Today’s gospel is from St. John. It can be a lot to digest. St. Augustine chose an eagle to represent St. John because he felt the theology of the fourth gospel soured so high above the other gospels. However, sometimes John can get so high up that it is difficult for hear it or for preachers to bring it down to earth.
Today’s gospel is like that to some extent. There is a philosophical/theological discussion going on. Do you listen to scripture like I do sometimes? Sometimes I’ll just let the words go by without paying too much attention to them until there is something that pricks my ears when I stop daydreaming and start paying more attention.
There are two such places in today’s gospel as Jesus is having this high-minded conversation with Nicodemus about spirituality. It comes at the point Jesus says to Nicodemus, “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” That always pricks my ears because I have so often heard it translated the way the New International Version translates it: “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born again.” Then, when that trip phrase “born again” is raised, so is the image of Pentecostal and fundamentalists who insist that you must have had a spontaneous emotional come-to-Jesus moment in order to be “saved.” Lutherans aren’t real big on born-againism and for good reason.
The second time I might stop daydreaming and start listening again in this gospel is toward the end where Jesus says the words which have become the most quoted and repeated words in the Bible: “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.” John 3:16 is what Luther called, “the gospel in a nutshell.” It summarizes it all.
We read scripture some 2,000 years after it was written and there are two ways we can look at it. One way, of course, is to look at what the words actually say and what they meant to the one who said or wrote them. But another way is to consider how the words have been used or misused over the years. Unfortunately, these two focal points I have highlighted – “you must be born from above” and “everyone who believe may not perish but have eternal life” – these two passages have been used to judge and divide.
Are you born again? Do you know Jesus as your personal Lord an savior? What is the date and time you were reborn? Have you “accepted” Christ? Do you “believe” in Jesus? Do you believe in Jesus deeply enough to avoid the fires of hell. All of this has become associated with a naïve fundamentalism which rejects science, doesn’t recognize nuance, and embraces an intolerant world view. And along with that intolerant world view comes a way of looking at the universe which condemns diversity is a bad thing, that condemns climate science is a hoax, and that the whole world can be divvied up between people who are saved and going to heaven to sit on clouds and those who are condemned to hell to be tormented for all eternity. It is an outlook which condemns. It condemns those who aren’t “pure enough.”
Now, as we listen along to our gospel with half an ear and only perk up when we hear John 3:16, we often miss maybe the most important verse of all. This is the verse the whole world misses. I wish, for every guy in a stadium holding up a poster with John 3:16 on it there would be another guy holding up another poster with John 3:17. Having John 3:16 without John 3:17 is like having a P,B,& J sandwich without the jelly. Or a BLT without the tomato. It’s just not complete. John 3:17 says, “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” And when the Bible uses the word “saved” it does not so much mean going upstairs rather than downstairs when you die as it means liberation or rescue or transformation. It means that the world is not yet as God would have it be and that is why he sent his only begotten son.
When Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be “born from above” or “born of the spirit” he means that Nicodemus needs to know the difference between the world as it is and the world as God would have it be. He needs to know the difference between this kingdom and God’s kingdom. And he needs to know that God’s kingdom doesn’t start after death when you step on the up elevator. The kingdom of God starts at baptism. And Jesus is telling him: “Nicodemus, you must not only know the difference between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of man, but you much live in the kingdom of God. That kingdom must be so much a part of who you are it is as if you had been born into it. Born from above.
When one lives as a member of God’s kingdom, one loves all other members of God’s kingdom. One welcomes all other members of God’s kingdom.
Here at CTS we have a marvelous welcome statement. When I ask visitors or new members what first attracted them to CTS they often tell me, the welcome statement. It makes sure we name people of color, people of other nationalities, even people of other faiths. We call out the LGBTQ+ community by name. This spring we are working on tweaking that statement as we study becoming a part of the Reconciling in Christ circle of congregations which intentionally reaches out to the gay community.
Some wonder why we don’t just say that we welcome everybody, or expand the list to include Republicans and Democrats and Caucasians and people who like butter pecan ice cream and, well, just most everybody. One of you has pointed out that the purpose of a welcome statement is to specifically embrace those who have not been welcomed in our society in the past. The strength of the statement is that it is not generic, but specific. And by saying to those who have been ostracized in the past, “You, particularly, are welcome here,” – by being specific – we are, by extension and by implication, saying to everybody else, “ALL are welcome here.”
This spring the Adult Forum will present more information concerning Reconciling in Christ. I encourage you to attend. Other speakers will be invited to present at other times. Other information will be disseminated. I encourage you to come, listen, read, and reflect.
Jesus invited Nicodemus, and Jesus invites you and me, to live differently, to exist in a different kingdom, to help shape the world the way God would have it be. Be born from above. Be born of the spirit. Know that God so loved the world that he gave his only son. But remember that God did not send that son into the world to condemn, but that the world might be rescued through him.