Through powerful image of new birth and the biblical story of the serpent in the wilderness, Jesus shows Nicodemus and us what it takes for us to accept the freedom and power God gives us to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.
If the recent election of Donald Trump as the forty-fifth president of the United States has revealed anything, it is that a significant number of Americans are dissatisfied with their lives. They are disappointed with the hand they have been dealt, and they place the blame for their unhappiness squarely at the feet of the government.
A great number of individuals and families, including many in our United Methodist family, have communicated a strong message through their vote. These Americans believe that our government has let us down so badly that the only viable option was to elect a Washington outsider as president. For a lot of people, Donald Trump represents someone completely different, someone unaffiliated with the political system, and, because of this, someone who many believe might truly be able to offer a different solution.
No doubt some who were looking to be saved from their despair over the state of the union voted for President Trump because they had become weary of the daily struggle: to find a job that pays a living wage; to adequately feed, house, and clothe their families; to make it through another depressing day without drugs or alcohol or another vice to ease the pain; to survive from paycheck to paycheck after the government had taken so much, for taxes, for the Affordable Care Act, and for government waste, including programs that some perceive as enabling able-bodied persons to avoid working for a living at all.
Whatever the true causes underneath the 2016 election and whoever is to blame for the rampant unhappiness, one thing has become clear: a large number of Americans feel that the dream that was promised to them, the dream that was promised to all Americans, has not been attainable or sustainable for many people. The pain is real, and as church leaders, we have to own our role in failing to see, let alone help to relieve, this suffering. People who feel ignored or left behind by the American political system are clearly searching for something to give them hope. They are looking for someone or something to believe in, someone or something who will finally deliver on the promises, someone or something that will save them too.
At first glance, Nicodemus does not seem like a man in need of a Savior. He is not in pain. He is not disappointed or angry. He does not appear to be suffering. In fact, it is the opposite. By all measurements of his world, he is a success story. He has made it. He has achieved the Jewish Dream. He is a Pharisee, a member of the ruling class, and a leader among the Sanhedrin.
The character of Nicodemus appears only in the Gospel of John, where he is mentioned on three occasions: this passage from the third chapter, where he comes to Jesus under the cover of night seeking information on who exactly Jesus is and where Jesus gets his miraculous power; a few chapters later, when he advises his colleagues among "the chief priests and the Pharisees" to hear and investigate the situation more thoroughly before making a judgment concerning Jesus; and toward the end of John’s gospel, when he brings a personal donation of one hundred pounds of aloe and myrrh to be used to anoint Jesus for burial after the crucifixion. It is made clear by all of these actions that Nicodemus is a man of both power and means. He is, by today’s standards, a prominent member of the educated upper class elite, a Jewish man who achieved worldly success in spite of the fact that he’s an outsider in the Roman world.
And yet, in spite of his success, Nicodemus is clearly not satisfied with what his life has become. He comes to Jesus seeking something that all the worldly success in the world can’t give him. He seems genuinely drawn to Jesus. I don’t read him as coming to see Jesus in order to grab some of Jesus’ power for himself, but rather, because he yearns for something deeper and more meaningful in his life than what the world has to offer.
As we consider this encounter, it is important to not miss the detail that Nicodemus came to Jesus at night. This would suggest that Nicodemus doesn’t really want his friends and colleagues to know that he is interested in Jesus. He doesn’t want to risk being publicly associated with the teachings of Jesus or the growing movement Jesus is inspiring. He wants to keep his curiosity about and his admiration for Jesus a secret from those in his circle, at least in this first encounter. In this way, he not only protects his status as a person of privilege, but also maintains the illusion that he is loyal to the values of the world.
Eventually, Nicodemus comes around to letting others know he seeks the light that Jesus offers more than he wants to maintain his privileged status. He makes a public confession of his faith by his actions. By the end of the third encounter, it is clear that Nicodemus has come to believe Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah. But it takes him a long time to go public with his true feelings. It takes a long time before he is able to re-enter the womb and be born again, not into the dreams of the world, but into God’s dream.
