John 3:14-21New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
“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. 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.”
My grandfather worked on Submarines all his life, and during the War, he lived on the Subs. Life on a submarine requires a certain level of organization and my grandfather was a man with an organized mind, and an organized house. He was loving and kind, and would say “A place for everything and everything in its place.” Although I don’t always live up to it, I did I internalized this as the good wisdom it is for daily living. I’m a fan of schedules and lists; and can admit that I find well-organized spreadsheet to be a thing of beauty. For the most part, this way of being has served me well, but I have also come to learn the hard way that it can only take me so far. Life is messy and there often seems to be more gray than black or white; and especially as I walk further down this path as a person of faith, I see more and more clearly that God and God’s work always stubbornly refuse to fit into whatever human boxes or categories we try to parse things into. And that is a very good thing, because our vision can be narrow. We see through the glass darkly — And so, as we walk into our text today, let us pray that God will be with us and guide us.
God of mystery and love – open our eyes and our hearts to you. Help us to be in your presence, to see as you see, so that the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts will be acceptable in the fullness of your Sight. Amen
For some of us today’s lectionary text may be a familiar one — and specifically the verse of this text, John 3:16, ‘For God so Loved the World, He gave his only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him would not perish but have eternal life.’ We see it sometimes as a sort of marker of Christian identity –it shows up like the Christian fish. I have seen it crocheted onto wall hangings; held up on cardboard signs at basketball games; on t-shirts and bumper stickers.
Tim Tebow, winner of the Heisman trophy stenciled that number into that black paint football players wear under their eyes. And on the day of the first game he wore it, John 3:16 broke records for the most searched term on Google that day – one press account called it a “Google-splosion” .
For me personally, John 3:16, was the first bit of scripture I memorized as a very young girl. And as pieces of scriptures, and hymns, sometimes do, the passage took up residency in my heart from that early age, and over the decades has communicated something to me on a soul level about God’s love. Later we’ll sing the hymn What Wondrous Love: “What Wondrous Love is This, O my soul, o my soul.” – What wondrous Love is this, O my soul – that God SO loved the world, he did something incredible so that no matter where or who we are would never be without access to a life with God. That was, for me, what lived at the heart of it.
But on a ‘head’ level – my relationship with this passage and how it is sometimes carried in Christian community has at times rubbed up against how I’ve held it in my heart. This passage, when read with a certain lens, has all sorts of words that appeal to our sorting and categorizing and organizational minds. John uses words like light and dark; saved and condemned; true and evil; love and hate – but sometimes by extension, ‘in or out,’ ‘us and them’…
As I started looking into this, it turns out my discomfort with this (we’ll call it) dualistic language, was tapping into something a lot of other Christian thinkers, particularly those in the contemplative tradition, are exploring and writing about. Cynthia Bourgeault, one of those theologians, remind us that we come by this tendency toward this dualistic thinking, honestly — is one of the most fundamental and natural tools we have to navigate the world. As toddlers we learn to pick out the cat from the dogs, the triangle from the squares; yellow from blue. As we grow, we learn that this is a skill can help us define ourselves – We’re this kind of person, we do these sorts of things; and just as importantly ‘We’re not ‘that kind of person’, we don’t do those sorts of things. Bourgealt uses a computer analogy – she says we come hard-wired with this kind of ‘binary operating system’ –that basic sort of computer coding that divides all input, all data into 0s and 1s. While this binary mode is essential and helpful –when we get stuck in this mode only, or use it as our primary way of seeing, or aren’t aware we are using it, we and our communities and institutions can get into trouble. When we open our eyes to this kind of black or white, left or right, believer or unbeliever kind of binary thinking, we can begin see it at the root of so many problems: racism, political stalemate; religious violence.
Father Richard Rohr says that even when not taken to extremes, if we are not aware of this lens, we may unwittingly split the people and situations we encounter. The part we find appealing; understandable, relatable and safe; we tend to call good, and we give it our attention; and that which we find uncomfortable, unsafe, hard to relate to and understand, mysterious; we label bad, and at our most benign we simply tend to ignore or move that part out of our line of vision so that we don’t need to attend to it. I think of the homeless person we pass by on the street.
As people of Christian faith, walking in the way of Jesus, we should consider – Beaurgault says we are REQUIRED to –for our sakes and for the sake of the world, upgrade our operating system.
