Rev. Don Beyers, Christ Church, Bolton
There are few scripture passages as familiar as the gospel we’ve heard proclaimed today. So well known that you will even find allusions to it at sports events. Go to any match or game and you will inevitably see a person or two holding a large sign with John 3:16 written over it. Much to our surprise, many in the crowd will even know the passage upon seeing the reference: “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.”
While some may rejoice that many know this verse by heart, I fear our familiarity has blinded us to the extraordinary depth and significance of this passage. Even the most ardent of Christians likely fail to appreciate not just the profundity of John’s words, but also what they mean for us. Rather than appreciate it as an extraordinary statement of faith and belief, John 3:16 has been reduced to a Christian marketing gimmick at sporting events.
Yet John 3:16 is anything but a slogan or tagline for Christians. It encapsulates the very heart of Christian belief.
To better understand the meaning of not only of today’s gospel lesson, but in particular the meaning of John 3:16, we need to look at the larger context of the story. The selection we heard proclaimed this morning, namely John 3:14-21, is an extract from a larger sermon given to a man we only know as Nicodemus, a distinguished teacher and man of the Pharisees. While often referred to as a sermon, the exchange is much more intimate and is an occasion whereby Jesus shares from his heart the mission of his ministry.
Jesus is in Jerusalem during the Passover. Although he has won considerable praise from people, he knows his life is in danger. He is clearly upsetting the religious and social order of the day, perhaps even undermining the authority of the religious leaders and officials. Given the precariousness of his situation, Jesus tries to keep a low profile. John tells us that Jesus doesn’t trust the acclaim of the people, for he knows things can turn very quickly. There is a tinge of sadness in this scene, for John tell us that “Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people.” (John 2:24)
Despite his guardedness, Jesus is met by Nicodemus and for reasons unknown to us, Jesus opens himself up to Nicodemus and shares with him the very purpose of his ministry. As the early 20th century Anglican theologian Edwyn Hoskyns notes, “Jesus tells Nicodemus everything with complete freedom. He has nothing to hide and he lays bare all the fundamental themes of his mission.”
Nicodemus approaches Jesus in the darkness of night. His meeting at night is both symbolic of the fear he felt and his inability to fully see Jesus for he is. On the one hand, Nicodemus has a deep awareness of Jesus’ person. His first words to Jesus reveal as much: ““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.” (John 3:2)
Despite Nicodemus’ sense of Jesus, he can’t quite fit Jesus into the religious narrative and theological understanding of his day. Jesus is not a Messiah who comes with power and might, as the Jewish authorities expected. Rather, he is a man from an obscure village and a rather unremarkable family. After initial banter with Jesus, Nicodemus finds himself confused and asks Jesus “How can these things be?” (John 3:9) To which Jesus teases him and asks a question in return: “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” (John 3:10)
What follows is Jesus’ most profound and intimate revelation of himself. Although Jesus intended to remain hidden in the crowds and not reveal his true nature to anyone, he reveals himself and his purpose fully to Nicodemus in the darkness of night. A risky move; Nicodemus was one of the leading religious authorities. Yet there must’ve been something about Nicodemus’ heartfelt and earnest faith that compelled Jesus to share his most intimate secret: that he has come into the world to redeem and save it, but not in the way Nicodemus or all the other religious authorities expected. Rather, as the early Christian Father Irenaeus writes,
To be considered as like ourselves, Jesus took upon himself pain; he wanted to hunger, thirst, sleep; not to refuse suffering; to be obedient unto death; to rise again in a visible manner. In all this, he offered his humanity as the first-fruits.
Jesus proceeds to re-interpret the Torah for Nicodemus by citing an incident in the story of Exodus whereby the sinful Israelites were saved by an image of snake hoisted above all to be looked upon for healing. His point is to make clear that from the beginning of time it has been the plan of God to redeem humanity and that even the stories of the old point to Jesus and his saving work. As Martin Luther notes in a sermon upon this text,
The Lord shows us the proper method of interpreting Moses and all the prophets. He teaches us that Moses points and refers to Christ in all his stories and illustrations. His purpose is to show that Christ is the point at the centre of the circle, with all eyes inside the circle focused on him. Whoever turns his eyes on him finds his proper place in the circle of which Christ is the centre. All the stories of Holy Scripture, if viewed aright, point to Christ.