I am writing these notes in December 2016. It has been nearly a month since the election of our new president. Every day, there are new reports on the work he is doing to assemble his new cabinet. But as of today, my sense is that not much healing has taken place. The anger emanating from both sides of the division still seems as fresh and raw as it did on November 9. There is a great deal of work to do, especially in our congregations, to reach across the chasm that divides not just the people of my nation, but people around the globe. It is work that will likely take a very long time.
I feel strongly that the work of healing and reconciliation must start in our religious communities. It begins in our local church communities. But true healing cannot even begin unless we are able to be completely honest with one another. Deep healing, reconciliation, and movement toward unity will not happen if leaders act like Nicodemus and keep their true beliefs hidden in the shadows.
The day after the election I left Nashville to travel to two states to continue my work of improving preaching in the United Methodist Church. In both places that I visited I had the opportunity to talk openly and honestly with leaders and preachers about the election, the state of the nation, the disunity and mistrust in their congregations, and how they would begin to do the much-needed work of bringing healing and reconciliation in the communities they served. I was surprised to learn that pretty much across the board, the pastors and lay leaders I spoke with expressed great reluctance to share their personal opinions about the election with the people they served. Most felt that if they were to claim the truth about who they voted for, especially from the pulpit, they would risk alienating their members,and perhaps even incur punishment from their superiors.
Let me be very clear here. As the Director of Preaching Ministries, I would never suggest that the pulpit be used to bully people or campaign for a particular political candidate. That is an inappropriate use of power.
However, I think we have to be honest about who we are and what we believe, even if the majority of the people we serve do not agree with us. As preachers of the gospel, we must bring our most authentic and honest selves to the work of wrestling with the holy texts with and before the people God has called us to serve. It is a great responsibility that we carry. But we can’t refuse to carry it. It is part of the yoke we bear when we place the stole around our necks or accept the authority of appointment as a licensed local pastor and step into the pulpit to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ.
Preaching always and everywhere incurs risk. But let’s be honest: if we avoid risk in order to placate the masses, are we not doing exactly what Nicodemus did? Are we not preaching Jesus under a cover of shadow? What happens to the message of our Savior if we as preachers refuse to present the Word of God openly and honestly, in the full light of day?
In the end, it doesn’t matter much who won and who lost in this election. What matters is that we as preachers fully embrace what God has called us to do: to engage the teachings of Jesus seriously and honestly so they can bring the power of God to bear on God’s people. It is critical that we let the gospel of Jesus Christ speak to our world, not just in the past, but today, and every day, every week, every year, every decade, for every generation until Christ comes in final glory and we feast at his heavenly banquet. Because what is at stake is great. It is greater than any election. It is greater than any worldly success or any worldly failure. What is at stake is life itself.
What Jesus offered Nicodemus was something much greater than anything the world could give him. It is something much greater than anything the world can give us.
One of the frustrating things about preaching the lectionary is that sometimes it skips things, or it starts or stops in the wrong place for what God is placing on our hearts as heralds of the good news. In my opinion, such is the case with today’s reading. I wish this time around that the makers of the lectionary would have continued the reading into the next four verses, because for me, that is where we get to the real meat of this story.
After Jesus speaks the beautiful verses beloved and committed to the memories of most his followers—“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. 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”—he goes on to say,
Those 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. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But 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 (John 3:18-21 NRSV).
It is easier to let the story of Nicodemus end on a positive note. It is comforting to rest on the idea that everyone who believes in Jesus will not perish but will have eternal life, and just leave it there.
The problem is, if we stop there, we risk inviting disciples of Jesus Christ to understand faith primarily in terms of assent. We are born again and saved for eternal life simply by saying the right words. The incredible call to return to the womb and be born again is reduced to saying we are disciples of Jesus Christ. With these words, we are assured of salvation without ever having to change a single thing about our lives. But if we do that, if we stop at words only, I’m afraid we miss the message Jesus had for Nicodemus and for us. Especially in America, where saying we are Christian affords us privilege over other faith traditions. We can say we believe in Jesus in the full light of day and rejoice in our privileged status, even as we continue to commit evil deeds under the shadow of night.
