How Can These Things Be? (3/12/17)
Henry Ossawa Tanner, Nicodemus and Jesus on a Rooftop
The Gospel of John features many memorable stories and a lot of great quotes, but the Fourth Gospel is challenging to preach. A lot of the stories are very long and the theology is very dense. There's so much going on in each of these stories that it's difficult to offer adequate teaching in the time that's available for a sermon. The story of Jesus and Nicodemus is rich and complex. The danger is that this story is often reduced to one simple quote: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son." And that's not even the whole quote!
Good morning! I’m glad you all braved the cold this morning. This was definitely one of those mornings when I wanted to stay in bed—my body thinks it’s only ten o’clock right now. I think a lot of us would have appreciated an extra hour in bed on such a cold morning, but such is life.
Before we jump into the Gospel of John, I’d like to tell you a quick story. Last winter, when I was serving at the First United Presbyterian Church of Houston, PA, I took a vacation to Puerto Rico. I came back on a Saturday, but I didn’t preach the next day—I’m sorry, but there was no way I was writing a sermon on my vacation. A dear friend of mine from seminary, KJ Norris, filled the pulpit. In her children’s sermon, she handed out blank note cards. She asked the kids to write a message to someone who was important in their life, or maybe draw a picture. The cards were a way of saying “thank you for being there,” or something like that.
After worship, one of the girls from the fifth- or sixth-grade Sunday school class gave me one of the cards! I was blown away! This girl always came down for the children’s sermons, but she was a very quiet kid. I don’t remember having a single conversation with her. So, it was a complete surprise when she gave me that card. I had no idea that what I said was reaching her!
On the card, she drew a cross and she wrote a couple verses from this morning’s reading from the Gospel of John.
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.”
As I said, I was touched that this girl wanted to thank me; I was also really impressed that she quoted all of John 3:16 and 3:17, too!
This is one of the most familiar quotes from the Gospel, but often it gets reduced to: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” When that happens, something very important is lost; we overlook the word of grace from verse 17: “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” That’s huge! That’s enormous!
There are some other important challenges in this Gospel text. Verse 3 reads, in part, “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Some of you might have heard this verse translated a little bit differently. You see, the Greek word that is translated as, “from above,” can also be translated as, again or anew. Someone hearing this word in the Greek, nineteen-hundred years ago, would have heard all three meanings of this word, and all at the same time. When we reduce the meaning to just one sense of the word—and particularly when we choose the least appropriate sense—we tend to misinterpret the text. This is why some people refer to themselves as “born-again Christians,” and why some folks insist that only an adult conversion experience is an authentic experience of the Christian faith. Something is lost in translation! How can these things be?
The Gospel of John is tricky. It’s dense. The Fourth Gospel offers a deeper, more theological account of Jesus’ life and ministry, and his death and resurrection. It offers a lot of stories that aren’t found in the other gospels. Long stories. What’s more, John’s stories are filled with vivid images and great quotes. Some stories also include long, theological dialogues. That’s what I mean when I say that John’s Gospel is dense—it spends a lot of time explaining abstract questions of theology. So maybe it’s only natural that we pull a short quote out of a long dialogue when we think of the Gospel of John.
The story of Nicodemus certainly fits that pattern. Nicodemus is a learned man and a religious leader, yet he doesn’t truly comprehend the nature of Jesus:
Nicodemus simultaneously speaks the truth about Jesus yet reveals his misunderstanding of what it means for Jesus to be “from God.” Nicodemus states the truth that Jesus is from God, but he grounds that belief in the signs that Jesus does.
The word “sign” could also be translated as miracle. Nicodemus believes that Jesus is “from God” because Jesus can perform these signs. He doesn’t understand that Jesus is not just “from God,” but that Jesus also is God. Also, Nicodemus doesn’t understand that the signs are not, in and of themselves, the end or the goal toward which Jesus is pointing. Rather, the signs demonstrate where Jesus comes from and what his true identity is.
