Sermon preached by Malcolm Marler at St. Mary’s on the Highlands Episcopal Church in Birmingham, AL on Sunday, March 16, 2014.
The Gospel reading today from John 3:1-17 contains one of those verses that I, and maybe you, memorized as a young child if you grew up in a Christian church cut from the evangelical cloth, if you know what I mean.
Or even if you have never memorized a verse of the Bible at all, chances are if you have lived here in the deep South for anytime in the heart of the Bible belt, you have seen the reference John 3:16 written on hand held signs at college football games where we mix and marry our metaphors regularly with religion.
I first learned the King James version — John 3:16 – King James Version (KJV)
16 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.
And then the Revised Standard Version — John 3:16 – Revised Standard Version (RSV)
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.”
This verse has been called the “Gospel in a nutshell” by Wikipedia because it is considered a summary of the central theme of traditional Christianity. It is personal, decisive, and it is clear.
I remember an experience like that in my own life. When I was eight years old, I went to the pastor of my Baptist church, who also happened to be my daddy, and told him I wanted to become a Christian. Thankfully, he took my request seriously, and invited me to his office during the Sunday School hour to discuss the matter. It was a private confirmation class with my beloved father. It was personal, it was decisive, and it was clear — as any 8 year old could understand.
Shedding a little light
Like any story or important event in our lives, understanding the context of a story is the key for shedding light on its meaning for our lives and today’s Gospel reading is no exception.
We know that Nicodemus was a Jewish leader and teacher (today we would say he was a seminary professor), and that he was mentioned three times in John’s Gospel. All three encounters were respectful, seeking to honor, and to understand who this Jesus was.
The two major images in John’s Gospel are darkness and light. Nicodemus comes in the night, in the darkness, and is seeking the light, seeking more light, a new understanding, a fresh way to understand God.
‘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.’
Jesus responds to Nicodemus’ statement,
“Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ 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?’ Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.”
He uses an example that is so hard for Nicodemus to grasp given his way of viewing the world, which was following the law, the guidelines, in order to draw close to God. It stops Nicodemus in his literal tracks, “how could this be so?” he asks.
Have you ever had a conversation when both of you said what you thought, and you had no idea how what the other person just said was connected to your statement? It was as though you were speaking two different languages. That was Nicodemus’ experience.
To paraphrase Jesus …
Nicodemus, in order for you to know God, you will need a totally new language as well as perspective from how you have always thought about and experienced God.
Nicodemus, you cannot see this perspective on your own. No matter how much you think and reason. It has to come from God, because it is so radical you couldn’t think of it by yourself.
This understanding of the kingdom of God, is not about what happens in the future after you die, but rather it is about how you begin living now, it is a call to a fresh start today.
And by the way, this is a gift, it is grace, and it is from God.
A New Understanding, A New Way to Live
And if you have not guessed it yet, you and I are like Nicodemus in this story coming from darkness searching for more light.
Like Nicodemus, most of us here are respectful, seeking to honor, and to understand the teachings of Jesus.
For us, maybe we’ve been thinking that our faith, our beliefs, our creed, our prayers alone are what make us a part of the family of God.
We have thought that what we have believed in our heads and said with our mouths have made us a part of God’s kingdom.
And like Nicodemus, most of us are respectful, we honor, and want to understand who this Jesus was. And you and I can even say the personal, concise, clear words of our belief that Jesus is God’s only begotten Son and that we believe in him, therefore we will not perish. We believe we are safe, we believe we are saved, and we believe that is all there is.
But we would be wrong, dead wrong.
Jesus is calling us to something deeper than being safe or saved.
He calls us to something we cannot see by ourselves, it is called living by grace, a gift, and it is from God. It is a new way of seeing the world, and all the human family.
We have to confess we cannot see God’s kingdom with our own clever thinking, we cannot understand it on our own. And so we open ourselves to God. This is a first step, but it is not all the journey.
Jesus calls us to see the world like his beloved Father, the Creator of all life, who never gives up on the human family.
You see, we cannot be in right relationship with God if we are not in right relationship with others, and we cannot be in right relationship with others if we are not open to God.
Our Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori said this about understanding John 3:16:
“When we insist that salvation depends on reciting a specific verbal formula about Jesus, that individualist focus is a form of idolatry, for it puts me and my words in the place that only God can occupy, at the center of existence, as the ground of all being.”
In other words, using this verse as a quick prayer and being done is like being in a spiritual womb and saying to the world, “I’m good, I don’t need to do anything else” while all the time God is wanting us to be born into the world as new people. All along we were thinking the spiritual womb is all there was, just being safe, or saved.
“No my child,” our beloved Creator says to us, “that is not all there is, there is a whole life to live in a new way and I am ready to do the hard, painful messy part of birthing you, of giving you new life. This is my gift to you.”
Only through the hands of the Great Physician can we be delivered, so that we see the world in a way that we could not have imagined before.
Be born anew, right now. That is the Great Physician’s call.
God calls us is to see all of the people in the world, red, and yellow, black and white, for we are all precious in God’s sight. Every single one of us. Regardless.
And like all births, it is a gift, it is grace, and it is from God.