God So Loved the World

John 3:1-21
2nd Sunday of Lent
Elizabeth M. Deibert & Tricia Dillon Thomas

Today’s narrative will be dramatically read by Richard Deibert (speaking the words of Nicodemus) and Chip Schaaff (speaking the words of Jesus). After the reading, Pastor Tricia (T) and I (E) will together invite you to reflect on that most-oft quoted single verse from the Bible, what Martin Luther called the gospel in miniature. “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.”

NRS John 3:1 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, "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." 3 Jesus answered him, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above." 4 Nicodemus said to him, "How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?" 5 Jesus answered, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, 'You must be born from above.' 8 The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit." 9 Nicodemus said to him, "How can these things be?" 10 Jesus answered him, "Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? 11 "Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16 "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. 17 "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. 18 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. 19 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. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 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." (Joh 3:1 NRS)

E: So Tricia how do you react to the notion of being born again or born from above? I mean you can relate to giving birth. Me too, but it’s been a few years, you know. Can you say something to the congregation about what it means to be born again?

T: Honestly, when I first hear that term, I cringe a little—the term’s been hijacked by the secular world, especially in the political spectrum as an excuse, for previously bad behavior and ethics. “Vote for me. Yeah, I did drugs and cheated people, but that was last year and now I’m ‘Born Again.’” I think being born again is not so much a one-time experience as it is a daily experience of dying to yourself and being renewed in Christ. Jesus says, “No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit.” Each week after our prayer for forgiveness, we give thanks for our new birth in water as we remember our baptism. We believe the Holy Spirit descends upon us in baptism, but we also believe that our birth into spiritual life is gradual.

E: Yes, in A Declaration of Faith, I love the part about how the Spirit enables our belief. Let me read it: “We testify that the HS makes us able to respond in faith to the gospel and leads us into the Christian community. The Spirit brings us out of death into life, out of separation into fellowship. The Spirit makes us aware of our sinfulness and need, moves us to abandon our old way of life, and persuades us to trust in Christ and adopt his way. In all these things, we are responsible for our decisions. But after we have trusted and repented we recognize that the Spirit enabled us to hear and act. It is not our faith but God’s grace in Jesus Christ that justifies us and reconciles us to God. Yet it is only by faith that we accept God’s grace and live by it.”

T: What was the last thing you said? That it is not our faith but God’s grace in Jesus Christ that reconciles us.

E: Right and it is only by faith that we accept God’s grace and live by it.

T: So let’s talk about how that relates to our key verse that is the favorite of so many Christians. God so loved the world that God gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. This verse seems to be saying that our faith/our belief is the only thing that matters.

E: You’re right, and many Christians have offended people and cheapened the Christian gospel by acting like some one-time sinner’s prayer and expression of faith in Jesus Christ is the simple answer and the one key into the kingdom.

T: And we’ve all known people who made that “decision for Christ” but then lived in ways that did not commend the Gospel to anyone.

E: What if we adjusted our understanding of the word “belief” to include a notion of “trust”? God so loved the world that God gave his only Son, so that everyone who trusts in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

T: I like that. It reframes the verse in a way I can better access. Instead of asking, “Do I believe?” which I sometimes have a hard time answering, I can ask, “Do I put my trust in God.” Or we could think of the word, “belief” as to “have faith in.” The root of the Greek verb “pistay-o” can also mean “faith.” Of course, it is NOT that we want to discount the first time a person commits herself or himself to faith in Jesus Christ. We have 8th and 9th graders who started confirmation yesterday. We hope over the time they spend in confirmation, they will come to an active decision to put their faith in Jesus Christ.

E: Yes, we value those pivotal moments in life when we make choices, as this confirmation moment is a rite of passage for teens becoming adults and claiming the baptismal promises made by their parents, now as responsible young people, becoming more adult-like in their faith. Stepping out in faith, on their own feet.

T: The challenge is figuring out what it means to daily believe, daily trust, daily put our faith in Christ.

E: Isn’t it a continuum – our faith? Not a check mark in one column or another.

T: Yeah, it’s not a verdict – either saved or damned to hell.

E: Not a Santa’s naughty and nice list, with faith moving you to the nice list.

T: So we’ve talked for a while about the word “believe” and come to a new appreciation about the depth and on-going nature of that word. But what about the issue of God giving up his Son? You know there are some people who are disturbed by that.

E: Yes, I have heard some people wonder how a God of love could sacrifice his only Son.

T: I could not sacrifice my sons or my daughter and call that love.

