This Sunday we will be diving into scripture that has serious baggage—John 3. It is hard not to think about this passage without all the various associations—Born Again Christianity, Guys in rainbow wigs at football games waving Signs emblazoned John 3:16, or how much Belief has become central to Christian thought. How do you begin to compose a sermon on this passage without having to stop off and comment on all of that other stuff?
Well…let’s unpack a bit of that baggage here, so we don’t have to rehash it on Sunday too much. First of all, Belief. Let’s just start by saying that the Greek word that is translated belief, has very little to do with what we think of as belief. As we tend to talk about it, belief means a rational ascent to a set of doctrinal propositions. In other words, our faith is boiled down to whether or not we think that Jesus is God’s son is factually accurate. I don’t know about you, but I hear that and I just roll my eyes. There is so much baggage from the enlightenment and the broken relationship between science and faith, and frankly, just bad preaching that is hanging around that proposition. The Greek word that is so poorly translated as belief is pistuo , and it really doesn’t have anything to do with rational ascent, scientific facts, or doctrine. Pistuo is a relational word and has more to do with the way we talk about belief when we say we believe in our kid, or our spouse, or our hero. It is supportive trust that improves our lives and the lives of those we care for. As a matter of fact, the word belief in English came from the old German word belieben which meant beloved. So when we start talking about belief, get doctrine or facts out of your head. That points at the very problem that Jesus is addressing with Nicodemus in this passage. Jesus is trying to point at a different way of living, at a deeper more meaningful life, at rich relationships and ultimately at love. However, Nicodemus, much like many modern Christians, is more concerned with getting his facts straight about how this born anew stuff actually works. Nicodemus is chasing a litmus test for who gets in and who doesn’t. Isn’t it ironic that we have turned this passage, Jesus’ very teaching about living more deeply and richly into a litmus test for who gets judged and who doesn’t?
This passage may be the very definition of how we use scripture to do violence. It is about the love of God for all of creation, and yet, we use it to set up fences around ourselves, so that we are the beloved and everyone else is not. We are the enlightened, the “Born Again,” and everyone else is not. Wow, we just don’t get it do we. Last week, we spoke of Christ understanding human nature in John 2, and now we are reminded of just how broken that human nature can be—using the love of God to determine the in crowd.
Instead of using this as a test for who is in and who is out, who is judged and who is saved, we ought to head the warning that is fairly obvious in this passage. Nicodemus is a religious leader in Israel. Nicodemus is the very definition of the “in crowd.” Nicodemus is us. Nicodemus is the one that would be holding up that John 3:16 sign to point to himself as saved, with the implied threat that you other heathens better get in line. Nicodemus stands in for every one of us pew sitters out there. This story isn’t about those “other” people who are going to be judged. This story is a reminder that the moment we think that we have it, that we are the enlightened or “Born again,” that we have punched our ticket to salvation, that we better be prepared to walk away befuddled, just as Nicodemus does. This story is not about “getting it.” This story is not about being chosen, or right, or saved. This story is about God’s love for everyone—no exceptions. In fact, if we understand the Greek word pistuo more accurately as a way of life, and not simply a litmus test for who is in, it would be us Nicodemus’ who would end up on that list of the “judged.” It is striking that this passage about the religious insider is put back-to-back with the religious outsider—the Samaritan woman at the well. The religious insider doesn’t get it and walks away confounded, the outsider gets it and changes her life.
Now all of this probably comes off a bit harsh, but here is the lesson for us. God’s grace is for everyone. EVERYONE! Which means the way that we treat everyone matters because everyone is the object of God’s love. It means there are no insiders or outsiders. It means that all of those categories that we have constructed for ourselves are irrelevant. It means that our calling is to serve ALL people, not just the ones we like, or the ones who go to our church, or the ones who were born in this country, or the ones who live like we do, or the ones who are of the same faith as us, or the ones who voted the way that we did, or any other category. I know that you here this from me all the time, but this seems to be the hardest lesson for any of us to learn. It needs repeating on a regular basis.
I hope you take this to heart this week and find a way to broaden your own categories. I hope that you can find a means of living pistuo instead of just believing. On Sunday, we will take on more of the baggage by talking about the cross, and what it means for us. See you then!