Genesis 12:1-4a, John 3:1-17
Ana Carter Florence wrote that John 3 is like the ballet world’s Nutcracker. It’s a “pulpit classic that comes with the territory.” We know why. It has that familiar verse, John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish, but have eternal life.” We see John 3:16 as bumper stickers or signs held up at sporting events. Of course, that is a message for insiders. Who outside the faithful would know what John 3:16 means? An evangelism tool it is not! It’s insider lingo – that may, ultimately, put off the outsider.
And, of course, John 3:16 follows that passage that speaks of “being born again.” That phrase has become an internal weapon. A seminary friend spoke about being challenged by someone else in the school. “Have you been born again?” he asked her – with anger. I suspect his anger was rooted in the fact that she was studying for the ministry – a fact he was sure demonstrated the truth that she had, in fact, not been born again. So we have all of that baggage to consider as we wrestle with what this passage might mean for us today.
Then, at first hearing or reading, it may seem that this gospel story has little to say on the subject of fear. But fear is present. It’s present in the way this passage is often used today – as a weapon, as a means of judging others, leaving them to wonder if they have standing in God’s presence. Fear is also present in the story. Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews, came to Jesus at night, under the cover of darkness. That tells us something. Nicodemus was afraid. George Stroup says that we can be sure it was no easy thing for Nicodemus to search out Jesus. In fact, it might have been dangerous for him to do so. He was a leader in the community. And the Jewish establishment, of which he was part, saw Jesus “first as a nuisance and later as a political threat”.
Nicodemus came to Jesus at night so that he would not be seen by those who had more power than he had -- or even by his peers. He, too, was afraid of judgment – the judgment of others. Stroup says that Nicodemus had to be careful. In that he is like many who followed him who sensed that they needed to practice their faith with caution.
Deborah Kapp says that whenever we enter a mainline church today we find Nicodemus – in each other. She notes that being a mainline Protestant is “not trendy.” We might be careful about proclaiming faith when the loudest voices around us – speaking in the name of Christianity – promote, proclaim, and promulgate a message that is so contrary to what we might understand to be the essence of the gospel. Voices stridently proclaim dismissive judgment; we hear God’s words of forgiveness, mercy and transformation. Voices stridently proclaim an authoritarian God who demands obedience; we hear stories of God’s invitation to live according to God’s good intent. Voices stridently proclaim that only certain people are allowed within God’s circle; we read the Biblical witness that tells us of outsiders being the means of God’s grace and of God’s command to welcome the stranger. Voices stridently proclaim that God helps those who help themselves and, therefore, society is not responsible for those who are struggling; we hear of God’s command to care for the vulnerable. Society hears the word Christian and thinks of those strident voices. They think judgment, dismissal, blind obedience, narrowness and fear. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be identified with that understanding of Christianity. So, it’s easier to practice our faith privately – without risking being associated with a message that many disparage.
Kapp said if we look around our churches, we see Nicodemus. John Calvin, during the reformation, went further. Stroup wrote that Calvin called those who sympathized with the reform movement, but didn’t want to be known for that sympathy, Nicodemites. Stroup went on to suggest that being Nicodemites can lead to grave consequences. In Nazi Germany the church accommodated itself to the prevailing racism and anti-Semitism of the day. Can we not see that in our own day? The strident voices are almost indistinguishable from the biases of the culture around them. It’s too easy to forget that no human society lives up to the values of God’s realm – and that we are to be the transforming leaven in the midst –proclaiming the values of God’s realm. It’s too easy to speak of faith as something private and personal – something that supports and strengthens us for everyday living. Another minister spoke, years ago, about changing his preaching style. “My congregation just wants to know how to live as good people,” he said. “So that’s my new focus. How are you a good husband? Or a good wife? How do you spend your money? How do you budget?” His focus was on a personal faith – a common emphasis in our society evident in the question, “Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?”
