Today’s Gospel includes one of the most iconic lines in the Bible, a line that has been broadcast on signs during NFL games, set to music by composers, a line that Martin Luther called “The Gospel in Miniature.” We will unpack the line in just a moment. First I want to talk about the context.
Because just as John chapter 3 verse 16 may be said to sum up the Gospel, our cultural reaction to the line may sum up the conundrum of being Christian today. We often forget about context. If you just read the one verse, you miss Nicodemus.
Don’t miss Nicodemus.
Our presiding Bishop likes to call this episode in the Gospel “Nick at Night” because Nicodemus comes under the cover of darkness. Jesus has a late night talk with a scholar, a leader, a teacher of Israel (notice how many titles are given to Nicodemus).
I need to pause here. Questions and curiosity are undervalued in Christianity. Christians, over the centuries, have developed an addiction to certainties. We want concrete, once and for all answers. We want to know we are right, and others are wrong. The Jewish tradition is more content, writ large, to wrestle with questions.
We have a difficulty understanding this text in our day in part because of the deep history of anti-Semitism through which we receive our tradition. How many of you reacted to that word “Pharisee?” Christians, for generations have been using the word “Pharisee” to talk about legalistic simplistic faith. Friends, this is a form of anti-semitism.
Modern Judaism traces its roots to the Pharisees. Our Rabbi-in-Residence Rori Picker Neiss, who will be in this pulpit in a couple of weeks, stands in the same tradition as Nicodemus. If Pharisee is a word you use to describe the overly righteous, I’d invite you to find a new word. Notice what Nicodemus calls Jesus in this story, “Rabbi.” Nicodemus honors Jesus. The two rabbis sit together and talk.
Like in many an exchange between rabbis we find wordplay. Jesus tells Nicodemus, “you must be born anew.” The word, “anew” in Greek is tricky. It can be translated “anew, or again,” but the word is a bit fluid, it can also be translated “you must be born from above.” Today though, I want to give you a third translation of the Greek. It is possible to translate Jesus’ words, “unless someone is born ‘from the Source’ it is not possible to see God’s Kingdom.” Unless someone is born from the Source.
Nicodemus’ next rabbinic question seeks to drive Jesus closer to his meaning. Nicodemus takes the broadest translation, again. “How can someone enter a mother’s womb again?” Jesus responds, and talks about being born of the Spirit. Water and the Spirit., clearly, a reference to baptism. But Jesus says “born of the Spirit” three times. This is why I think the translation, “unless someone is born from the Source, it is not possible to see God’s Kingdom” is potentially useful.
We need to get Loud about Love
Let’s pull back the lens from the text for a moment. This chapter of John, as I mentioned, does a lot of work in modern Christianity. How we read these verses, how we interpret this passage can tell us a lot about the kind of Christianity, the kind of faith, we practice. I know Christians who would walk out of this church if they heard me substitute “born from the Source” for “born again.” Don’t you? I’ve been arguing against a number of those Christians in Jefferson City in recent weeks.
The story we read today, the story about Nicodemus talking with Jesus under the cover of darkness, invites us to ask ourselves about faith. How many of us are covert about our Christianity? How many of us avoid calling ourselves “Christians” because of the agenda so often associated with that label?
Friends, I think our world needs us to get loud. I do. I think Missouri needs us to get loud about our faith, because in this church we believe that God is love. Full stop. In this church we believe that faith is about learning to embrace the excluded. Let’s be clear. God loves trans kids. God loves LGBTQ+ people. The Christian response is to listen, to learn, not to try and legislate people away. You can’t legislate people away, just like you can’t legislate history away. There is too much hate out there being espoused by so-called Christians. Our state needs some Christians who are willing to be loud about God’s love.
Now, one of our legislators is a member, so I’m going to save you all a phone call. Joe Adams knows, and he’s not going to vote for this nonsense. Since we saved you calling your legislator, I want you to call someone else. Call your cousins in rural counties, explain your opposition to don’t say gay bills. Call your fellow parents in your kids’ soccer league, write a letter to the editor together saying you oppose bans on trans kids playing sports. Call your supervisors at work ask the company to make a public statement against healthcare bans for trans youth. If those asks make you nervous, you can tell them your pastor told you do it, and it’s Lent, so you basically have to call.
