3 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesus[a] 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.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”[b]4 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?” 5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.[c] 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You[d] must be born from above.’[e] 8 The wind[f] 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.” 9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you[g]do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.[h] 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.[i]
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.
17 “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.
There’s a lot going on in today’s reading from John’s Gospel. And I mean A LOT! This passage, filled with images both familiar and odd, can be a lot to take in. St. Augustine chose an eagle to represent St. John because he felt the theology of the Fourth Evangelist soared so high above the other gospels, but sometimes it reaches heights that can be hard for many of us – both in the pulpit and in the pew – to follow.
My guess is that amid the imagery of water and Spirit and the serpent lifted up in the wilderness and all the rest. Typically when we hear this text our attention is drawn to two places in particular.
The first, may be the language about being “born from above” (NRSV) or “born again” (NIV). 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 can be truly Christian apart from an emotional experience or public acceptance of Christ.
The second – touch point for us will likely be 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 have eternal life.” Luther called this verse “the gospel in a nutshell” and it has served that way for so many of our people, signaling God’s profound love for us and indicating the depths to which God would go to convey that love. It too, however, has sometimes served as a wedge between those who believe and are saved and those who do not and, some conclude, must therefore perish and not have eternal life.
The 16th verse has been used as a wedge between the saved and the unsaved. This very familiar verse has been used to determine who is in and who is out, But….I don’t think the passage is complete unless you read through verse 17: “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.
Reading just one more verse offers a larger context and indeed elaborates on the “motive” for God’s sending of the Son. In particular, lest we be confused that God sends the Son out of love – which is of course where v. 16 begins! – in verse 17, we hear the clear explanation, affirmation, and indeed repetition that the Son was not sent to condemn but to save. 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.
Along these lines, it helpful to remember that the Greek word for “world” – kosmos – designates throughout the rest of John’s Gospel an entity that is hostile to God (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. And that audacious, unexpected, even crazy character of God’s love is probably why it saves!
This more expansive sense of Gods’ saving love might come across as a particularly timely and even poignant word given the threats of late made against Jewish brothers and sisters whose cemeteries have been desecrated and community centers threatened and amid the increased animosity directed toward Muslim brothers and sisters in the years since 9-11 and more recently. If God’s love is for all, then we who have experienced that love in Christ are called to see persons of other faiths (and no faith) through the lens of that profound and surprising love.
Recently I came across the text of a 1790 letter from George Washington addressed to a Jewish synagogue in Rhode Island. Recognizing that Washington’s faith was shaped by both 18th century Deism and the creedal Christianity of his day, I found his words both stirring to me as an American and deeply resonant with the faith I profess as a follower of Jesus:
It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.
What a grand vision for this nation in its first years and as it nears its two-hundred-and fiftieth: that ours will be a government and people that “gives bigotry no sanction and persecution no assistance.” It is a vision, I think, that corresponds well with Jesus’ words in the 16th and 17th verses of this important chapter of John’s Gospel.
In this week’s passage, we find a bold declaration that God loves us… and that God loves the whole world. And in that affirmation, we also find a calling to extend that love to everyone we encounter. There can be and will be, I believe, no better way to witness to our faith and invite others to our fellowship.