Lent 2 – John 31-17
Today’s gospel reading is one of the best known passages in the Bible, which presents a challenge for talking about it. But it is well know because it has so much in it, and is so significant.
This is early on in John’s gospel. We have had Jesus’ baptism, the calling of the disciples, the wedding at Cana, and Jesus clearing the temple. But John is probably more interested in the meaning of the events rather than the correct order, and this passage sets out Jesus’ message.
Nicodemus is a Pharisee. They were pious Jews, not necessarily the official leaders, but an influential religious movement that had been around for ~150 years, with about 6,000 members throughout Palestine. (The population was only a million or so.) The name ‘Pharisees’ means ‘separated ones’, and their belief could be summed up in saying that God’s grace only extended to those who kept the law. They tended to be quite certain about the truth, which often brought them into conflict with Jesus later.
Yet something in Jesus’ had attracted Nicodemus. He came at night, which might mean he did not want to be seen, but might just be because he wanted time to talk to Jesus without the crowds around.
Nicodemus starts by complimenting Jesus and saying that he recognises that he comes from God, but he has barely got started before Jesus lobs a googly at him. “I am telling you the truth: no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born again.” Which is not quite the obvious reply. But it does make Nicodemus think. Born again, or born from above, the Greek can mean either.
Nicodemus stalls by saying, obviously, that going back to being a baby is not possible. No, says Jesus, the kingdom of God is spiritual. It involves being touched by the Spirit. The Spirit gives birth to the spirit.
How? asks Nicodemus. Again, Jesus does not really answer the question, but turns it around to make another point. He has a little dig at Nicodemus who, as a teacher of the Law, does not know something so basic, but goes on to say that he, Jesus, the Son of Man, knows because he has come from heaven.
It is a comprehensive statement of Jesus theology in a few very short sentences. For God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not die but have eternal life. We know this verse so well, but it is striking. It always makes me think of the music from Stainer’s Crufixion, which is quite a good way of remembering verses.
Jesus looks forward to his crucifixion, in verse 14: As Moses lifted up the bronze snake on a pole in the desert, in the same way the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.
And then he points to the love of God, contrasting it with what Nicodemus might have expected, his judgement: For God did not send his Son into the world to be its judge, but to be its saviour.
As I said, this comes early in this gospel, and allows John to set down Jesus’ purpose. How he is seeking to bring people in to the Kingdom of God, how this is the work of the Spirit, how it will be made possible by Jesus death, and how it is God the Father’s love that is behind all. So we have this very rich passage of Gods promises and purpose.
Nicodemus’ background was one of obedience to laws, earning your place with God. Jesus says that it is not your actions that let you see God, but the Spirit working within your spirit. We still tend towards thinking we earn God’s love. It is part of the human condition that people’s response to us tends to be based on how we are to them. To an extent, we earn love. It is refreshing and life changing when people love us anyway. When parents keep loving difficult children through hard times. When partners give forgiveness. When strangers show love. These are illustrations of God’s way. Love that continually welcomes us back, never gives up. It is not judgement of what we do wrong, but acceptance of us as His children. It is demonstrated supremely in God’s sending of Jesus into the world for us, so that everyone who believes in him will be saved.
One Born Every Minute is not a title I chose. It initially seemed unhelpful, as it is usually used to imply stupidly: there’s one born every minute. Taken literally, in terms of the number of people converting to Christianity in the world, it is a massive underestimation. One a minute is about half a million a year, and it is estimated that about 5 times that, 2.7 million people, are converting to Christianity per year worldwide, not including population growth among Christian communities. God’s love for the world is still reaching people.
There is a link to what Jesus says here in our Old Testament reading. It is God’s promise to Abram when he calls him to leave his home. Through you I will bless all nations. Years ago I read a book by Stuart Blanch, who was the archbishop of York at the time. It was about the Old Testament, started in Ecclesiastes and ended in Genesis, which was delightfully perverse, but it was a very good introduction. The title of the book was from this verse, in a different translation: the blessing to Abraham would be For All Mankind.
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
St. John and St. Stephens.