“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him might not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16)
We are in the second week of Lent – that period of somber reflection and self-examination – and it seems like and odd time at which to encounter this most positive and affirming of texts – “for God so loved the world …”
I don’t remember at time at which I didn’t know this verse. I suspect many of you who were likewise nurtured in the Christian faith from infancy would say the same thing. For those of us brought up in the Evangelical tradition, this verse has always been a sort of talisman – a one-line summary of our faith, the essence of the Gospel.
I remember as a young Christian, this verse was something you were expected to quote all the time as a kind of shibboleth through which you showed your adherence to the one true faith. We would wear T-shirts and wristbands, displaying this text, and sometimes not even the text but just the textual reference – John 3:16 – a message that would only make sense to the others who likewise branded themselves as being part of the same evangelical Christian tradition – a badge of spiritual tribal identity.
And yet, of course, this verse is not given to us as an isolated aphorism. It comes to us as a part of a conversation between two men – our Lord Jesus and a religious leader named Nicodemus, and the more I read this verse in the context of the greater dialogue between the two men, the less bravado I feel as a religious person.
I do believe that what we have in this account from John, chapter three, is an account of what was a real conversation between two historical people. I know that some academics see these dialogues in John’s Gospel merely as literary creations designed to outline the theology of the early church, with no necessary connection to any historical events or persons. I don’t take that view.
Nicodemus – introduced to us in John chapter three as a Pharisee and as a member of the Jewish ruling council – turns up at two other points in John’s account of the life of Jesus. In chapter seven, we see him defending Jesus against other Pharisees who would condemn Jesus without first hearing what he had to say (John 7:51). After the crucifixion of Jesus, Nicodemus appears again, this time working alongside Joseph of Arimathea to see that Jesus is given a proper Jewish burial (John 19:39).
We can speculate as to when the details of this first meeting between Jesus and Nicodemus became public. The description of the meeting suggests that no one apart from Jesus and Nicodemus was present, so the story must have been passed on to the Apostles either by Jesus Himself or, more likely I suspect, by Nicodemus.
While we don’t have any historical records of Nicodemus outside of John’s Gospel, I think it entirely likely that the man who helped bury Jesus came into contact with the Apostle John – the only disciple who was there at the cross of Jesus, and the man I assume to be behind the gospel that bears his name. Indeed, I suspect that John and Nicodemus may have met on numerous occasions where Nicodemus told John how Jesus spoke to him on that first night about new birth and about the wind.
It’s interesting, when you think about the way the New Testament came to us – these stories about Jesus that we find in John’s Gospel probably weren’t written down until a generation after they had taken place. They started out as stories that were verbally told and retold, passed on from one follower of Jesus to another, and, no doubt, retold as dramatic performances in some cases to much larger groups.
It’s interesting when we look at the final written form of these stories that we’ve received – I think we get a sense of what was most crucially remembered in these accounts as they were passed on. The exact words used by Jesus and the precise details of the context were often remembered a little differently, but what people remembered best were the stories and images. Isn’t that what we best remember?
We remember the story about the lost sheep, about the prodigal son, about the good Samaritan, and even the story about the mustard seed that becomes the greatest of all weeds. We remember the imagery of wind and spirit and new birth.
I imagine an initial meeting between John and Nicodemus, with Nicodemus talking excitedly while sharing a flask of good wine at a local inn:
“It was very confusing. I guess I thought I had it all worked out. After all, I’ve been studying the Torah since I was a child and I did very well in all my theology exams, and my religious community had appointed me a member of their ruling council. In terms of having it all worked out, I thought ‘if not now, when?’, and yet Jesus told me that I had to begin all over again, or did He literally mean that I had to be born again, or was he saying that I had to be born ‘from above’ (of God), or did He mean something altogether different? I was very confused by that first conversation, and Jesus didn’t seem to be particularly committed to clearing up my confusion.”
I imagine that meeting was confusing, as the written text in John’s gospel is itself confusing. When Jesus says to Nicodemus that he must be ‘born again’, the Greek word (‘anothen’) is the same as the word meaning ‘from above’, and so it’s not clear whether Jesus is saying that Nicodemus needs to be ‘born again’, or ‘born from above’, or simply that he had to ‘begin again’, or that he had to ‘begin again from a different starting point (ie. from above)’, or some combination of the above.
Nicodemus’ response – “How can someone be born when they are old? … Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” (John 3:4) – is an attempt to strike out one of these alternatives, but Jesus’ response – “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit… The wind blows wherever it pleases.” (John 3:6-8) – doesn’t really do a lot to clarify exactly what He was talking about.
It’s worth taking a step back and thinking about these images of wind and birth. We don’t want to let our imaginations run wild and attach all sorts of inappropriate meanings to these images, but what exactly was Jesus trying to convey here?
I have never given birth (obviously) but I have been present at four births as the designated support person, and I can tell you that what I’ve been left with from each of those experiences was, most fundamentally, the level of trauma involved!
Giving birth is a painful and bloody and protracted experience. Is that a part of what Jesus is wanting to convey here? If it is, it stands in sharp contrast to the way the exhortation ‘you must be born again’ is regularly used by evangelists.