But Jesus asks for more than that from Nicodemus and from us. He says we must be born again. He suggests that believing in him is less about we what say than it is about what we do. "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" (verse 21). In John's Gospel, believing cannot be separated from doing.
It is one thing to say that we are Christians, but it is another thing entirely to live as disciples of Jesus Christ. And yet, how often do the words of our second vow flow simply from our lips without sinking in fully when we stand before the congregation to present ourselves or our children for Christian baptism:
Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?
Yes! We give our verbal assent.
But then what? Now what? What changes in our lives, in our hearts, in our souls? How do our lives testify that we been born again by the Spirit of Christ? How has baptism into this new life, this being birthed into a whole other kind of world, claimed us? How has it reoriented us away from living according to the ways of this world and birthed us into the kingdom of God that has been ushered in by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ?
There have always been Christians in name only. In every generation there have been those who claimed to be followers of Jesus Christ, but who continued to live in the shadows and love evil more than they loved the light of truth that comes from God. Consider this example from George Stroud, writing in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary (“Theological Perspective” for the Gospel reading, Second Sunday in Lent, Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide):
“In his seven letters to the churches in Asia, John of Patmos warned them to beware of the Nicolaitans (Rev. 2: 6, 15), Christians who were willing to offer worship to pagan and Roman gods in order to remain unnoticed, if not tolerated, in a non-Christian world. In the sixteenth century John Calvin referred to those who sympathized with the movement for the reform of the church but were reluctant to be publicly identified with it as "Nicodemites." In the midst of National Socialism, the Nicodemites’ heirs, the German Christians, sought to accommodate the gospel to the racism and anti-Semitism of Nazi ideology. In response, the Confessing Church in May 1934 declared, in the second thesis of the Theological Declaration of Barmen, "As Jesus Christ is God's assurance of the forgiveness of all our sins, so in the same way and with the same seriousness he is also God's mighty claim upon our whole life."
You and I stand at the end of a long line of human beings whose history is one of being aggressive to the point of ruthlessness. The ancestors of this great nation took land from the indigenous people and broke every treaty we ever made with them. Others took people by force from the content of Africa, enslaved them for generations, and later went to war to uphold their right to treat human beings as property.
We the people are using up the natural resources in this land and around the globe at an alarming and destructive rate: cutting down the trees that clean our air and protect the surface of the planet; polluting the soil and water that sustains all life on Earth; and leeching the lifeblood out of the earth’s veins and burning it up to power our extravagant lifestyles, all of which pollutes and destroys the atmosphere we must have in order to survive. We have bullied our neighbors to the north and to the south and paid off corrupt leaders in every part of the world. Our own United Methodist Church, instead of being the House of God working into usher in God's kingdom, has instead succumbed increasingly to marketplace values and grown to represent not the oppressed of our world, but rather, the status quo!
So that what I must confess is that while I have assented with my lips to accept the freedom and power that God gives me to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves, I have yet to return to the womb and be born again if I am to be judged by my deeds. I drive a car, fly around the country and the world, and live a lifestyle of absolute luxury when compared to the lives of the majority of people on this planet, all while being fully aware that maintaining it comes at great cost to others. I choose to remain in this denomination as one of its pastors, and in doing so, knowingly and willingly participate in a system tainted by sin and envy and oppression.
And what I say of the United Methodist Church of course goes for other denominations. What I have said of my own country can be said of other countries. What I said of myself is true of others. Isaiah said it best, centuries and centuries ago: "Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a (wo)man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!" (Isaiah 6:5).
Nobody is pure. I am corrupt. My nation is corrupt. My church is corrupt. The WORLD is corrupt. "But 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."
We may have made our vows, but many of us, maybe all of us, have not been born anew into the lifestyle Jesus requires. We continue to refuse to listen to our God, believe in our God, and most importantly, obey our God.
The good news is God would not have us perish. God would have us every one have eternal life. God did not send Christ into the world to condemn it, but to save it. God sent Christ to be lifted up before the eyes of the world, that all who would believe might be healed of this sin that infects us all.
