Today's lectionary passage from the Gospel of John begins in the wrong place, because for us to really discuss it, we will need to back up a few verses. The beginning of the third chapter of John is the better place to start, for there we meet a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews, coming to Jesus in the privacy of night, saying to him in astonishment, "Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one can perform these signs that you do, apart from the presence of God."
It's a strange thing to hear, especially coming from the mouth of a Pharisee. We don't really have a way of knowing his motivations. He is a powerful man, a teacher himself. He is the one, on most occasions, who would possess the answers to religious questions, rather than posing them. To be sure, he is altogether different from the poor, outcast, needy and sick people we are accustomed to seeing coming to Jesus. Is Nicodemus really there in awe of him? Or there to trip Jesus up instead? We don't know.
But Jesus engages this Pharisee, responding to him, "No one can see the kingdom of God, without being born from above."
Perhaps being the good legalistic Pharisee that he has learned to be, Nicodemus seems to take Jesus quite literally at his word and almost comically tries to figure out what being "born again" could actually mean. "How can one be born after having grown old?" Nicodemus asks. "Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born again?"
Jesus clarifies and asks Nicodemus not to be such a fundamentalist, explaining, "What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the spirit is spirit." The kind of new birth that Jesus is referring to is the spiritual kind.
"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," Jesus says. "So it is with everyone who is born of the spirit."
Nicodemus, however, still seems to be a bit thick-headed, because this more-poetic, less-rigid way of discussing how we relate to God is new to him. "How can these things be?" he says.
To which Jesus offers his own astonishment, "You mean to tell me you are a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand?"
That's the backdrop, the context, for today's Scripture lesson, which includes the most famous of all biblical citations, John 3:16, words that were said somewhat privately to Nicodemus in the dark of night; but if you didn't know any better, you might assume they had been shouted by Jesus at noon day, either in the Sermon on the Mount or at the Feeding of the Multitudes when everyone would be there to hear the thesis sentence of Jesus' ministry. But that's not how it was. Yet, still, John 3:16 has become one of the most famous, the most quoted, and, well, the most overused scriptures in the New Testament. I've often said that, if for no other reason, the use of the lectionary in Christian worship is a great tool because it has saved many a church-goer from the agony of having to hear the same sermon every single Sunday for an entire lifetime on this same text:
"For God so loved the world that God gave God's only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life."
The words are beautiful. Powerful. Evocative. It's no wonder that they've taken hold like they have. But sometimes even beautiful phrases, no matter how lovely they are, can start to lose their luster due to overexposure. There's no need to listen anymore to something you already know--or think you know--and so it's possible to never really hear it at all.
It used to be quite common to see just the citation itself "John 3:16" spray-painted on highway overpasses or scribbled onto poster board held up at televised football games. Many of us who have grown up in the church know this verse by heart; it was one of the first we were expected to recite and to memorize, and even if we hadn't, we easily would have absorbed it by osmosis.
Beloved by many, it is considered by some to be the absolute baseline of Christian theology, the summation and completion of the gospel, the very plan of salvation, so I certainly don't want to sound dismissive of it. But, for others, John 3:16 has become like a scriptural hot-air balloon so weighted down by the sandbags of familiarity, sentimentality, or worse, the fear-based fire-and-brimstone preaching this scripture has often been associated with, that it's difficult sometimes to give it any kind of spiritual lift-off.
Ironically, these very words that Jesus was speaking to a rigid and legalistic Pharisee, trying to help him see salvation more expansively, have become the very symbol of conditional, exclusive Christianity: "Accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, or go to hell for all eternity." That's basically what it boils down to.
As United Church of Christ pastor Paul Shupe has commented, "How does one preach a text that has become a cliché?"
It's a big challenge, for sure, but the one thing I know is that it's not my job today to shrink from that opportunity, just because the passage may be a little too familiar. The text may be well known, but the loving God of extravagant grace to which it speaks still remains a concept that for too many is hard to conceive, much less believe.
There is no way around it, Lent is a time for more than just casual introspection. It is our big religious season for repentance and renewed commitment. Just as Jesus once said that anyone who sets their hand to a plow and then looks back in uncertainty is not fit for the kingdom of God. Lent is our moment for decision. Are we who we say we are? Is this really the way I choose to follow. I've only got one life; is this how I wish to spend it?
The problem I have long had with most preaching of John 3:16 is that we've often over-emphasized the consequences of NOT believing--Woe be unto you--at the expense of talking about where a life of joyful, committed faith might and can lead us.
It's possible that faith in Jesus may not just preserve and protect you for all eternity; it may just compel and convict you right now. And for me, saying yes and believing in God's beloved gift in Jesus is not so much about being rewarded with a place of eternal bliss and luxury where we can live forever in perpetual avoidance of other's misery. But, instead, to a place of abundant life here and now that takes seriously God's call and claim on us to be agents of love. Our "yes" to that.