Jesus, for his part, is constantly, trying to pull us beyond a binary way of dividing up the world. He breaks down barriers between who’s in and who’s out; who’s rich and who’s poor; Challenging us not to judge as the world judges. This is not moral relativism,– It is an invitation to know that any one piece of who we are, is not the whole of who we are in God’s sight. That each one of us – you and the person sitting next to you, and the government official, the beautiful actress, and the person sitting in a jail cell – we can not be split down the middle or easily categorized; we are more than our mistakes; more than our appearance; or our upbringing; more our successes, more than those season of our lives when we need to walk fully in the darkness for a while; more than those seasons of our lives when we feel so much in the light that we think we have all the answers. God see the wholeness and totality of us and our situations – not in a way that judges and separates, but in a way that holds it all with chords of Grace.
What then of our passage today? What does this passage look like if we were to take off our binary lenses, and pick up this passage’s own invitation not to judge or condemn; but to see in a way that may bring us closer to seeing as God sees.
It may be helpful to know that this text takes place within the context of a conversation Jesus is having with man named Nicodemus. Nicodemus only appears in the Gospel of John, and this is the first of three times we see him. This conversation takes place immediately following the story Stacy shared with us last week about Jesus overturning the tables in the Temple, admonishing the Jewish Leaders, the Pharisees, for in Jesus’ words, turning “his Father’s house into a marketplace”.
The Pharisees, we can be pretty sure, are not happy with Jesus at this point– we see seeds of the judgement we know Jesus will be subjected to later on by this same group; judgement of guilt over innocence that will lead to Jesus’ crucifixion. But one Pharisee among them is withholding judgement; pushing against his own and his religious group’s binary thinking – thinking that would put him on the inside and Jesus on the outside. That Pharisee, Nicodemus, goes to Jesus at night, in the dark – and they have a conversation They talk about what it is to be born as a human into this world, and what it would mean if instead we were born of the Spirit; born again into perfect union with and connection to the Eternal. It is a conversation that has everything to do with upgrading Nicodemus’ and our spiritual operating systems – and we see Nicodemus struggling to begin to widen his view; to see his situation and the person of Jesus in front of him not through his binary lenses, but as God may be seeing them. It is Nicodemus, by the way, who later petitions his fellow Pharisees not to arrest Jesus without a trial; and who, at the bitter end, acts with open eyes, great Love, against the Pharisees’ judgement, to join Joseph of Arimethia to take Jesus’ body down from the cross, wrap it in linen and spices and lay it in the tomb.
At this point in the conversation, today’s passage begins. And with Nicodemus still in the room, Jesus seems to turn and address us more directly. With this strange image of the snake – deserving of its own sermon — Jesus brings us straight to God’s work in the world through time and to the foot the barrier-breaking symbol of the cross.
Jesus tells us he will be physically lifted up and crucified; but in a paradox that defies binary thinking that will not be the end of the story. He will be lifted up and exalted too, in a way that forever will shatter that boundaries between life and death.
It may also be useful to remember that John describes Jesus throughout his book in a way that none of the other Gospel writers do – and his understanding of Jesus is fundamental, I think, to our understanding of the text. We read the first lines John 1:1 (We read it on Christmas Eve, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God”) and learn that God’s begotten child, this Christ, existed long before the physical person of Jesus. John calls this begotten child The Word, Logos, some would say Wisdom — the presence that was with God before the dawn of time, that worked with God to help create the world, that returned to be with God forevermore. It is This begotten child that God sends to us as Jesus, that through person-al, embodied relationship, we too might have a path to God’s eternity – not just in the next life, but here and now.
It is this begotten child that in this passage turns to us and says, “Don’t you see? God So loves this world, that he sent me – not to condemn and to judge, the choice is all yours – I came to open a path, a path you can believe in. I’ll be the path, and I’ll walk the path with you. And step by step, prayer by prayer, act of love by act of love, you too may enter into greater unity with God. You too may step into that river of Eternal Life. And in those blessed moments when we know we are in God’s presence, we may begin to glimpse ourselves and the world through God’s eyes, we may begin, as Bourgeaultsays, to upgrade our operating system— and see that lines we used in the past to divide up the world and separate ourselves from one another cease to make sense. God in us and through us will be in our seeing. All we had pushed out of our field of vision, because we had categorized it as bad or different or un-relatable will come back into view. Honestly, openly and held with love.
Evil things like shame or hatred don’t get to hide or hold power over us anymore. And we will begin to know what it is to fully see and love ourselves and fully see and love our neighbor.
And that, to me, is Good, Good News. Knowing that as a person of Christian faith, “A place for everything and everything in its place” – may have less to do with sorting and putting myself and others into categories, and everything to do with seeking to find my own place next to God – that if I can even come close to managing that, everything else will fall into place. Amen