by Ellen Sims
I’ve preached on this Gospel text umpteen times. And for the umpteenth time, something new has snagged me, and I want it to snag you. But first I feel obligated to comment on the best-known verse in all of John, perhaps in all the Bible, because this verse is often misused to claim that only “born again” Christians will find eternal life in God. John 3:16 is used by many as a talisman against hell, as a secret password (four letters, three numbers, and one punctuation mark) to get into heaven. In the King James Version it reads: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Many of us have heard this verse interpreted to mean that God loves the world, but God also condemns sinners to hell, and all of us have sinned. That is why a sinless Jesus willingly suffered and died in our stead, and we saved from hell through him IF we “believe” this is true.
More needs to be unpacked about this popular but harmful soteriology. But most of you have previously heard my objections to this interpretation of John 3:16, especially the corrective that “believing” in Jesus isn’t an intellectual act. John’s Gospel doesn’t mean individuals must agree to a theological statement about Jesus or to a church doctrine. “Believe” in this context, as Marcus Borg explained, means “setting your heart toward something.” To believe in Jesus is better translated as to “belove” him. Jesus saves us from unloving thoughts and attitudes and actions and a sick theology when we accept and emulate God’s love, which is at the heart of this passage, which is the means and goal of salvation: to LOVE with all our hearts, souls, and minds, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. All three of the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) attest this was Jesus’s “mission statement.” As a Jew, he was affirming the truth of Deuteronomy 6:4-7, which says love of God and “neighbor” as the summation of all the law and the prophets. And that’s how this old world will be saved. For God so LOVED the whole world (not just Christians, a group that didn’t exist until years after Jesus was crucified). John 3:16 begins by asserting God’s love. And this verse is followed by an insistence (just in case we willfully misunderstand) that God’s purpose for Jesus was not to die, and not to condemn anyone, but to show this world the means of our salvation and what life is like in the loving kin*dom of God.
Friends, a wise and loving God would not send God’s creation into perdition for failing to comprehend a theological concept, an idea that millions of people have never heard of and never will. I repeat this point about once a year because it’s been liberating for me and because its message of LOVE gets buried in the tomb with Jesus, and because, for some Christians, it is NEVER released into this world through the resurrection story. The core of Jesus’s message is that the kin*dom of God (John 3:3, 3:5) is already here–but yet not fully. To live in that kin*dom is the way of salvation, and to contribute to the kin*dom’s emergence is our call. Jesus responds to the befuddled Nicodemus with: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can [even] see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Being able to envision this invisible kingdom of LOVE takes something like a rebirth to remove this world’s filters and become a new person who follows the Jesus Way.
Having dutifully attended to John 3:16 for this year, I’m going to share now, briefly, what has surprisingly snagged me afresh in this familiar story this time. It comes in the first phrase of the second sentence of today’s Gospel text: “He came to Jesus by night.” Nicodemus came to Jesus by night. I have been wondering all week in what sense you and I have, like Nicodemus, approached Jesus “by night.”
Some of us figuratively meet Jesus “in the dark” by coming here surreptitiously. Having given up on church long ago, some of us are reluctant to tell friends we’re dabbling in Christianity again. We’re skittish about church and hide the fact that we’re attending church after all the complaints we’ve made about churches that have harmed us or others, after all the cynicism that has helped us distance ourselves from a Jesus who was weaponized against us. So we’re meeting Jesus here under cover of dark, so to speak, on the sly, tentatively, in hopes no one else discovers we might be rethinking the whole Jesus thing. To use another Marcus Borg phrase, some of us are “meeting Jesus again for the first time.” I don’t know about you, but for me, that experience has been thrilling.
But some of us are not yet ready to admit that to ourselves, much less to others. Which is fine. There is something healthy about warily approaching Jesus with skeptical questions like those Nicodemus posed: “How can anyone be born who has grown old” and “How can these things be?” Hey, we LOVE questions here. Open Table’s first curriculum was the Living the Questions series. We expect to LIVE the questions rather than answer them smugly, tritely, simplistically. Jesus handled lots of tough questions, is ready to hear ours today, and is happy for us to keep chewing on the questions.
Others of us have met Jesus “in the darkness” of Christian literalism. Nicodemus, too, was a literalist. The weakness Jesus exposed in him is the very problem we see in many Christians today. When Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above,” Nicodemus replied, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus might have sighed or smiled at the learned religious leader’s lack of imagination and poverty of poetry. Because religion can easily get boiled down to a set of rules and restrictions and rituals, and since getting religion “right” has high stakes, many people prefer religious instruction that is as clear and fail-proof as the directions for microwaving a frozen dinner. But what if Jesus doesn’t give out maps for our spiritual journeys? What if spiritual maturity requires the wisdom that comes from personal experiences and probing self-examination, not GPS directions? Jesus isn’t trying to give Nicodemus a puzzle to solve, though his words do puzzle and frustrate the religious leader who recognizes God at work through Jesus but wants a simple set of directions for accessing God for himself. Jesus’s response just frustrates the literalist.
Finally, some of us, like Nicodemus, have hoped to encounter Jesus alone. The solitary Nicodemus came by night because, presumably, he wanted no one else to know he was seeking Jesus. Nicodemus, although “a leader of the Jews,” is on his own. Certainly spiritual journeys are often solitary experiences. They require soul searching and silence for an inward journey, but ultimately spiritual journeys connect us to others. Some of us have come to this Jesusy place after experiences of rejection, so we are holding others at a distance. These folks try to meet Jesus alone. But Jesus was creating community, recruiting the Twelve, and attracting thousands eventually. And then sending those he healed back to their communities to be reintegrated there. Nicodemus wanted a private audience with the big guy to get the magic cure for his aching spirit—and then carry the Jesus stuff around inside him so it could be business as usual. But the kin*dom of God is radically communal. We are to pray: “OUR Father/Mother who art in heaven. Hallowed be thy name. Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give US this day OUR daily bread and forgive US our trespasses as WE forgive those who trespass against US. . . .”
Perhaps the Jesus Way is communal because the hardest lessons are learned in the messiness of human relationships–and because the deepest blessings are received through the tenderness of human relationships. The “kin*dom” is about messed up folks helping each other listen for God and forgiving each others’ brokenness. The Jesus magic happens when we stick with it long enough to really listen and learn from other sinners. We will often fail one another. But each time we hang in there and push through the hard stuff, we will reach a new level of love and get a larger glimpse of the kin*dom.
A hymn I love includes this verse affirming the necessity of companionship on the Jesus Journey:
We are travelers on a journey, fellow pilgrims on the road.
We are here to help each other walk the mile, and bear the load.
I will hold the Christlight for you in the nighttime of your fear.
I will hold my hand out to you, speak the peace you long to hear.. (Richard Gillard)
After Jesus’s crucifixion, Nicodemus had a role to play. Let’s jump ahead 16 chapters to John 19:38-40:
38 After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. 39 Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. 40 They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews.
Here is Nicodemus, companioned now by Joseph of Arimathea, no longer alone, no longer lurking in the dark but risking association with the executed Jesus, giving Jesus a costly burial that seems poetic in its details.
Jesus has died.
Has Nicodemus been reborn?
Lord Jesus Christ, we prefer to seek you under cover of dark, but you point us toward the light. We want to understand your kin*dom in literal terms, so your grand vision eludes us. We desire a very private journey with you, and then you put fellow pilgrims in our path. We hope you know what you’re doing. Help us to be part of your now and coming kin*dom. Amen