"For in Christ, God has reconciled the world to God's self, and God has given us this ministry of reconciliation." That's what we read in II Corinthians. It sounds, at first, like God's reconciling act in Christ is a done deal--past tense--and the only part we play in it is to accept it or reject it, when actually as we read more, this work of God's reconciliation is something that is ongoing--present tense--something to which we continue to play a vital role. It is our ongoing work of reconciliation as followers of Christ that matters as well. In God, there's always one more chapter, one more verse, in the work and way of redemption and liberation. And you and I, we are a part of all that. As we proclaim my church, the United Church of Christ, God is still speaking.
You know, Jesus was asked more than once what must done to inherit eternal life. And he never gives the same answer. For Nicodemus, it seems, his salvation will come about when he experiences a radical rebirth, a new way of seeing God at work in the world and by refreshing his own understanding of what faith in God is all about. "You must be born from above," he tells Nicodemus.
But when Jesus was asked by a rich, young man, the very same question, Jesus responds differently. "You know the commandments," Jesus says: "Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother."
It sounds like here Jesus is saying the answer is to keep and follow the laws of God, as observant Jews had always attempted to do. And there's no conditional mention by Jesus here about belief in him as messiah. In fact, it's almost the opposite, because when the man addresses Jesus by the title "Good Teacher," it is almost as if Jesus scolds him for it. "Why do you call me good? Only God is good."
And to complicate matters, when the young man says he has kept the commandments since he was a little boy, Jesus doesn't congratulate him and welcome him into his heavenly reward--"Well done, good and faithful servant!" No, it's almost as if Jesus moves the goal line, making it even tougher on him.
"Well, you still lack one thing:" Jesus says, providing yet another, more complicated answer to this man's question about attaining eternal life. "Sell everything you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. And then come, follow me."
I think I prefer Jesus' first answer better, or maybe the one he offered Nicodemus. I don't know. It's all starting to sound pretty confusing and awfully demanding to me. But maybe there's another way to look at it altogether. Maybe, as much as we might like it to be, there is no single answer to that big question, as Jesus himself has demonstrated to us. The appropriate response from Jesus might just be tailor-made for you and for me, based on how each of needs to grow or needs to learn what we need to let go of or to take on or to trust is true.
God's word to us is not some single uniform blanket spread evenly over the whole world, with all the corners tucked in so tightly so that no one could possibly escape its cover; but maybe instead it's a deeply warm, personal and appropriate word for you, for me, for Nicodemus, for the rich, young ruler, for all of us, depending on what each of us needs. As Jesus says in this passage from John, we don't stand in future condemnation by a mean, vindictive God; we are condemned already, right now Jesus says, by our own individual choosing, by our own refusal to accept the idea of a God who throws love around like an overzealous flower girl at a marriage feast. It's our narrow mindset, our selfishness, our aimlessness--you fill in the blank--that condemns us already. We shun the light that has come into the world and prefer the darkness instead. We're doing it to ourselves; but most of us, understandably, find it easier to pin that blame on God.
I wonder, what does unbelief look like exactly? Maybe it looks different on each of us, and each of us wears our own measure of disbelief in our own way, and the work of salvation is to get honest with ourselves and with God about what that is for us.
Lord, I do believe, but help my unbelief.
As Pastor Rob Bell has said, "We all follow something."
What do you follow? Who do you follow? Do you know the answer to that?
This one thing I know for sure. While salvation is never handed out based on what we do or how we act or how much we give or even how passionately or rightly we believe, what does matter is this: The ultimate realization and acceptance of the fact that salvation is always God's doing, not ours, always. And that's the final, freeing moment when we can rest in assurance--assurance that we live and love and play and work and one day will inhale our last final breath all in the presence of that great Presence who receives us home in love.
Today is the fourth Sunday of Lent, which means we're now more than half-way through our 40-day fast and journey toward Easter. For centuries, this Sunday has been called Rose Sunday, signifying an old tradition where the Pope would send out roses to bishops, priests and churches throughout Rome and beyond to encourage the faithful and provide a moment of brief levity, if you will, in an otherwise somber stretch of days. In some traditions, clergy, instead of wearing the deep purple Lenten vestments to which we've become accustomed, today will be dressed in lighter rose-colored ones, and perhaps, like medieval popes, will be handing out roses or rose pedals of their own.
It's an ancient practice meant to remind us that despite the seriousness of faith, faith in God need not be a frightening, scary enterprise. The cause of faith is never served well by those who would try to scare you into God's arms. Never succumb to that kind of arm-twisting religion. For God is amazing grace, and faith in that God is liberating and beautiful; beautiful like a rose.
Perhaps then it's through beautiful rose-colored glasses, as St. Paul might advise us, that we should be reading this text for today and every day, "For God so loved the world that God gave God's only son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but have eternal, abundant life. Indeed, God did not send God's child into the world to condemn the world, but in order that all might be saved." That is a very good thing indeed. Amen.