Updated: Apr 18
“CATCHY TITLE HERE”
a message by Dr. Bruce Havens
Coral Isles Church, U.C.C.
March 5, 2023
John 3: 1-17
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2He came to Jesus 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.” 3Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4Nicodemus 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?” 5Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8The wind 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.” 9Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10Jesus 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 do not receive our testimony. 12If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 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.
I always try to come up with a catchy title for my sermons. Usually, I focus on the main message idea. But sometimes it takes a while to get there and this week I didn’t get there until everything had gone to print. I put, “Catchy Title Here,” as a filler but then it came time to print the bulletin and I still wasn’t yet sure of my main focus this morning. So, let’s get on with it and hope I have something to focus on.
The fact is this is a rich passage of Scripture. There are many things we could focus on. Throughout his Gospel, John uses stories of encounters between Jesus and a variety of people to demonstrate the ways people respond to Jesus. John shares these stories to show the difference between people who truly come to understand who Jesus really is and those who don’t. Nicodemus is a Pharisee of the Jewish faith, which means he has studied and seeks to live his life faithfully. That’s not a bad thing, but for John, Nicodemus represents someone who, smart and faithful as he is, just doesn’t get who Jesus is and what he is all about.
Remember that the Gospel writers aren’t journalists or historians. They are writers who are arranging their material to make a theological point for their particular audiences. Each Gospel writer shaped their material to communicate what they believe about Jesus and what they want their community, their church, to believe. Beyond the basic story of Jesus being crucified and resurrected, John’s tells stories that are very different from the other 3 Gospel writers. When John wrote this Gospel it was as much as 60 years after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. The people of his community have gone from being part of the synagogue, to leaving the synagogue because their proclamation of Jesus was considered blasphemy. John’s people believed in Jesus as God’s son, as resurrected, as equal with God. These were all blasphemy to the beliefs of the synagogue. There was undoubtedly conflict and competing claims between the old faith of John’s followers and their new faith in Jesus as “the Word” present with God before, during, and since creation, who became human in Jesus. For John, Nicodemus represents those who were curious about Jesus but ultimately failed to understand who Jesus is. John wants his readers to learn from his failure.
Nicodemus approaches Jesus at night. The importance of this is that in John’s narrative it represents Nicodemus’ spiritual darkness as well as his lack of good intent. He begins with flattery. He tells Jesus, “we know you must have come from God.” But he bases his opinion of Jesus on “signs.” John uses the word “signs” rather than “miracles,” to say that the things Jesus did, which we might call “miracles,” were signs to point to who Jesus really was and to the real Kingdom of God. But signs are meant to point to who Jesus is in relation to God, and Nicodemus doesn’t ever see who Jesus really is, or put his faith in Jesus despite the signs.
Jesus challenges Nicodemus saying, “no one can see the Kingdom of God, unless one is born from above.” Nicodemus is confused. Despite being a spiritual leader, he can’t seem to imagine things that are spiritual rather than material. How can an old person go back and enter a mother’s womb. He doesn’t see it! Jesus then turns to “entering.” He says, a person can’t “enter” the Kingdom of God except by water and spirit. John’s community hears this as a reference to baptism which is the way we symbolically enter the Kingdom of God.
Nicodemus is still confused. Jesus asks how someone so “learned” would be able to understand the wind blows and knows where it comes from and where it goes even though he can’t see it but can’t understand that there is more than the material world. Jesus “we,” the Christian community testifies to what we “know” about Jesus but some don’t accept that testimony even though it was the truth.
Well, so what? Beyond a semi-interesting theological debate, what is the importance of this story? The “so what” to this for us is in those last few sentences of the passage. They are words of great blessing, and hope, and of inclusion. They are the promise of God’s love for the whole world! Religions often begin with wonderful ideas about life and God and such. But then they often turn into clubs that exclude and segregate people. They become organized around like -minded folk who want everyone to think like them. Sadly, even in our times these words have often been used by some as a way to exclude, to dampen hope, and to separate rather than bring together. We probably all know the great debate over the words “born anew,” or “born from above,” as our version translates, and the catchy phrase “born again.” That phrase became a way for some Christians to use as a gate or a door to lock out those who didn’t fit their particular interpretation of its meaning. To them if you weren’t “born again” in exactly the formula they prescribed you weren’t a real Christian.
If we set aside our assumptions about the meaning of these two or three words and listen to this part of the reading in its full meaning, we can hear the great promise of these verses. John tells us that God “so loved the world,” that God sent Jesus in order that the world might be “made whole” by him. That is the root meaning of the word salvation – to be “saved” is to be made whole in body, mind, and spirit. And it is always connected to all of creation around us being made whole. Salvation isn’t just for human souls for the afterlife. Ironically, despite the fact that it is a spiritual thing, it is not limited to the spirit. Salvation is intended to include the material world, the world right now, not some illusion of the far-off future. It is for God’s whole creation. This is the meaning of “Kingdom of God.” If we reduce it to something that represents a paradise for a select few after death, then God is just some kind of spiritual gatekeeper at an afterlife Club Med for those who know the secret password. Saying “I believe in Jesus as Lord and Savior” is not the password to God’s Club Med in the sky.
The “Kingdom of God,” and the “eternal life” Jesus talks about in John – and indeed in the other Gospels as well – was not intended to be limited to life after death. The claim of Jesus’ resurrection is never intended to reduce faith and salvation to the famous “pie-in-the-sky” in the sweet bye and bye after we die. It was always intended to transform our vision for this life from one only concerned with material realities, but to include the incredible spiritual dimensions of life now. The great Good News of this passage and of Christianity isn’t that there is life after death in either heaven or hell. The Good News is God wants us to experience salvation, the reality of wholeness, right now in this life. The invitation Nicodemus misses is the invitation to see and enter into the spiritual reality of God’s love now. It is a love so powerful God means for the entire world to enter into it now. It isn’t only for a select few but for “the WHOLE world.” Essentially the Kingdom of God is God’s ever-present reality right here and now. It just takes a willingness to see it and enter it spiritually, so that it can transform the material world as well. That is God’s ultimate intention for us. That is the all-encompassing love of God for the whole world and for all of us.
The table we spread this morning is spread as a symbol of that love. That’s why everyone is welcome. You don’t have to believe a certain way, or profess a certain faith you just have to be hungry and thirsty enough to want to be at the table with God, with others, with Jesus, and with those who believe they believe perfectly and those who aren’t sure what they believe. We call it the Table of Grace. So come on, even if you don’t understand. Come on, even if you aren’t sure. Come on, even if you are just a little bit hungry or thirsty for more of God’s love. God’s love is more than a catchy title. It is the most real thing there is. Come get a taste of it. AMEN.