Learning to Believe – a homily on John 3:1-17

If you’re anything like me, you were caught by surprise at the end of this passage. Here we are listening to an interesting story about Nicodemus and some confusing dialogue, and all of a sudden John 3:16 pops up out of nowhere! I sometimes forget this verse is from the Bible, and not just a bumper sticker or a highway billboard. But the fact is that this verse, which has become so embedded in our psyche and memory, IS in the Bible, and is specifically found in the middle of this story. As iconic as this verse is, we find it in a particular context, which adds to, and I believe transforms, our understanding of it. We may find that this verse means something less than we thought it did, and at the same time that it may mean more than we ever thought it could. This is passage is full of “christian-ese” phrases and verses, but they come to us in a story about an aspiring believer learning how to believe.

We are introduced immediately to Nicodemus, who is a recurring character in John’s gospel, and who, we quickly come to find out, is a complex individual much like ourselves. He is introduced to us as a Pharisee, a leader of the Jews, and later a teacher of Israel. We are led to believe he is a very significant Jewish leader, perhaps a member of the Sanhedrin. The passage tells us that he comes to Jesus by night, which many have interpreted to mean that he is afraid to be seen with Jesus. However, it was not uncommon for Pharisees to do their studies late into the night, and even to hold discourse and debate into the later hours of the evening. Which I suppose means that when I was a college student, I had far more in common with the Pharisees than I ever thought!

For John, light and dark, day and night mean something else entirely. Throughout the Gospel, darkness is a symbol for misunderstanding, and light is the symbol for wisdom and knowledge of God’s kingdom breaking through into the darkness. So perhaps John is emphasizing that Nicodemus is coming to Jesus from a place of naivety or “unknowing”. This makes his first words rather ironic. Nicodemus says, “Rabbi” or teacher. Himself, a teacher, Nicodemus acknowledges Jesus’ authority as a teacher. But then Nicodemus leads off his statement with the words, “We know.” Nicodemus is about to tell Jesus what he knows, and is hoping for some kind of affirmation, or maybe a congratulatory sticker. But Jesus’ response is far from what Nicodemus is expecting. Instead of a “Way to go, slugger!”, Jesus’ response throws us into a confusing dialogue. Nicodemus says, “We know”, and Jesus essentially responds, “Eh…no you don’t.” Jesus catches Nicodemus from his point of knowing and makes him listen to something he can’t understand.

Jesus responds saying, “Very truly,” which is the English way of translating what in the Greek actually says, “Amen, amen”. This is the first of many “double amens” in John, a device that is used to call to attention and focus. Jesus says that no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above, suggesting that while the kingdom is very real and present and active, not everyone can see it. This is the verse from which we get the phrase “born again”, another possible but less likely translation. This phrase has in our day taken a life of its own, often used as a distinguishing mark for Christians. Are you born again? Are you a born again Christian?  And the phrase is usually used to emphasize a choice that a person made, to “accept Jesus into their heart”, making them born again. And in the Wesleyan tradition we do affirm a choice, that we choose God knowing that God has chosen us. But I’m forced to tell you this morning that this passage is not about us and the choice that we make. Being born from above in this text is not about the decision that we make, but it’s about the response to God’s work in us already. As one commentary put it, this passage is about the fact of new birth, not the human experience of it.

But Nicodemus misses this point out of confusion. He thinks Jesus is referring to actual birth. He is once again shown that his place of knowing is falling out from under him. We are reminded that among those who believe in Jesus, not everyone believes rightly. Another phrase that comes to mind used to describe Christians today is “believers”. We are known as people who believe, and that’s definitely not a bad thing. But Nicodemus is a person who believes, and yet he is shown here as being naïve. If this were the last we heard of Nicodemus, we might think that he never truly “got it”. But as I said earlier, Nicodemus is a recurring character, and later in John we see him defending Jesus’ case among the Pharisees, and helping Joseph of Arimethea to put Jesus’ body in the tomb. Nicodemus is not just the “believer” or the guy who misunderstood Jesus. Nicodemus is a work in progress. And aren’t we all? Perhaps as important, or even more important, than initially believing or understanding is growing and maturing in our faith. Because believing is something we do once. Growing and maturing is something we never stop doing, and just like being born from above, it is something that God does in us more than we do on our own.

