Throughout the rest of the Lent, we’re going to be jumping around a bit through the Gospels – we won’t just stick to Matthew as we did before lent. Today, is our first foray into the Gospel of John. Starting in the 3rd chapter, we’ll examine the story of Nicodemus – and our reading this morning will include the most famous of verses: John 3:16.
But, before we get to the Scripture reading, I first want to talk a little bit about the Gospel of John, to help provide context for what we are about to hear. So, first, let’s discuss the purpose of this particular book of the Bible: the 20th chapter of the Gospel of John describes the book as a collection of the signs Jesus did in the presence of the disciples so that the reader might come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing, we might have life in Christ’s name. Though the gospel writer waits until the very end to reveal this purpose, we have the benefit of hindsight and we can approach the text listening to each account, listening to each story told, and trust that it is carefully placed within the text to illuminate unique aspects or elements of God’s power in and love for the world through Jesus Christ.
Now, the Gospel of John was the last Gospel written, and it was written in a specific Christian community in the late 1st century. At the time, Christians were undergoing painful separation from the Jewish community to which its members had belonged. And, you can imagine this group – devout in their faith yet allowing themselves to be reformed as they experienced God in new ways. This community of believers, this community of ‘Out Christians’ felt alienated from the only world they knew. They endured expulsion, disciplinary action from the synagogue authorities for their belief in the risen Christ. For some, this punishment only emboldened their confession of belief while others remained in the synagogues as secret Christians.
So as we read this text with an understanding of this climate of tension, we can see how the Gospel of John was written to inspire members of the community to maintain their belief during a troubled time. It was written to encourage its readers and hearers – it has language that believers, and nonbelievers alike, might find attractive. It includes vivid imagery portraying Jesus as Light of the World and Bread of Life and the language used throughout the gospel is incredibly rich in symbolism as it carries subtle shades of meaning. I encourage you to pay attention to the time of day the story is taking place – for a population oppressed, for a ‘closeted Christian,’ encounters with Jesus taking place under the cover of night speak directly to their experiences of believing in a ‘God With Us’ while encounters in the day time offer great and powerful hope for the kingdom yet to come.
Another important aspect of this Gospel to remember is that by the time this Gospel was written, ideas about Jesus already had begun to evolve. For this first century Christian community, their memories of Jesus, their ideas and beliefs about his ministry, changed after Jesus’ life on earth. As it goes with all history, details become embellished or forgotten however the foundational themes grow stronger and are understood in new ways and the Gospel of John describes this evolution as the work of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, the Gospel focuses on the belief that in Jesus, God entered into human history to save human beings, to love them and to show that God’s love will triumph – and this theme takes center-stage throughout the Gospel – the details playing a supporting role.
So, with this context in mind, let’s get to it. We’re going to start in on the Gospel of John, beginning in the 3rd chapter. We will read the first 17 verses of the chapter.
Let us pray: So that we may come to believe, O God, open our hearts and our minds to your gracious presence. Reveal to us your wisdom and love as we reflect upon your Word. Amen.
John 3: 1-17
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished 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.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
‘Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
‘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.
‘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 is the Word of God for the People of God. Thanks be to God.
So, I want to start from the end of our text and work our way back. I want to start here because, well, this is where a lot of Christians start – or at least, this is the starting block for a lot of Christians who seek to evangelize in public venues. Billboards over highways, at football games and protests and concerts, poster boards and placards are lifted high by the hands of Christians with the words “John 3:16” emblazoned across them. It is, potentially, the most famous verse in the Bible, so, we will start with John 3:16 – ‘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.’
As a stand alone verse, in general American Christian culture – and worldwide, John 3:16 has been used as the basis for a doctrine of salvation that suggests that to be a recipient of God’s love, there is a requirement one must fulfill. To be a recipient of God’s love, to have eternal life, to be “saved,” one must “believe in him.” Based on one verse of Scripture, standing alone with no other context, a doctrine of salvation has been born that claims that some will perish and others will have eternal life depending on the action of the person – and unfortunately, in general parlance, this doctrine has twisted the story of Nicodemus from being one that signals God’s desire to be in relationship with all people, to being a platform that “justifies damnation for unbelievers, perpetuates our myopic musings about God, and validates our hubris” (Karoline Lewis). So, let’s take a step back and place John 3:16 back into the context of the whole story.
Being mindful that the purpose of the Gospel of John is so that we might come to believe, it is important to look at the character of Nicodemus and the setting in which Nicodemus and Jesus meet, and listen for what we might learn about believing through Nicodemus.