Jesus further challenges Nicodemus to reimagine the power of God to save. Not only has it been God’s will to redeem humanity from the beginning of time, but to do so in a way that no one could imagine or even fathom: by death upon the cross. God would take on the curse proper to humanity; remember, the consequence of sin is death. Moreover, by his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus transcends and abolishes the great divide between God and humanity. While Nicodemus and his fellow teachers expected God’s power to be displayed with human might and grandeur, Jesus makes clear that the power of God is not in human might but in ways contrary to human imagination. St. Gregory of Nyssa, a saint whom the Anglican communion remembered this past week, once said to persons seeking baptism that,
The fact that the all-powerful nature of God was capable stooping down to the lowliness of the human condition is a greater proof of power than are the miracles, imposing and supernatural though these be… The humiliation of God shows the super-abundance of his power, which is in no way fettered in the midst of conditions contrary to its nature… the greatness is glimpsed in the lowliness and its exaltation is not thereby reduced.
In the middle of his heartfelt self-disclosure, Jesus utters the words Christians have come to know so well. Rather than use the most common phrasing of the line, I like to use the literal translation offered by Frederick Bruner in his commentary on John:
“You see, God loved the world so much that he gave his One and Only Son, so that every single individual, whoever! who is simply entrusting oneself to him, would never be destroyed, oh no! but would even now have a deep, lasting life!” (John 3:16)
No longer will we be separated from God and suffer death. Now, by Jesus’ gift of himself to us, we will be able to draw from the wellspring of life. The medieval Orthodox Christian Saint Nicholas Cabasilas spoke of this best when he wrote:
As humanity was triply sundered from God — by their nature, by their sins, and by their death — the Saviour so worked that they might meet him unhindered and come to be with him directly. This he did by removing successively all obstacles: the first, in that he shared in human nature; the second, in undergoing the death of the Cross; and finally, the third wall of division when he rose from the dead and banished wholly from our nature the tyranny of death.
Jesus makes evidently clear to Nicodemus, and to those of us who hear his words today, that he has come so that the entire world may have life and have it to the full. Not just a few, but all people, as the Greek makes plain: “God so loved the kosmos.” This is not a gospel of exclusion but a gospel of radical inclusion.
Once again, such a message must’ve radically challenged Nicodemus’ world view, and, I dare say, it challenges our own. While so many of us Christians may be quick to decide who is and who isn’t going to be sharing in eternal life, Jesus makes clear his gift of self is for the life of all. God’s love surpasses the fragile love humans have. This is later further expressed in the scriptures. Paul himself says as much: “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.” (2 Cor. 5:19) Timothy echoes the same, writing, “the living God, who is the Saviour of all people, especially of those who believe.” (1 Tim. 4:10) John continues the refrain in his first pastoral letter, that Jesus died for the sins of the whole world” once again using the Greek word kosmou or kosmos, for the word world. (1 John 2:2)
This gospel of radical inclusion into the heart of the life-giving love of God is a message of great joy and hope. Our Lenten journey now arrives to its destination: living in the life of God. So what do we need to do to share in this all-inclusive love of God?
Nothing. All we need to do is to entrust ourselves to the graciousness of God and let God take care of the rest. As St. Paul says in his Epistle to the Ephesians, our first lesson today, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Eph. 2:9)
Trusting in the power of God, we Christians now depend upon the Word spoken and the Sacrament broken. By our proclamation of the Word and the Breaking of Bread, we entrust ourselves over and over again to Christ. Thus, as Bruner says in his commentary,
When one hears the message of the full extent of God’s love and then when one simply trust this Giver, the Gift, and this Giving, one will just as simply go to and become a living part of the local church where this message is continually “given” and there receive her divinely commission Christian initiation ceremony — baptism in water and Spirit. The Holy Spirit has always been and is still very much at work in the Church through this gospel message in Word and Sacrament, enabling human beings to trust the message and its messengers.
Jesus’ intimate and heartfelt sharing of himself with Nicodemus must’ve left an indelible mark upon the man. Although we hear little more about him, we encounter Nicodemus one more time in the Gospel of John, once again in the darkness of night. Only this time Nicodemus comes back to his friend Jesus after all had abandoned him to a brutal and shameful death. Together with Joseph of Arimathea, he tenderly and lovingly anoints Jesus’ body, wraps it in linen cloths and buries him in the garden. At the darkest hour of night, when even Jesus’ most enthusiastic of disciples, namely Peter, had rejected him, Nicodemus lets go of his fears, risks all he had, and entrusts himself to Jesus. Clearly his first encounter with Jesus so radically transformed him that he could do no other than to love and trust Jesus. The question for you and me then is, do we entrust ourselves to the love of God?
To perhaps help you make your answer, I invite you to ponder and reflect on the words of a sermon given by John Donne, the great 17th century poet and dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, England. Meditating upon Christ’s death on the cross, John tells his congregation to,
Know then, that Christ Jesus hath done enough for the salvation of all; but know too, that if there had been no other name written in the book of life but thine, he would have dyed for thee. Of those which were given him, he lost none; but if there had been none given him, but thou, rather then have lost thee, he would have given the same price for thee, that he gave for the whole world.