Nicodemus was nervous. He was nervous that his faith might make him socially unacceptable. At this point in the Gospel, Nicodemus isn’t willing to sacrifice his sense of security for his expanding sense of what God might be doing. But there is hope for Nicodemus. Stay tuned. Come back in Holy Week.
Born from the Source: Facing our Hurts
Before I conclude, I want to return to this idea of “born from the Source.” I also want to cover that weird story about the snake on a stick. “Just as Moses lifted up a serpent in the desert,” Jesus says, “the son of Man must be lifted up.” The Book of Numbers tells the story of the bronze serpent. The Israelites, after complaining in the desert, are faced with poisonous serpents. The Bible tells us that many people died. Moses made a bronze serpent and lifted it on a pole. The people who were willing to look upon the serpent lived.
Often this is interpreted simplistically by Christians. You just have to believe in Jesus, as if that was a clear proposition. Wouldn’t be nice if “following Jesus” was just a one time intellectual decision. My sense is that Jesus is always more complex.
The best modern interpretation I know of this story is psychoanalytical. A lot of work is done in therapy to get to the “source” of our troubles, to move past denial, past repression, suppression, all the ways we hide from the truth. Some scholars have wondered if this is the function of the bronze serpent. God says to the people, you have to look at the source of your pain in order to move past it. You have to face that which is killing you. As the folks who come to this building each week for 12 step programs can tell you, the first step is admitting you have a problem.
In that sense, Christ’s cross saves precisely because humanity has a problem. We are addicted to violence. We are addicted to hatred. We are addicted to control.
Jon Sobrino, the Salvadoran liberation theologian, talks about the crucified people. Our power systems around race, and money, and gender, and nationality, and sexuality, continue the legacy of violence Jesus knew in his own day. Too often we are unwilling to look upon the victims.
As Christians, as people who lift high the cross, we bear a specific need of repentance. We’ve allowed a faith which is supposed to teach us solidarity with victims to become a justification for victimizers. Christianity is meant to take us to the foot of Christ’s cross, yes. And our faith is a call to stand at the foot of all the crosses of our own day. Our faith invites us to stand with those who are shut out, who are judged. Christians stand with people when their humanity is questioned, when their lives are under threat. That’s what it means to look on the cross.
We have to be willing to go to the sources of suffering, our own and those of our neighbors. We have to be willing to go to the sources of pain because we believe that no source of suffering has the final word. All the power of the corrupt Roman regime did not have the final word. Hate and violence do not have the final word. The cross did not have the final word.
Love is the final word. Jesus wants each person to know, your birth in this tribe or that tribe isn’t what makes you worthy. Whatever happened to you when you were a kid, the bad decision you are still paying for as an adult, that isn’t who you are, not truly. Be born from the source. Know, know that you are loved by God. Help your neighbor know, the bigotry of some Christians is not from God. God is love. God’s love is the deepest source. God’s love is who we are called to be in this world.
What does John 3:16 actually mean?
John 3:16 says, “God so loved the world.” Too often this verse, like so much of Christianity, is used like a bludgeon. Too often the emphasis is put on the dependent clause about “those who believe in him.” That’s not the emphasis, even the translation “believe” is tricky. The Greek is closer to “those who trust in him.” But that isn’t the emphasis of the famous verse. The emphasis is the first phrase. It is on God’s cause for action not on our response. I really wish those signboards and football games said John 3:16-17. “God so loved the world…which echoes in the next verse…”that the world might be saved.” . The world here in Greek is Cosmos. This isn’t some limited idea of the world. It’s not limited to my congregation, to my denomination, to my view. No, God’s love doesn’t act on our small agenda. God won’t save just an elite handful who hold the right beliefs. God’s love encompasses the cosmos.
The “Gospel in Miniature” is nothing less than God’s love, which has the power to save. God’s love has the power to save us from one another, from all the ways we persecute and pursue power. God’s love has the power to save us from ourselves, if we are willing to move past the source of our pain and toward the Source of all life and love. That Source is available to you, in every moment. Even when the world feels dark. Especially when the world feels unjust, God’s love is there, waiting for you to step out of the shadows. God so loved the world, the world. Amen.