Now, there’s nothing wrong with the personal aspects of faith. But, it may not be an adequate faith. Such an approach “compartmentalizes” faith, according to Kapp. Faith is kept in a sphere that has little public impact.
Nicodemus was afraid. He was afraid of the predominant voices. Perhaps he was afraid of stepping outside the treasured traditions that had given shape to his entire life. So he came to Jesus under the cover of darkness.
“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one can do the signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” In Jesus he had seen something. He had seen the signs. The word “sign” is important in John’s gospel. It points to the active presence of God.
The traditional reading or hearing of this story speaks of Jesus' impatience as Nicodemus struggles to comprehend what Jesus means when he speaks of being born anew. After years of telling this story, I hear it differently. I hear Jesus affirming Nicodemus and inviting him to expand his vision, deepen his understanding.
“No one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God,” Nicodemus said. Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
Nicodemus has seen the signs of God’s presence. What if Jesus, instead of critiquing Nicodemus, is affirming his ability to see. The signs were evidence of the kingdom being present. Perhaps Jesus was saying to Nicodemus that he had already been born anew, proved by his ability to see the signs and know that God was present.
One of the problems of the focus on being “born again” is that it implies that this is something we have to do for ourselves (as individuals) in order to be made right with God. Instead, Jesus is telling Nicodemus that being born anew or born from above is God’s work and God’s gift. And, I think he is saying this is a gift that has already been given to you! God has already done what is necessary. Now all Nicodemus has to do is accept that reality.
Yet, he can’t – at least not yet. He accepts the world’s realities as the only possible narrative. “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” The world has its grip on Nicodemus. He is bound by his limited vision and his fear that whatever Jesus brings – even the realm of God—it is not enough for him to move from the darkness into the light. He can’t go public with his private perception that Jesus is, himself, a sign of God’s presence. Kapp says that Jesus is telling Nicodemus that his faith is incomplete – perhaps too compartmentalized. And Jesus is giving him – not a command – but an invitation to allow God to work in his life, more fully. She writes: “Jesus invites Nicodemus, as he invites each of us, to come into the light of day and become mature believers, full participants in the abundant life he offers. Jesus knows that neither Nicodemus nor contemporary believers can do this on their own. It is God who will give birth in water and Spirit. Rebirth is God’s gift to give, God’s work to accomplish, and it is God who labors to bring us new life.”
“God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” I’d almost rather use that verse, John 3:17, than John 3:16 – because it moves us from the personal and private to a broader vision. It moves us from thinking about my relationship to God or your relationship to God to our relationship to God and to God’s intent for the whole of human society. To move from darkness to light is to move from private to public. Stroup suggests that believing in Jesus is more than what happens in our minds. It is “what one does with one’s heart and one’s life.” Verse 21 from this chapter says, “Those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” Stroup says that “believing and doing are inseparable.”
“Do not be afraid, Nicodemus.” We’re not told that Jesus said that, but I think it’s implied. “Do not be afraid. God has re-birthed you! You are born of water and spirit, so God is with you! See the kingdom – and proclaim your recognition with words and deeds. Let God lead you.”
Kapp wonders if the church today – the mainline church – is an institutionalized version of Nicodemus—“people and institutions with compartmentalized faiths that flourish behind the scenes, out of sight, away from the fray, essentially in private.” We strive to keep the faith but do so without confronting and speaking to the distortions that injure and oppress others. So, we need to hear Jesus’ invitation to Nicodemus to move into the light – and align ourselves with the God who comes not to condemn, but to save, not to destroy, but to transform. Our voices are needed. Our deeds can and should bear witness to the God who loved and loves the world – and all its people.
My seminary friend, when asked if she had been born again, replied, “Each and every day I am being born anew. It’s not a once and for all thing.” I think she understood it as the new life offered by God through Christ – something to which we aspire in our living, in our deeds and in our words. We are invited to be born anew into the values and the ways of God’s realm.