The gospel according to John, chapter 3
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. 18Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.’
22 After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he spent some time there with them and baptized. 23John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim because water was abundant there; and people kept coming and were being baptized— 24John, of course, had not yet been thrown into prison.
25 Now a discussion about purification arose between John’s disciples and a Jew. 26They came to John and said to him, ‘Rabbi, the one who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you testified, here he is baptizing, and all are going to him.’ 27John answered, ‘No one can receive anything except what has been given from heaven. 28You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, “I am not the Messiah, but I have been sent ahead of him.” 29He who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled. 30He must increase, but I must decrease.’
31 The one who comes from above is above all; the one who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks about earthly things. The one who comes from heaven is above all. 32He testifies to what he has seen and heard, yet no one accepts his testimony. 33Whoever has accepted his testimony has certified this, that God is true. 34He whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure. 35The Father loves the Son and has placed all things in his hands. 36Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but must endure God’s wrath.
I have to say I identify with Nicodemus. I totally understand one who would choose to come after dark, trying to catch Jesus alone and in a more relaxed, conversational mode. Nothing of who Jesus is or what he says is straightforward. Nicodemus came so he could ask questions and try to get things clear in his own head. A public speech is better than a book or searching scripture, but sometimes you need to have a conversation.
I want to be able to sit across the table from a financial retirement advisor, or medical insurance policy broker, or accountant, or an architect or electrician or plumber. There aren’t many things I understand thoroughly in my own being, and if I have to make a big decision, a life consequence decision, I want to look in someone’s eyes and read their body language and catch the nuances in their tone of voice and draw things out on paper and take notes and have the details held up to scrutiny. I want to feel I can trust, not only the information, but the person who is relaying the information; one to one.
It was not obvious from outward appearances that Jesus was God in the flesh. That assurance or realization had to happen in person.
I have a lot of sympathy for Nicodemus and I hope it turned out well for him in the end. I feel like I have something at stake in his story.
This is my problem with the gospel of John: I am not a black and white, yes or no, make a decision and never look back kind of person. I doubt and second guess and wonder and come up with a stack of possibilities and contingencies and alternatives to consider. Decisions are often made because my options have timed out, not because I’ve chosen one. It’s not a great way of navigating life. It’s mushy and uncertain and involves passive, fearful inactivity. There’s more hope than assurance.
The gospel of John doesn’t allow for any of that. It’s all words with double meanings and misdirection and urgency to say yes or no. It makes me anxious. Existentially anxious. And I have 2000 years between me and the urgency. The book of Revelation also says something disparaging about lukewarm Christians, but, again, they were expecting the return of Jesus and the end of time to happen any day, within their lifetimes. We’ve had 2000 years of waiting, and, looking around the room, a life of privilege, to dull that sharp gospel edge.
Modern American Christianity has nothing in common with Christianity in first century Palestine. We don’t know what we’re reading when we read the gospels. We trust that the Holy Spirit works some kind of miracle in making connections and bridges, but honestly, we are fully enmeshed in white privileged, comfortable spirituality. We, most of us, don’t take these words seriously. We are good enough, faithful enough. We are peaceful, fairly low on the commercialization and exploitation continuum. We are good people making our way the best we can.
In this status, in our situation, what is it that faith means, or does, or necessitates?
What does it mean to claim belief that Jesus is the son of God? What are we looking for? What are the consequences of that statement? For us, the consequences are likely minimal. There is no risk. Possibly some embarrassment, but no risk. For Nicodemus, it would turn his world upside-down. Everything he knew (or thought he knew), every relationship, every future avenue would be altered or closed or challenged. What is our role in God’s design, I wonder? Are we okay, or are we missing something, like Nicodemus, and don’t know to be startled or disoriented?
Tucked in-between the story of Nicodemus in his night encounter and the Samaritan woman meeting Jesus at a well at mid-day, is this little episode of John the Baptist. This is the last time we hear from John. It’s an odd little passage in that it seems unnecessary. We aren’t given new information — John reminds his followers of what he has already said — except for the center sentences. And maybe there is something in here for us.
“The friend of the bridegroom (John), who stands and hears him (Jesus), rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice,” John says. “For this reason my joy has been fulfilled.
30He must increase, but I must decrease.”
John played the same role as the Bethlehem star of Matthew’s gospel. The star rose and shone over the place where Jesus was, drawing magi from the east (strangers, gentiles), to come see and worship Christ with gifts fitting for his death. The magi returned to their own land, and the star that had shone for three years faded back into the night sky. In this gospel, it is John who prepares the way, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John,” the prologue says. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.”
Here, it is John who draws people to the place where Jesus is, announces him, points him out. And now, like the star diminishing in the night sky, he fades. But the words he uses are packed. John is a prophet and the Hebrew prophets frequently use marriage and bridegroom imagery to describe God’s desired relationship with the beloved people, and there was that wedding in Cana, Jesus’ first sign. So being the best man is telling. But more than that is the word “must.” Dei in Greek. It’s used only 8 times in John. It can mean “ought to” or “should” as it does in other places in scripture. But this gospel gives it a kind of cosmic superpower. The only way that time can roll on is under the conditions set by the word “must”.
3:13No 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. We just read that.
The lead-in to the Samaritan woman’s story says Jesus left Judea and started back to Galilee, 4but it was necessary for Jesus to go through Samaria. (It’s the same Greek word, dei)
Jesus himself uses it, ‘4We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 5As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.’
14I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.
And after Jesus is not found in the empty tomb:
8The other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.”
So, my point is to show that this word John uses has the weight of God’s eternal plan infused in it. 30He must increase, but I must decrease.” Not ‘should’ or ought to’ – it is necessary; necessary for the implementation of God’s strategy.
John had a role — a big role — in the history of salvation. He rose to the moment and then, by necessity, he faded from the story. He performed his God-given task and went on to live the rest of his short life, not diminished, but with the task completed. “It is finished” are Jesus’ final words from the cross in John’s gospel. It is necessarily completed.
The image on the bulletin cover shows lights coming on as evening’s darkness falls across the earth. We can imagine how many households, how many businesses, how many streetlights are represented in the spots of light making them bright enough to appear. So now, imagine that they are the lights of Christ, the light of ordinary Christians doing their necessary bit in the salvation story that continues to play on and on as the light and darkness roll continuously over the face of the earth. It may be that they are not even aware of their shining. It may be that it is a great burden or sacrifice. It may be a one time light a flash in the night, or one that shines on and on always there to guide the way in their location, their community.
As demanding of belief as this gospel is, there are also these ebbs and flows, fading away and coming back into view. Nicodemus makes two more appearances – one in subtle defense of Jesus before the Sanhedrin and the last in assisting Joseph of Arimathea in laying Jesus’ body in the tomb. We aren’t told about his faith, but he shows up again. And if it is by necessity that Jesus dies, the necessity is so that God’s mercy may flow to all who are not worthy or ready or decided in their righteousness and faith. The gospel makes demands, but the point of the good news is so that grace may abound, so that our joy may be complete. So that our part is taken up into the whole, unafraid.