Maggie Nancarrow. This sermon is based on John 3:1-17.
In the name of the One God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit—Mother of us all.
“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.”
John 3:16 is perhaps the most famous verse of Christian scripture.
How many of you had to memorize this in Sunday School?
It is a beautiful summary of our faith: God loves the world, and God chooses to become incarnate in the world, so that we might not disintegrate, but be born anew.
And yet, when you soundbite a verse, it can be turned into a tool for exclusion. Belief in Jesus Christ as God, and specifically, believing the right things about Jesus Christ and the faith he began, makes you saved—and all other beliefs make you die.
But I don’t think that using it that way is true to our faith at all. And, if you take a look at the conversation that produces it—I think that becomes clear.
Nicodemus the Pharisee comes to Jesus in the night.
He is taking a great risk in going there, because the story immediately preceding this one is the cleansing of the temple. Jesus has really honked off the religious authorities, and Nicodemus is one of those religious authorities. And yet, he is drawn to Jesus—perhaps Jesus’s acts of abundance and healing have woken up in him an old hole in his soul—something that he’s buried for a long time, and barely even remembered—but to see the power of a man so steeped in the presence of God—it reminds him that he wants more out of his life.
And when he gets there, protected by the night, he doesn’t really know what he planned to say, and so words fall out of his mouth before he can control them: “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.”
Now that’s a pretty weird way to start a conversation. Most Pharisees, when they approach Jesus in the Gospels, they ask a question—not just word vomit whatever they’re thinking.
Underneath that awkwardly delivered statement is a question—a question that Nicodemus can’t quite bring himself to ask, either because he’s afraid or he doesn’t know how—
How do I get access to this presence of God? Because it feels like Glory, and when it’s there, suddenly I know who I really am.
And that is the question that Jesus answers.
He says, you must be born from above, born again of the spirit.
There is a hunger in you, and it can only be answered by a rebirth. It comes not from talking about me, but believing in me, about letting yourself be changed by this kingdom of heaven, by this spirit, so thoroughly and so completely that it is as if you have been born a second time.
Nicodemus’s response, rightfully so, and perhaps much like our response is—wait, whut? Born again how exactly? Do you want me to crawl back into the womb?
Notice here that Jesus doesn’t say no. He just repeats himself. He wants Nicodemus to have in his mind a very physical picture. He wants him to think of the very real pains and realities of childbirth. And, the author wants us to make the comparison, so that we might imagine the birth of the spirit as something akin to the danger and the helplessness of the birth of the flesh.
In using this analogy, Jesus is making two points:
first, that to be truly alive in him, we don’t have a whole lot of control—when we are born we are not the primary actors in the event. Being born in the spirit is an act of submission to a process, not something we can do for ourselves.
Second, the God who gives us birth takes a great risk on squeezing us out of the spiritual womb—in Jesus’s time birth was dangerous, vicious, and often killed mother and child alike. Though she does the work, she has little control over the experience. The baby comes when the baby wants and the body simply knows what to do. This is what we’re supposed to think of when we hear being born again in the spirit.
The metaphor of childbirth is embodied, even if what’s born of the flesh is flesh, and what’s born of the spirit is spirit.
With such a metaphor as this one, it is no accident that the culmination of this conversation gets incarnational.
When Nicodemus comes to him and says ‘Surely you have the presence of God’, Jesus replies—yes, and so will you too, if you take a risk to be born again in the spirit. If you take a risk to believe that incarnation is possible. God testifies to God’s presence here, and it’s real, if only you open your eyes to see, and your ears to listen.
Being born of the spirit is learning to see how God is born into the world.
And that applies to us too.
To recognize incarnation is how that birthing process begins for us.
And, we must learn to see the world this way: it doesn’t come to us naturally.
We are separated from that knowledge of the incarnate God, separated from the reality that God is in every thing, every one, and walks with every element of being on their most difficult journeys.
I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time seeing all people as incarnate of God—especially the driver of that Ford F150 with Texas license plates that passed me on the right doing ninety.
But there are ways that this world does work on us, so that we become more aware of God’s presence in it. The observance of Lent, routinely every spring, is one such way of being shaped. The study of scripture, praying together, the careful study of the vast beauty and inner workings of creation, the attentive and deep work of maintaining a marriage, or raising children—these are the ways in which God’s spirit makes incarnation known to us.
The Christian life is a life-long commitment to being dragged painfully out of the comfortable womb and into God’s incredible, incarnated love and power. And the world is in desperate need of Christians who live this way: whose trust and belief in the incarnation is so strong that we treat the rest of our world as a part of our God.
What if the world had Christians who knew that God was incarnate in their neighbor, in the homeless man who asked them for a dollar, and the temper-tantrum throwing two year old in the grocery store—in their political rivals, and the undocumented immigrant afraid to go to the doctor? What if we truly, whole heartedly, were born into this belief, and lived our lives wholly from its truth?
What if that is what it meant to be a Christian?
So, hold John 3:16 close to your heart. But not because believing the right things about Jesus, the Bible, and the World will save you. Hold that verse close to your heart because believing in the incarnated God saves us: learning to recognize every aspect of our lives as the body of God will save us. Living into the world as if we too are parts of God’s salvific work, so much so that the spirit gives new birth to us—that will save us.
For God so loved the world, that God was born into it, so that our lives would not fail to matter, but through trust in love we could be born entirely a new in the spirit.