Now that Nicodemus has expressed his misunderstanding and confusion, Jesus goes on to say: “No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.” As if we weren’t in the dark enough already… But we’re reminded that since this is God’s work and not our own, it cannot be broken down and described in “8 simple steps to being born from above”. When we’re dealing with God, it is often the case that we don’t understand all that is going on, and frankly I think we ought to prefer it that way.

But it is interesting that Jesus uses birth as the primary metaphor for this change. At the time of this gospel’s writing, there was a heavy emphasis among Jews, early Christians, and even some of the heresies beginning to emerge, on a person’s “origin”. It was believed for the most part that a person or thing is ultimately determined by their origin, where they come from. And I’m convinced that this is still true today. We were all told growing up that we could be anything we want to be when we grow up, yet most people lead pretty predictable lives. Those who grow up poor tend to stay that way, and most people live in the same geographical region their whole lives. We celebrate those people who come from obscurity and find success because, generally, it’s not the norm, and socially speaking, it’s very hard to do. Where you are born, typically, can say a lot fairly accurately about what the rest of your life is going to look like.

So for Jesus to speak of the kingdom of God as a new birth is very interesting. If identity is so closely tied to origin, what might happen if one could be given a new origin altogether? And if that origin is “from above”, as Jesus suggests, what might it mean for the rest of our lives to be shaped by our new location of origin?

As I was thinking about origins this week, I was reminded that Jesus’ origin, in this gospel of John, is described very differently than in the other gospels. Matthew and Luke have their versions of the birth narrative, but John does something very different. John’s gospel opens with: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.”

So John tells us that Jesus’ origin goes back all the way to the beginning, to God’s original act of creation, and even before. And we are reminded here on Trinity Sunday that to be born anew, to be born from above, is to find our own new beginning right there as well. And we therefore find our new story and our new identity wrapped up in what God has been doing all along.

From this point on, Jesus begins to describe what it might mean to begin understanding the “heavenly things”. There is an interesting allusion to a story of Moses and a serpent, which may not be familiar to all of us. The story goes that in the wilderness, the Israelites were attacked by poisonous snakes, but God provided a way that they could be healed. Moses lifted a snake up onto a pole, and whoever looked upon that snake was healed. This is in anticipation, of course, that Jesus will be lifted up on the cross, and by that act, all might be saved. There is an irony at play here, though. This conversation began with a Jewish leader acknowledging that their God, Yahweh, was at work in Jesus, and allowed him to do great works. He might even compare Jesus to Moses himself. But Jesus, rather than comparing himself to Moses, is more like the snake that Moses lifted up in the desert. We are again confounded by God’s ways of accomplishing God’s goals for humanity, and reminded that God is always behaving in unpredictable and new ways.

And now we come to John 3:16 and 17. “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.” Jesus gives us the ultimate gospel message, that salvation is possible and tangible because of the unending love of God. Judy did a wonderful job a few weeks ago of explaining the Trinity as the “circle dance of love”, that the primary characteristic of God in God’s three-in-oneness is love, pouring itself out to each other. This passage affirms that it is God’s love, not God’s judgment or condemnation, that is the basis of salvation. And we are reminded that being born again, born anew, born from above, is to find our origin and our identity in this same love and to participate in it collectively. On Trinity Sunday, we affirm that God is, in God’s own self, a relationship of love, and that we are invited to join in that relationship. And because of that love that always pours itself out, salvation is possible for the entire world! And in this passage, we are not asked to make a decision or follow these three steps, but to simply bask in that love, and to let it overwhelm us past the point of understanding. We are invited to move past the point of believing and into the ever changing, growing and maturing that the love of God calls us to, and to never grow complacent or feel like we’ve arrived, because God is always doing a new thing. We are reminded this morning that just like Nicodemus, we are a “work in progress”, but the good news is that God just can’t help but love us into the kingdom if we will allow it.