I think Nicodemus is a lot like us. He gets a lot of things partially right. So do we. I think it’s safe to say that all of us here believe in God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. We remind ourselves that this is what we believe every time we affirm our faith by reciting the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed—this is one of the ways in which we confess our faith. We say we believe in Jesus Christ and that we are saved through our faith in Jesus. And like Nicodemus, we are only partially right. How can these things be?
The problem that we all have is a problem of translation. Sometimes the words that we use in English do not match the concepts that are contained in the Greek or the Hebrew scriptures. When we hear the word “believe” or “faith,” we engage with these words as nouns—that is, faith and belief become abstract concepts, like love. We reduce faith to a noun, and then faith and belief become intellectual exercises. Faith and belief are things that go on inside our brains. Maybe this is the consequence of focusing in on a single verse in a long passage. In doing this, we create a faith that is simply about coming to church and maybe dropping a couple bucks in the collection plate. And in our oversimplified practice of faith, we don’t fully hear Jesus’ call to relationship and discipleship.
All of the Gospels are meant to be read aloud. This is especially true of the Gospel of John. Remember, when the Gospels were compiled, most people were illiterate. The scriptures were read aloud in worship because that was the only way that most people could interact with these texts. Even today, we believe that proper worship must include the reading of scripture.
Scholars refer to the first eighteen verses of the Gospel of John as the prologue. Most scholars believe that these verses were part of a hymn that was used in the early church. This is how you communicate lots of abstract theology to a group of people who can’t read: you turn it into a song, and then you sing it over and over again. We still do this today. And that is how a group of Christians in the early church, who can’t read for themselves, could master this theology and appreciate the ways in which a literate man like Nicodemus doesn’t quite understand what Jesus is saying.
The Gospel of John begins by explaining who Jesus is and how Jesus is related to God the father: “In the beginning there was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” We also learn that Jesus is the “Word made flesh,” that is, that God entered the created world in the person of Jesus. The opening is the same as the book of Genesis: In the beginning. John is saying that the entry of God, in the person of Jesus, into the created world, is as big of an event as the creation of the world. John compares the incarnation to creation. This is a subtle suggestion that the incarnation is an act of re-creation: God is remaking the created world by entering into the world.
The prologue also tells us that all who receive Jesus and believe in his name have the power to become children of God. This is the premise behind the dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus: “Jesus is talking about new birth, becoming a child of God, a new creation.” The prologue to the Gospel of John tells us that Jesus is God, Jesus has always been with God, and that Jesus is the one human being who is in a perfect relationship with God the Father. The prologue then tells us that we can enter into that relationship, too! We can become children of God, through our relationship with Jesus Christ! This is so much more than saying, “I believe.” It is more than an intellectual experience that we engage in for about an hour, every Sunday morning.
Nicodemus couldn’t fully understand what Jesus said because he didn’t understand Jesus’ relationship with God; he didn’t understand that Jesus was God in the world—Nicodemus couldn’t grasp the idea of God in the world. How can these things be? Nicodemus only understood the world as it was before the incarnation; he couldn’t appreciate the ongoing work of creation and re-creation. Yet Jesus didn’t write off Nicodemus. Jesus entered into dialogue with Nicodemus; Jesus engaged with Nicodemus.
Beloved, we are like Nicodemus. We have trouble understanding our current situation, where our pews are only half full, and the church doesn’t have the status it used to have. Like Nicodemus, we ask, how can this be? But that’s not the question we need to ask. We need to ask how we can be a part of God’s continuing work of creation and re-creation.
Yes, we still need to come together and worship, hear the Word of God, and study that Word. We must also live as a changed people. We must enter into deeper relationships with the people who are here and we must build relationships with the people who aren’t gathered here every Sunday morning. We have to invite people into relationship the same way that Jesus invites us to become children of God. In this way, the Church is an agent in God’s plan of re-creation! We have to tell and show people what it means to be children of God. The Church must be a human relationship, in God’s name, with the world. This is how the Church will survive, and even thrive. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Now, beloved, as you depart from this place, remember that we are called to be the Church, the body of Christ. This is His new creation, by water and the Word. As the Church, we are called to participate in the work of re-creation, through relationship. Go forth and be instruments of God’s love and peace and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. Go forth and be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, Let all God’s children say, Amen!