In the story we read today, we are confronted by not one, but two of the most recognizable sound bites in Christianity. One is John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” The other is the idea of being “born again,” which grows out of the conversation in verses 3-7 of today’s reading.
Both sound bites are polarizing words in Christianity; they create “insiders” and “outsiders” in our faith. As scholar Anna Carter Florence has suggested, some folks are attracted to these sound bites as ways of evaluating who the real Christians are. Others of us, who may not be comfortable with these tests of faith, may avoid these verses altogether; or they may listen for other people who quote them and then label those folks as religious fanatics. (Carter Florence, para. In Feasting on the Word, Lenten Companion, 22-23)
Neither one of these points of view is very helpful—not only are they divisive, but they are both conversation stoppers. I’m hoping this sermon will be a conversation starter. So, for now, let’s simply name that these ideas have the potential to be divisive, and let’s set them aside long enough to look at the rest of this story through fresh eyes.
I’ll name for you what has been my own mistake with this passage. I’ve been a churchgoer for my entire life, and I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know John 3:16. However, for much of my life, it never occurred to me to think about the meaning of the verse in context. It didn’t occur to me that these words come from a lengthy encounter with a man named Nicodemus. Did Jesus ever intend that people would quote John 3:16 all by itself? I don’t know. But today, as a way of expanding my own understanding, I’m going to set aside John 3:16 at first and back up and study with you what is going on in the story.
So, what’s going on in this story? This is only the third chapter of the Gospel of John, but much has happened already; we know that Jesus is rapidly gaining some followers and some critics. Here’s a quick overview of chapters 1 and 2.
The book begins with a philosophical introduction some of you will recognize: “In the beginning was the Word…” As the story then takes off, John the Baptist introduces Jesus, who he calls the fulfillment of the hopes for a Messiah, the long-awaited Savior of Israel. Jesus begins to gather his first disciples and invites them to join him; he visits a wedding at Cana and gains some attention by turning water into wine. And then, as Passover approaches, he goes into the crowded Jerusalem Temple, finds that it has been set up as a marketplace, and angrily overturns the tables of the moneychangers, putting himself at odds with the Temple authorities.
The next thing that happens is today’s story. One of those Temple authorities, a man named Nicodemus, visits Jesus. The story tells us that he is a Pharisee. Pharisees have a bad reputation in Christian history; some might call it anti-Semitic, because Christian unfairly classify Pharisees as enemies of Jesus. So, it deserves to be said that many Pharisees were faithful people who were serious about their religion.
As for Nicodemus, it’s fair to say that he represents the culturally acceptable religion of the day. As a Pharisee he is a recognized leader, and member of the Sanhedrin, the group that was in charge of the Temple and the autonomous affairs of the Jewish people. So, he is exactly the kind of person who would have been most threatened by Jesus’ recent acts in the Temple, overturning the tables of the moneychangers and driving them out.
Surprisingly, though, when Nicodemus comes to see Jesus, he acts neither threatened nor angry, rather he is curious. Something about Jesus has caught his attention and he wants to know more. He has questions.
“Rabbi,” he says, greeting him with respect, “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.” Nicodemus knows that there is something very special about Jesus, and he wants to figure out what makes him tick.
Jesus takes Nicodemus’ question and pushes it in a different direction; he says, “…no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Jesus tells Nicodemus that, instead of being astounded by the amazing things Jesus is able to do, he might try asking some deeper questions about his own spirituality. Has he ever considered that there might be a spiritual rebirth waiting to happen in his own heart?
Nicodemus has never considered such a thing and he’s puzzled. He asks Jesus, “How can these things be?” and Jesus reply is great; he says: “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? Anna Carter Florence suggests that Jesus isn’t shaming Nicodemus; he’s joking with him a little (Ibid., 23-24). Jesus chides Nicodemus that if he’s going to instruct other people in religion, he might first be asking tougher questions about his own spiritual life.
Nicodemus is comparable to people we can readily think of today. He is the pastor who preaches every Sunday but doesn’t do much spiritual work of his own. He’s the Elder or Deacon in a congregation who is happy to go to the committee meeting but has no expectations of growing in her faith. Lay aside the fact that Nicodemus is a teacher, and he might be any of us who have allowed spiritual life to become a series of routines: showing up for church, making a pledge, singing in the choir—without any real effort to ask questions that are big enough to change a life. For these folks, religion stays at church—it has no real impact on one’s family life or work decisions or ways of being Monday through Saturday. These are the Nicodemuses of our day.
Here is one more point in this story that tells us a lot about Nicodemus; all the scholars agree on this. The story tells us that Nicodemus comes to see Jesus at night, under the cover of darkness. He doesn’t want anyone to know that he’s there. To be sure, his fellow Pharisees might be suspicious of him if they knew, but more to the point, Nicodemus seems to want this to be a secret meeting.