E: Nor could I, but of course, we have to remember the heart of our Christian faith is the Trinity.

T: Yeah, and the dual nature of Christ – that he was not just a human being, but also divine -- the second person of the Trinity.

E: And that he is fully One with his Father. So does it help us if we re-state John 3:16 this way? God so loved the world that God gave his only-begotten self?

T: Yes, that seems more like love. I think a good metaphor for atonement is that of God the judge, who gives the verdict of death, and then hops over the rail and becomes the defendant receiving that verdict. The judge and defendant are the same. After all, we can each understand loving relationships as being sacrificial ones. I’m sacrificing the freedom to sleep, to go to the bathroom by myself and lots of other things, as a mother to my children.

E: Sacrificial for the sake of the other, yes. Only I wonder if that courtroom metaphor, which is used by many through the ages, is really helpful to us. Because we all know that while we are completely justified by grace, a free gift, it is through faith that we grow into that grace. It does us defendants no good to have Jesus take the blame for our sin, if it does not inspire us to live differently, to try to avoid sin, to become more like Christ, to live in the light, not in the dark. Being sacrificial ourselves, for the sake of love, yes, like you and Clay, sacrificing for the life and the goodness of your children.

T: For the goodness of the other – not being sacrificial, like a battered woman sacrificing her dignity.

E: Right. Sacrificial love is giving to another in a way that dignifies both people.

T: And that’s what God has done.

E: Yes, God has given all God could give. God cannot make us respond in love. That would be like a controlling spouse or parent forcing something that does not arise naturally. Love must be mutual, arising in freedom.

T: It is not love if it’s forced.

E: It is not love if coerced. So while God is sovereign, God still preserves our freedom to respond or not to this great sacrificial love.

T: So that leads us to verses 17-21. God does not send God’s son (God’s self) to
condemn the world, but to save us.

E: But I’m still sometimes bothered by the next verse, which says, “Those who do not believe are condemned already.”

T: I can appreciate your discomfort with that. If faith is a gift and somebody seems to have faith in Christ and another does not, then how can we fault the one for not having the gift, for not believing?

E: Well, we talked about belief being a continuum, not a yes or no question, as if on a test. So while it feels like Jesus is separating those who believe cleanly from those who do not believe, I wonder if it is so cleanly divided.

T: And that portion of A Declaration of Faith which we heard says, In all these things, we are responsible for our decisions. But after we have trusted and repented we recognize that the Spirit enabled us to hear and act. So it is both our responsibility to decide to believe and the Holy Spirit who empowers that decision.

E: This paradox does not make it easy for those who want simple answers.

T: No. Because it’s both-and, not either-or. It is God’s gift of grace followed by our responsible faith.

E: Yes, and Presbyterians prefer the grace, but we cannot discount the significance of receiving and embracing this gift of love responsibly. The more we believe, the more we are coming into the light and making choices that do not condemn us.

T: So it is not so much God condemning us, but we condemning ourselves by our reluctance to come into the light?

E: Well, the text says, “God sent the Son not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved.”

T: So the issue that still troubles me is whether we can be saved, even if resist Christ’s love, even if we choose to ignore God. You remember from seminary, Calvin’s emphasis of notion of irresistible grace.

E: You’re right. We believe grace is so beautiful it is irresistible. We believe that when people truly see the goodness of God in the love of Jesus Christ, they will be wowed it. I guess sometimes we don’t see what we most need.

T: Like my kids fight against getting bathed, washed clean, when it is so clear that a calming, refreshing shower or bath is just what they need. Most of the time they end up loving the water so much, I have to practically pull them out of the bath.

E: I remember those days. And now, in my house, there are no more battles about bath time, there are still debates about good choices, about necessary sleep, about respect and responsibility. And the older my kids get, the clearer it is that they have to have grow toward the freedom to make their own choices, because love and responsible faith cannot be coerced.

T: And so we come back to the issue of faith and why it is so valuable for us to claim it, to declare our belief by our words and our actions.

E: Because God so loved the world, that God showed by word and by deed what love looks like. Sacrifice.

T: And by sacrificing our freedom - to commit ourselves to faith in God through Jesus Christ - we are entering the wonderful, challenging world of eternal life (eternal love), not just when we die, but even now!

E: Amen! Let us pray: O God, the depth of your wealth, wisdom, and knowledge. The depth of your grace and mercy and love in Jesus Christ, your very self come to earth. How unsearchable are your judgments, how untraceable are your ways! You are the source, guide, and goal of all that is, to You, Lord God be glory forever! Amen. (Romans 11:33,36)