A congregation of the United Church of Canada
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Yr A ~ Lent 2 ~ John 3:1-17
Sacred conversations that reveal deep things about theology are our theme for this season of Lent, and today we have a conversation that Jesus settled once and for all, but for some reason his followers have struggled with it for around 2000 years now and we still haven’t all got it straight.
The quandary is set on the lips of a Pharisee named Nicodemus who comes to Jesus by night – suggesting both that he’s doing it in secret because Pharisees were generally against Jesus, and also that the night symbolizes his not understanding. Nicodemus represents the institutional, educated, scientific, rational world – you know, us. That’s us.
We love rational, scientific explanations for things. Despite a recent fondness for “alternative facts” for many people today if you can’t prove something it isn’t true.
Although, to be fair, that attitude is changing in the actual scientific community and they are much more open to wonder and mystery these days, but the general public is still mostly caught in the “show me” phase.
Nicodemus begins by acknowledging Jesus’ authority, but he doesn’t even get a question out before Jesus bakes his poor brain.
His confusion comes from the Greek word anāothen which can be equally translated into English as again, above, and anew. And when you add the word “born” before that the fun starts!
Jesus says, “Very truly [literally, Amen, amen], I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again.”
And Nicodemus falls into the classic trap of trying to apply a physical, scientific lens to a spiritual, metaphorical thing. He hears “born again” as being impossible – and uses the graphically hilarious image of a person climbing back in their mother’s womb. Not happening!
So we need to turn to the other meanings of anāothen: “born from above”, which gets us part way there but still is problematic because it makes it seem like God is out there or up there – or we can go to “born anew”.
And for me, all of a sudden this whole passage makes way more sense.
It’s not that born again or born from above are wrong, it’s just that born anew says what I think Jesus means so much more helpfully.
He’s not talking about a biological birth. He’s talking about a spiritual birth – a spiritual awakening, a spiritual renewal.
Why is that so hard to understand?
John 3:6-8 Jesus says, “What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’ The 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.”
Of course it’s poetic. Of course it’s cryptic.
He’s trying to explain to Nicodemus – and us – that this whole spiritual God-thing is all mystery and wonder and especially relationship.
He doesn’t just say we are to be renewed in the Spirit, he says we are to be reborn in the Spirit. Being born implies there’s a parent, a nurturer, a person who loves you beyond all else.
That’s very different than a series of sacrificial transactions that Nicodemus was accustomed to. For Nicodemus and the Pharisees, if you sin you need to pay this penalty of two doves, or a sheep, or whatever. God stands far off as judge and disciplinarian demanding retribution for misdeeds.
But Jesus paints a picture of something very different – he describes a loving parent who gives birth to a renewed person ‘by the Spirit’.
And Christians have been missing that fundamental point ever since.
Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” (John 3:9-10)
Well, apparently a whole swath of teachers of Christianity haven’t understood it either.
Jesus is saying that it’s not about rules and regulations it’s about a relationship.
But rules and regulations are easier to grasp – and they’re easier to enforce and build power from. Sadly.
Instead of hearing what Jesus was actually saying, we simply chose to exchange the rules and regulations of the world for rules and regulations of the church.
But that’s not what Jesus was teaching. He was all about spiritual relationship!
A relationship is personal, and dynamic, and built on love, not fear or guilt. Jesus really is asking Nicodemus – and us – to embrace a new paradigm of spiritual relationship with God – to be born completely anew – and that is far beyond our own power or ability to do – we need the Spirit to do that work in us, for us, and with us.
And if we don’t understand that fundamental paradigm shift from rules to relationship we will misread much of what Jesus is saying, including the most famous scripture verse in our bible, which is part of today’s reading – John 3:16.
If you’re still thinking rules, like Nicodemus was, you will hear John 3:16 as being about the reward for following those rules that will come when you die.
The language we’ve inherited uses the words “everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life”.
The scientific, rational understanding of that hears it as saying if you think the right things about Jesus you won’t really die, because you’ll get to go to heaven when you die – and then in the next breath the scientific, rational understanding rejects the whole thing as wishful thinking for people who are afraid of dying.
And they’re not wrong.
Except that they’re completely wrong if you get what Jesus is truly saying here which has nothing to do with rules and everything to do with spiritual relationship.
First, the word believe is not about mentally agreeing with an idea, it’s not about thinking the right things, rather it means to trust.
Second, the word perish can mean death but it can also mean ruination, so not necessarily the end but certainly an unhappy turn of events.
And third, the word eternal is not actually about some length of time but the quality or character of the time. Eternal life is life that is characterized by love and Presence, and it doesn’t wait for your death, it starts now!
So, if you put all that together you get a very different take on John 3:16. It isn’t necessarily a passage about your life after death residence. It’s actually a text about abundant life in the here and now.
So let’s use different words to get closer to what I think Jesus is really saying.
I’d suggest floundering for perishing and flourishing for eternal life.
So, here is a whole new translation for John 3:16 –
“God loved the world in this way – that God nurtured the profoundly unique person of Jesus and owing to that everyone who ‘got’ what Jesus taught would not flounder in life but flourish.”
And how does one ‘get’ what Jesus teaches?
Simple – one allows themselves to be born anew in the Spirit!
You don’t have to know how – you just have to say yes!
So, you tell me – is Jesus about rules and regulations, and worrying about you believing the right things so you don’t die when you die but will have eternal life?
Or is Jesus about a relationship that invites you to trust in this mystery and if you can ‘get it’ you’ll find that your ongoing, day-to-day life is less marked by floundering and more filled with flourishing?
For me, there’s no contest. I choose relationship!
And that’s what Jesus was challenging Nicodemus, and us, to do.
Because rejecting rules and requirements and embracing spiritual relationship is nothing less than being born again, or anew.
And that makes all the difference in the world.
Indeed, this is how the world is saved!