s013g99 Somerton Park Lent 2 28/2/99

"God so loved the world ..." Jn 3.16

This set of readings comes to us on this the second Sunday in Lent as new. In the older set of readings we would be celebrating the Transfiguration this day, but this has been transferred to the last Sunday before Lent.

John 3.16 is without doubt one of the most quoted passages in the Bible: "God so loved the world ...", yet the passage begins with an impossibility, it describes the antipathy between flesh and spirit, between earthly and heavenly things, between belief and unbelief, and ends with what must have been for Nicodemus an obscure reference indeed to the Son of Man being lifted up. I have often come away after reading this passage thinking that something's missing. Jesus seems to repeat himself, when it would have been far more helpful for him to have expanded on his theme, or at least not been so obtuse.

The passage seems all about "them" and "us" and I have sometimes wondered if Jesus liked Nicodemus or not. Jesus seems aloof. He seems to dismiss Nicodemus - "you do not receive our testimony" (vs 11) but this "you" might mean the religious authorities in general not Nicodemus personally. Whether or not Nicodemus took offence at the time, we are not told, but he reappears at the end of the story with Joseph of Arimathea to bury the body of Jesus (Jn 19.39). It is he that contributes the hundred pounds weight "mixture of myrrh and aloes". Jesus talks about birth, and the things of the spirit to Nicodemus - after this conversation he fades into the background only to reappear to deal with the dead body of Jesus, with spices to preserve the dead flesh.

Yet for all this "them" and "us" - "God so loved the world ..." Indeed the great Johannine truth that the "Word became flesh" means that God loved and loves the flesh. And Jesus, in words recorded by John says: "Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you". (Jn 6.53) We really cannot use these words in St John's gospel chapter 3 in a trite and simplistic way and expect them to approximate the meaning Jesus intended.

In particular, we cannot use these words to say that all "Christians" are going to heaven and everyone else is going to be consigned to fire and everlasting damnation, as they are so frequently assumed to be saying.

I suppose the other thing is that we can assume that Jesus' becoming flesh was not a temporary aberration, born of our continued recalcitrance, and (of course) never to be repeated - for that path only leads us to the conclusion that the mission of the Messiah was a failure and salvation is quite beyond anyone.

Jesus exudes confidence here: "We speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen". There is no question that Jesus saw his mission, culminating in the Cross as a success. "It is finished" means "It is accomplished" (19.30).

Indeed it is important to realise that Nicodemus did not know about the Cross - how could he have done? We look backwards with the 20/20 hindsight of centuries of Christian meditation on the Cross and resurrection and assume everyone in the gospel stories knew that that was what was going to be the end of Jesus' mission. They didn't. Even Jesus disciples did not believe Jesus when he told them.

So in a real sense - faith in Jesus was not even possible before the Cross and resurrection, and the Cross and resurrection marks not the end of Jesus' earthly ministry, but only the start of the possibility of humanity's faith. St Paul summarises the gospel as "proclaiming Christ crucified" (1 Co 1.23) - this couldn't have even begun until after the event. So when Jesus regularly speaks to the disciples as "Ye of little faith" it is not a put down - it is reality which until Jesus' hour has come could be no different - either by humanity's striving or by divine fiat. Indeed the religious authorities too could not have understood.

Yet in another sense the Spirit ought to have been comprehended by the religious authorities, and Nicodemus, their teacher. And perhaps they were. We hear Nicodemus greeting Jesus in the name of orthodox faith: "Rabbi, we (not "I") 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." (Jn 3:2). To this Jesus answered: "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above." (Jn 3:3). Perhaps this is just a long winded way of expressing the same sentiment said to Peter: "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven." (Matt 16:17). Jesus was saying to Nicodemus and the religious authorities: "God had revealed this to you". The religious authorities had perceived already the kingdom of God - they did not need to be born again as Nicodemus had assumed Jesus was demanding - and we have assumed Jesus was demanding of them. Jesus reiterates - not that the religious authorities need something that they haven't got - but "Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit." (Jn 3:5,6). He was saying that God had given them the ability to see who Jesus really was. It is quite true that Jesus says: "You must be born from above", but that does not necessarily mean that Nicodemus as a person or even the religious authorities in general were lacking this. It is quite comprehensible assuming that Jesus is actually acknowledging the divine leading expressed in the initial greeting and assessment of who he was. If it were not so, why would have he repeated it? Indeed Jesus' astonishment that Nicodemus seems unaware of these things is really only understandable if Jesus thought that Nicodemus already had had some experience of the leading of God.

But just as the affirmation that Peter made of who Jesus was and the blessing he received as a result did not last long - so to the religious authorities perception about who Jesus was and the blessing of Jesus' words, did not last long either. The religious authorities were to change their minds about Jesus and have him crucified - Peter was to deny his master three times. These things could not have been different. The religious authorities were not the "villains of the piece" and the disciples the heroes - all of humanity muddle along - perhaps perceiving good here and there, and striving, sometimes spectacularly ineffectually, to be true to that good.

And what is our faith if not that God picks people up - all people up? God so loved the world ... when people recognise Jesus for who he was, and when they fail to live up to that perception, deny him or push him away.

Our faith is not in an all powerful, all knowing and all seeing God, but in the God of compassion, the God of the Cross.

The paradigm has changed. No longer do we proclaim "our faith" but God's compassion. No longer do we proclaim those who do live up to expectations are rewarded and those who don't are damned. The message of the gospel is that God knows we all fail and accepts us as we are. There are no persons who are better Christians or more spiritual Christians - there is only the God who has compassion for all.

And we have a real clue as to how we "see the kingdom of God", how we are "born from above", how we are born "of water and Spirit", how we "enter the kingdom of heaven" - by seeing good in Jesus who perceives the leading of God in the religious authorities, and the leading of God in Peter's life, and who in all probability also sees God leading us in our lives already.

The answer is in fact there, it was there all along, Jesus was not being obtuse. In fact he is not being aloof either - quite the opposite. The religious authorities had glimpsed the kingdom - and Jesus strove to point that out to them. Indeed "the wind blows where it chooses".

We can read the newspapers or watch the TV news and get thoroughly depressed, or we can see in others something of God, and experience a measure of eternal life.

Today being the day when we have the ministry of anointing and laying on of hands for healing, I want to finish by reading Molly Wolf's Sabbath Blessing of a couple of weeks ago - entitled "Small Change" ...

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