So, Nicodemus – he is one of the few named Pharisees in the biblical text. He was a leader in the Jewish community, a teacher, a well-respected and educated man. Throughout the Gospel of John, Nicodemus makes a total of 3 appearances in the text – first here, in the cover of night, asking questions, seeking understanding. Then, his second appearance is in the 7th chapter when Jesus was teaching in the temple and the crowds were growing restless. The Pharisees were gathered and challenged the temple police to arrest Jesus for the things he was saying when Nicodemus pipes up to suggest that they withhold judgement of Jesus until they go through the process of a hearing, in accordance with Jewish law. And then, finally, in the 19th chapter, Nicodemus publicly aligns himself with Jesus as he assists Joseph of Arimathea in removing Christ’s body from the cross and burying him, bringing with him nearly 100 pounds of spices to anoint his body.
Throughout the Gospel of John, Nicodemus is a character of evolution, of growth, of journey. He does not represent the experience of a moment-in-time conversion, rather Nicodemus represents the experience of developing faith slowly, over time. Nicodemus signifies what it is to “believe” – defining the word as a verb, an ongoing action – not to be confused with “come to belief” which functions more like a noun, like a destination one has arrived at. Rather, Nicodemus represents for us a life-long relationship of believing – one in which he is committed to seek understanding, one in which doubt has a place, faith is practiced and hope can be leaned upon. He represents for us the stages or experiences of maturation of faith in and devotion to God through the thoughtful development and growth of relationship with Jesus over time. He represents for us our vulnerability to God’s presence in the world – Nicodemus was a leader in his community, he was susceptible to God’s intervention, he was vulnerable to the power and might of a God who entered into time and space through Christ and Nicodemus was willing to be changed by it, albeit over time.
So, let’s take a closer look at this first interaction Nicodemus has with Jesus. Under the cover of night, Nicodemus approaches Jesus. Remember here, the time of day is significant to the Gospel of John – this time of day signifies that there is a level of secrecy, a measure of timidity and a desire to hide this interaction from others. Nicodemus, a leader in the Jewish community, seeks out Jesus quietly, privately, secretly, and under the cover of darkness, admits that he recognizes God’s power through Christ. Nicodemus says, “no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” And, then, they have a rather clumsy conversation about being born of the Spirit. Or rather, with the illusions of baptism, Jesus begins to lay out for Nicodemus the importance of a public profession of faith that Jesus is the Son of God and that through him, all are not condemned but saved – and Nicodemus clumsily seeks to understand. As someone who has experienced coming out of a proverbial closet before (both as a lesbian and a person of faith), I can appreciate the nerves Nicodemus must have been feeling in this interaction with Jesus – curious yet apprehensive, exhilarated yet fearful of consequences – all ingredients for a clumsy conversation partner.
Seeing in Nicodemus his desire to believe, Jesus compassionately explains to him the difference between believing in the theory of the Son of God and believing faithfully that through Jesus, God’s love is made known to the whole world. Jesus articulates for Nicodemus the importance of being born of the Spirit – of being made new in the waters of the Spirit. That faith is not a noun – but that faith and believing come in the form of active and ongoing relationship with God in the world. And, like we do today, the practiced ritual that acknowledges our identity as a child of God, acknowledges that we are made new by the presence and love made known to the world through Jesus, is baptism – and in our text this morning, in this secretive place, under the cover of darkness, Jesus invites Nicodemus to consider what baptism might mean for him – what believing out loud might mean for him and for the whole world.
Church, Nicodemus didn’t meet Jesus and immediately come out as a Christian – other characters in the Gospel of John represent that experience – but Nicodemus represents the experience of growing in a life-long relationship with Jesus. Nicodemus represents the risks worth taking – he invites us to consider what it means to relinquish privilege for the sake of recognizing that all human beings are children of God. He represents the evolution possible for our hearts of stone to return to flesh, for our deeply ingrained habits to be disrupted, for our pride to be made humble, for our life to be made new. And, in this season of Lent, on this journey to Jerusalem, this first meeting between Jesus and Nicodemus challenges us to consider what it means to believe in Jesus as the Son of God – not simply to come to belief, but to the life-long endeavor of believing that God’s love is so powerful that not even injustice, not even violence, not even doubt, not even death can overcome God’s saving grace. In the cover of darkness, we are challenged to take stock of what risks we have yet to take, what fears we have yet to confront, what prayers we have yet to pray. And, we are invited to listen, once again, to the miraculous and wildly inclusive words of Jesus – ‘For God so loved the world that [God] gave [the Begotten] Son, so that everyone who believes may not perish but may have eternal life.
‘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.” Thanks be to God. Amen.