Again, if I go back to my university days, it was generally accepted that in order to be ‘born again’ all you had to do was to say the ‘sinner’s prayer’ or some similarly well-worded form of confession and faith, after which the person leading you to faith would declare, “there you go! You’ve been born again!”
It was a pretty straightforward process – quick and painless, and no blood at all. Is that really how it works, or is spiritual renewal a slow and agonizing process during which we repeatedly feel like we are dying, and where we scream and pray that the pain will just stop, and we try to get relief but nothing really helps. My experience of the spiritual life is that it is a lot like that a lot of the time. Even so, I have a feeling that the force of the birth metaphor, as intended by Jesus, had less to do with the pain of the birth process as with the loss of control.
Again, this is not something I can pretend to have experienced myself, but it is something I have learnt from those I have supported through the birthing process – that it’s a journey you just have to go along with, as you can’t just decide to just get off when it gets uncomfortable.
I think this, at any rate, is where the imagery of birth and the image of the wind come together. The point of the wind metaphor is clear, I think – “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going.” (John 3:8). You have no control over the wind – that’s the point – just as we have no control over where the birthing journey takes us, just as we have no control over what God is doing in the world.
That’s a disturbing thought, I think – disturbing for Nicodemus, no doubt, and disturbing for us too. Nicodemus is a great man of religion, and we are people of religion too, and some of us are seasoned religious people, and what’s the point of being religious if it doesn’t give you some control over God?!
OK, we might not put it that way but isn’t a great deal of religion about taking control? We want Jesus to teach us how to pray because we want our prayers to be effective. We want to be like Elijah, who when he prays for rain, it rains (1 Kings 18) and when he prays that it will stop raining, it stops raining (James 5;17), and if you’re like me, you’re feeling pretty good about seeing all the rain of late, as that’s exactly what we were praying for, even if we weren’t praying for quite as much as we actually got.
We want control. We want control over our health. We want our children to be safe. Every morning I begin my day by praying for protection for my children. I suspect that countless other people of religion around the world do exactly the same thing, and don’t we all do it because we believe our prayers are making a difference? I do.
We want our prayers to be effective. We want our lives to make a difference. Whether I’m a full-time ordained cleric or whether I see my main spiritual contribution as being through my faithful devotion to my ailing mother, we all want our lives to make a difference and we believe, don’t we, that God works with us in that process, and that the Spirit of God isn’t just blowing about like the wind such that we have no control whatsoever over what God is up to?
Maybe the answer here is not simple, and maybe there is a difference between believing you can control God and believing that your prayers will be heard by God.
Going back to my university days, I remember one friend whose spiritual wisdom has stuck with me over the years. This friend had gone on a visit to Latin American over one holiday period and told me he saw there the extremes of both pre-Tridentine Catholicism, on the one hand, and Evangelical fundamentalism on the other, and he came to the conclusion that the real distinction between these and other faith groups was not the obvious tribal divisions – protestant, Catholic, charismatic, evangelical, etc. – but the distinction between those who believed in salvation by grace and those who believed in salvation by magic.
Believing in salvation by magic, to his reckoning, meant simply that your religion gave you the power to force the hand of God – to control God. At the Catholic end, he said, that seemed to involve participation in specific rituals. At the protestant evangelical end, it was all about holding on to the right doctrinal beliefs.
In its simplest form, for Evangelicals, this just means that so long as you believe exactly the right stuff, God has to let you into Heaven when you die, and that was pretty much the religion I was brought up on. I still remember the preacher from a well-known Sydney Anglican church asking us in his sermon, “When you get to Heaven and they ask you why they should let you in, what will you say?” The right answer, of course, was that “Jesus died for my sins”.
That is the right answer, but I remember at the time thinking that I should write it down so that I would be ready with the answer for when my time came, because if I gave that answer, God had no choice but to let me in, and that is salvation by magic.
If the thought that the movement of the Spirit of God is as uncontrollable as the wind is disturbing, there is a positive flip-side to it too – namely, that while we might not be able to control the wind, we can’t mistake it when it’s blowing.
Jesus says, “we testify to what we have seen” (John 3:11), and we can do that because the movement of the Spirit of God, while it is mysterious, is also obvious.
This is my testimony – that over the last thirty years in Dulwich Hill I have seen the Spirit of God move with power! I’ve seen multiples lives turned upside-down. I’ve seen addicts cured of their addiction. I’ve seen people who we were sure were going to die who have been healed. I’ve seen people who have felt marginalized and unloved discover the joys of community. I’ve seen homeless people find homes and hungry people find food – both literally and figurately. I’ve seen frail and elderly women from our church community share living-giving wisdom with young girls who didn’t know where their lives were going. I’ve seen the Spirit of God move through young people and old people, through gay people as well as straight people, through women as well as men, and through Muslims as well as Christians.
No – none of this has been under my control. It’s been like watching the wind blow. But just because you can’t control the movement of the wind, doesn’t mean you can’t engage with it when it is blowing.
“For God so loved the world …” – that’s mysterious too, and I don’t pretend to understand exactly how the salvation of the world all works itself out. What I do understand is that I don’t understand much, and what I do understand I don’t control. Even so, God understands, God’s Spirit is all-powerful, and God so loved the world.
First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill on Sunday the 8th of March, 2020.