Jesus. “How is it possible for an adult to be born? It’s impossible to enter the mother’s womb for a second time and be born, isn’t it?” Nic doesn’t get it - he’s a literal reader - Jesus’ metaphors are beyond him. He’s descending deeper and deeper into the cavern of his own darkness here.
When Jesus says that we must all be born anew, Nicodemus is confused, taking his metaphor literally. And so Jesus then contrasts life in the flesh and life in the Spirit. “I assure you, unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom.”
Now, the idea of “flesh” in John doesn’t have the same negative connotations, doesn’t carry the same baggage, as it does in Paul’s writing. To be “born of the flesh,” according to Amy Pauw, “is simply to receive God’s gift of physical life, and to be “born of the Spirit” is to receive God’s gift of eternal life, a transformed mode of life that begins already now.”
And one of the key characteristics of life in the spirit is an element of freedom. We are not bound by the same concerns of those who live according to the flesh because our future and fate are sealed by God’s tremendous love. “Do not be astonished,” Jesus says to Nicodemus, “that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
And David Lose suggests that “this declaration that the Spirit -- and those born of the Spirit -- blows where it will gives us tremendous freedom when we think about how best to respond to the challenges and opportunities of the age.” And he goes on to suggest that one source of anxiety for people “of the flesh” is that the usual road signs that have guided us in the past, the norms and practices that over the course of our lifetimes have changed, they’re all different now. Sunday mornings, once reserved for church attendance, are now no different from any other day of the week. Guitars and drums have replaced organs in many churches. There’s a growing scarcity of young or younger people in churches. These weren’t just reliable signs that all was right with the world, “they provided reliable patterns by which to organize our life that provided a clear road map…about what it meant to be the church…When we give these up, however, we feel like we are sailing in uncharted waters or driving down a dark and unfamiliar road…without headlights.
Except that we are not alone! The Spirit -- which Jesus will later define as his own Spirit -- accompanies and empowers us to face a future that we may feel is uncertain but has been secured by the death and resurrection of Jesus. From this perspective, the anxiety that many of us feel -- there is no roadmap! -- can be transformed into excitement -- there is no roadmap! :) Which means that we’re free -- we don’t have to do things the way they’ve always been done. We can experiment, risk, make mistakes, learn, and grow in ways we’d never imagined. Because the Spirit of Christ will blow us in directions we hadn’t imagined.”
END PART 1
Part 2 - John 3:9-15
Jesus has blown Nicodemus’ mind. That whole speech about the Holy Spirit was lost on the befuddled Pharisee because he was stuck trying to figure out how an adult human being could be physically birthed a second time. “How are these things possible?” he asks Jesus. To which he replies, “You are a teacher of Israel and you don’t know these things?” What happens next is a complete takeover of this story by Jesus - what began as a dialogue between the two now transitions into a monologue by Jesus, and we don’t hear from or about ol’ “Nic at Night” again until much later in the gospel. We might even forget that he’s there. And despite Nicodemus’ “impressive set of credentials,” Amy Pauw tells us, “The arrangement of John’s gospel invites us to contrast Nicodemus with the next person Jesus engages in conversation, the Samaritan woman in chapter four. The contrast is not flattering to Nicodemus. Unlike Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman is female and unnamed. Even worse, she is a morally disgraced member of a theologically suspect group. She has zero religious capital. Yet she meets Jesus in broad daylight, rather than in the dead of night, and immediately has the courage to give public testimony about him to her own people. Through the mysterious work of the Spirit, she is born from above.”
So that phrase, “born from above,” or “born again,” from the Greek “anothen,” has for many become a slogan, a badge of honor, even a tool to distinguish who’s on the inside and who’s one the outside - who’s saved and who’s not. Which, ironically, is exactly the opposite message that this passage intends. Popularized by American Evangelicalism with its emphasis on “believer baptism” and the importance of personally accepting Jesus into one’s heart, the language of being “born again” is pretty recognizable and, unfortunately, in some circles has come to represent a litmus test of whether one is “really a Christian.” Jesus doesn’t propose it as a test of fidelity, though. He never asks or demands of his disciples that they be “born again” in order to follow him.
No, what Jesus is suggesting to Nicodemus, and to us - and it ties to what we talked about last week when we talked about Jesus’ cleansing of the temple - our acceptance by God is not dependent on what we do or don’t do, it’s not about behavior, it’s not about compliance with rules or laws, it’s about figuring out how to set all those “religious” and “worldly” things aside and accepting the unconditional love that God gives to all of us. In a world that constantly attempts to pit God’s children against one another, defining this group as loved and that other group as hated, one group as saved and another as sinner, Jesus is telling us that the Spirit came that we might all be one. Because God loved the whole world.
End of Part 2
Part 3 - John 3:16-21
Those people at the football games, the ones in the end zones with the signs who always seem to make it onto TV every time a team kicks a field goal or an extra point - you know who I mean? - those people need bigger signs. Not because they need to write bigger, but because they need to write more; they’re only sharing half the message. John 3:16 is only half a message.
It’s kind of like this: everybody take a big deep breath and hold it. Hold it. Hold it. John 3:16 is like that inhale. It fills you full of life, it expands your lungs, it gets the heart pumping, but you need to exhale. Go ahead, exhale. That exhale is verse 17. You can’t inhale without also exhaling, right? You will exhale, either on your own or when you pass out. Well, you can’t truly understand what Jesus is saying in verse 16 without also hearing verse 17. Jesus is giving us a bigger sign.