None of this background presents Nicodemus in a very positive light, but there’s a key factor that redeems him in this story: Nicodemus shows up. It may be nighttime, but he comes. His original questions may not be the best ones, but he asks and he stays in the conversation.
So many others might be satisfied to stay home and critique the revolutionary teachings of Jesus, but Nicodemus wants to know more. As the Gospel progresses, we’ll get the sense that Nicodemus is an important person to watch in Jesus’ story. He’s going to show up two more times. In chapter 7, he sticks up for Jesus in front of some of his critics. Then in chapter 19, he’s present with Joseph of Arimathea after the Crucifixion, providing spices when Jesus is laid in the Tomb.
But now let’s turn to Jesus—what role does he play in this story? We’ve already said that he takes Nicodemus’ initial questions and deepens them; he challenges Nicodemus and does so with some conviction but also with some humor. Both things point to a broader reality about what Jesus is up to, in this story and in many others: Jesus offers the perfect invitation into a deeper and richer spiritual life. You can do no better. His invitation to Nicodemus is welcoming and encouraging, but it’s also given in total freedom. There’s no pressure to come along; Nicodemus can say “no thanks” if he wants to. Jesus does not pressure Nicodemus to come along; he has no ego about how many followers he can collect. Jesus’ invitations are challenging; he asks hard questions, but questions that are worth thinking about. When Jesus invites you to follow, a richer spiritual life is there for the taking, if only you will reach out and grab it.
Invitations are always important and there are a few elements to a really good one. A good invitation doesn’t try too hard, because people will get the most out of something they enter into willingly. If you really have to twist someone’s arm, you probably don’t want them in the room. Additionally, a good invitation doesn’t hide the challenges that may be ahead. It’s tempting to make an invitation sound easy because you want more people to come; but what leaders really want when they make an invitation is people who will take on a challenge.
A friend of mine who cares about good invitations likes to reference Ernest Shackleton, who was recruiting for Antarctic expedition a century ago. He supposedly ran an advertisement in the London Times that read: “Wanted. Men for Antarctic Expedition. Low Pay. Lousy Food. Safe Return Doubtful.” Perfect invitation, my friend says. And Shackleton reported got 5,000 applicants (as noted in Block, Community, 122).
The invitation Jesus gives to Nicodemus is the same one that comes to us: Seminary professor Deborah Kapp notes that “[Jesus] invitation is provocative…, because it invites us to open our imaginations and reconsider our relationship with God… Jesus invites Nicodemus, as he invites each of us, to come into the light of day and become mature believers, full participants in the abundant life he offers.” (Kapp, Ibid., 19)
It’s hard to tell what happens with Nicodemus as a result of this invitation, and maybe that makes his story all the richer. When he reappears in chapter 7, he sticks up for Jesus up to a point, but there’s no indication of whether he has really decided to accept the invitation to follow, or if he’s still on the fence. As for his appearance at the Crucifixion with the burial spices, that scene continues the same ambiguity: as one commentator has suggested, maybe Nicodemus is there to weigh him down with enough burial spices to be sure he’ll remain in the tomb. (Lewis, Ibid., 21)
I rather like the ambiguity of Nicodemus, for most of us share some qualities with him; we have some doubts about how far we really wish to follow Jesus, and how much influence we wish for him to have on our lives. The story of Nicodemus suggests that there’s always room for us to continue testing the waters—the invitation remains open. But the invitation is also clear that the stakes are high: there is an open invitation to a rebirth of our spirits and a realization of who God has created us to be, and to let that opportunity pass on by would be truly tragic.
So, what to make of the famous verse John 3:16 or the idea of being “born again?” It doesn’t seem to me like the point of this story about Nicodemus is to provide a test to help us identify the real, saved Christians. On the other hand, it seems quite dangerous to sidestep the importance of these verses entirely. If we can’t ask good questions about what it means to be born again, we risk remaining in a somewhat stale and boring religious experience that will never lead us to the abundant life God wants for us.
So here at the start of the season of Lent, a time set aside each year for self-examination and considering one’s relationship with God, here is my prayer. I pray that we will all be convicted by Jesus’ invitation that was given to Nicodemus. Come and see life in the fullness that God has invited us to enter. Ask the hard questions, open yourself to difficult challenges, immerse yourself in a faith that does not just reside at church on Sunday but that is woven through every fiber of your being. Be warned—it is not an invitation to something easy.
“Wanted. [People] for [Spiritual] Expedition. Low Pay. Lousy Food. Safe Return Doubtful.”