Just like Nicodemus, we desperately need to be born again. We need someone or something to believe in besides ourselves and our dreams of material prosperity. We need to raise our eyes from where they have been fixed on our own navels. We need to get ourselves uncentered from our own problems and our own personal needs.
When the Son of Man is lifted up, anyone who does not love the misery and evil in his or her own heart will, just like Nicodemus, be drawn to Jesus and compelled to follow in his example.
All of which leads me to Jesus himself. Once we encounter Christ Jesus, once we begin to study him and learn what he really said and what he really taught—not the glorified, super-hero, knight on a white horse sent to rescue me alone from my personal sins—but rather, the Jesus of history, the radical, rabble-rouser revolutionary who openly resisted evil and injustice, who stood up against the oppressors and the status-quo of his day, who turned over the tables in his own Temple— once we come to know that Jesus, either we love him enough to want to be born again into the way of life that he taught, or we don’t.
Because to love him is to love the taste of healing and self-giving and justice and inclusivity and mercy. Love means to hunger and thirst after a way of life that opens us up more and more to other people. For that is who the Son of Man was and is: the person for others, the one who could not consider himself apart from others or others apart from himself.
The dreams of this world whisper to us to be independent, to make our own way, and to judge for ourselves what is good and what is bad. But Jesus Christ, the one from whom Nicodemus could not stay away, is not a teacher from this world and its dreams. He is a teacher from God (verse 2).
Living into our vow to accept the freedom and power God gives us to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves is not something we accomplish by vocalizing our assent on the occasion of our baptism. It takes a lifetime of commitment, and study, and practice, and constant new beginnings.
Only through him will we truly find rest for our souls, and only in him will we discover the very thing Nicodemus so craved that he risked himself and, finally, gave his life completely over to when he accepted fully that Jesus was the only one who could truly save him and was born again, by water and the Spirit of Christ.
Greek and Latin have distinctive ways of handling the verb “to believe” (pisteuein or credere) we do not have in English.
In these two languages, the verb “to believe” is often followed by one of two distinct preposition structures. In Latin, the preposition is the same in both structures (in), but the case it takes varies (either ablative or accusative). In Greek, there are actually two different prepositions (en and eis), the first taking the dative and the second taking the accusative.
The ablative or dative construction in these two languages is the rough equivalent of “to believe in” as in “to have confidence in” or “to give assent to.” This construction shows up in verse 15 of this week’s reading.
The accusative construction, translated literally, would be “to believe into.” As already noted, we don’t use that construction in English. But it is by far the most frequent way the Greek New Testament describes saving faith. It’s also the construction that begins every article of both the Apostles and the Nicene Creeds.
“Believing into” is a bit more intense than “believing in” or “having confidence in.” It’s more like “to stake one’s life on” or “to put oneself into the hands of.” This is also the construction we have in John 3:16 when it says “everyone believing into him should not be destroyed, but should have eternal life.”
There are no manuscript variants of either verse that alter the prepositional construction. Verse 15 has “believe in” and verse 16 has “believe into.” So what kind of faith is actually needed in order to have eternal life? Is mere confidence in Jesus having been lifted up like the serpent Moses lifted up enough? Or are we asked for more, for a complete commitment of life to Jesus, which results in a complete commitment of eternal life to us?
Let me suggest the logic of the serpent story already implies that the “believe in” of verse 15 has the force of “believe into.” Verse 16 merely clarifies and underscores that.
Here’s why. What was at stake in the serpent story was life and death. The promise from God was that those who had been bitten by poisonous serpents and would go to Moses, against whom they had complained bitterly, and gaze upon the bronze serpent he had attached to a large pole as an indicator of the serpents that had bitten them would be healed, saved from certain death. To have enough confidence (believing in) to go to look at the serpent lifted up, then, was literally an act of staking one’s life on the message that this action would bring deliverance from death. In a similar way, anyone who was looking at Jesus when he was lifted up on a crucifix and still believing in him was, in effect, taking their own life into their hands for his sake, or, more accurately, staking their life on him.
In reality, few people witnessed the death of Jesus on the crucifix. But all of us are invited to stake our lives on him, to believe into him, all the same.