John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world…” It doesn’t say “For God so loved the church, or the faithful, or the pure, or the Methodists,” it says “the world.” And David Lose reminds us, “that the Greek word for “world” – kosmos – designates throughout the rest of John’s Gospel an entity that is hostile to God (Jn 15:18-25; 16:8-10, 20, 33; 17:9-16). Which means that we might actually translate these verses, “For God so loved the God-hating world, that he gave his only Son…” and “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn even this world that despises God but instead so that the world that rejects God might still be saved through him.” Really – God’s love is just that audacious and unexpected. (Which is why, according to Paul, it probably seems both scandalous and a little crazy – see 1 Cor. 1:18-25.) And that audacious, unexpected, even crazy character of God’s love is probably why it saves!…So it’s not about who’s in and who’s out, but rather about God’s consistent intent to love, save, and bless the whole world.” That, I would add, is God’s plan.
In this passage, we find a bold declaration that God loves us…and that God loves the whole world. That IS the good news of the gospel! Not that God loves some but not others. Karoline Lewis makes the point that John 3:16 is both the “most well-known Bible verse and yet also one of the most destructive - an assertion of exclusion rather than one of God’s abundant love. A verse that sends people to hell rather than voice God’s extravagant grace.” And she affirms the point I’ve been making to you for nearly five years now - context is everything. Taken out of context, set apart from it’s “exhale,” verse 16 becomes a weapon in the hands of many - a weapon used to fight a battle for salvation that is foreign to John and contradictory to Jesus. In context, however, the breathing in and out of verses 16 and 17 together provide the assurance of the extravagant love that God has for all the world, a love so great that in Jesus, God became one of us.
God loves the whole world! Yet, how often the world hears a different message! How often the Gospel sounds not like love but like condemnation! How often the church comes across as “holier than thou”! It can seem as though God is eager to divide, to judge and separate, to save some and abandon the rest. Jesus reacts to these misunderstandings: “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.” This missio Dei, the mission of God, is life-giving and life-saving. This is not a rejection mission, it’s a rescue mission. This is the inclusive, expansive, all-encompassing, unmitigated, unconditional love of God. It is life from above for all who are perishing, all who are languishing in the darkness.
But not all who are perishing want this life or trust the One who offers it. And maybe, just maybe, they don’t want it because they’ve seen the way many churches and many Christians who claim to have it act toward others. When God’s freely-given unconditional love, intended for all, is highjacked and held hostage by some who think they’re supposed to be gatekeepers for God, the nonbelievers are going to grow a bit skeptical, don’t you think? Nevertheless, Jesus says there is a judgment, a dividing line between those who trust the One who comes bearing the love of God and those who cannot place their trust in him. God will not force God’s love upon those who opt out. There is a judgment, says Jesus. There is condemnation, but it’s not what you think - it’s not the judgment of God. God does not damn God’s beloved children. The judgment occurs whenever we choose to hide from the light of God’s sacrificial love. Choosing to stay in the darkness is an act of self-condemnation. It means condemning oneself to more of the same old, same old. And if another chooses the darkness because they don’t experience the true light of Christ in the Christians they encounter, then that’s on us.
That God loves the world is not a theory for salvation. It is specific. It is particular. As particular as the incarnation itself. God loves a Samaritan woman. God loves a man paralyzed his entire life. God loves a man blind from birth. God loves Jesus’ friend dead in the tomb for four days. God loves Peter who will deny his discipleship. God loves Judas who will betray. God loves you. And God loves me. And this is the good news that we, as Christians, are invited to embrace and in doing so be born from above. And it is this good news that we must both live and share if we are to be Christ’s light in the whole world. Because that love also extends to those fearful of deportation. For our LGBTQ sisters and brothers singled out as sinners, or in some places, criminals even. For those of races other than white. For women who continue to march. For our Jewish brothers and sisters hated once again for their loyalty to the God of Israel, our God. For our Muslim brothers and sisters vilified for devotion and obedience. For the world, the cosmos, that wonders who will protect it.
But the choice is ours. Sometimes we choose to live without God’s love. We cherish grudges, even as we wish we could let our anger go. We value our independence, even as we wish we cared more for others. We stay in a dark but comfortable corner, even as we wish we lived in the light. Our story, from beginning to end is a mix of selfishness, consequences, repentance, and life. When we don’t have the courage to choose what is best, but act as if our choices don’t matter, we make no progress even on the smoothest path. When we choose courageously, we go forward even on the roughest road.
From the first choice we make in the morning until we choose to go to sleep at night, we are making the decisions that form our lives. We choose the words we speak or do not speak, the people we love or do not even see, thoughts we entertain or reject, the deeds we do or leave undone. God has chosen to help us choose eternal life.
God allows us to turn to life in an amazing variety of ways. Feel. Dream. Breathe deeply. Work joyfully. Spend an afternoon with a dear friend. Wear tennis shoes. Go for ice cream. Read Marcus Borg. Read the Gospels. Listen to Adele. Sing along with Frank Sinatra. Ask God to help you feel grace again. Sing loud in worship. Try a new ministry, even though you don’t think you have time. Pray with real gratitude. Pray for peace. Take risks. Give better gifts. Give away more money. Call your mother. Notice small things. Do kind things. Hug someone. Laugh. Listen to the wind. Listen to the wind of the Spirit. We choose to build up or tear down, love or ignore, heal or hurt, bless or curse. Choose life in the Spirit.
You see, contrary to how you may have heard it taught before, our passage this week brings not condemnation, but a bold declaration that God loves us…and that God loves the whole world. And in affirming and accepting that love, we find our calling to extend that love to everyone we encounter.
May it be so with you. Amen.
End of Part 3