There’s a lot in this conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. Nicodemus is an important person on the temple in Jerusalem but he has witnessed Jesus clearing the temple and teaching. Jesus has caught his attention and he wants to know more. He came to Jesus in the middle of the night when no one would see him. At this point in the story he doesn’t want to be associated with Jesus but he’s curious.
He finds Jesus in the middle of the night and acknowledges what he has seen in Jesus. Nicodemus recognizes that Jesus’ words and actions must be from God. Jesus responds to this acknowledgement by saying that you cannot see the kingdom of God without being born from above or born again. The translation is unclear and is used interchangeably.
In Jesus time, people’s status in the world was attached to them at their birth based on their family. If your family was wealthy and important—you would be wealthy and important. If your family was poor or less important—you would be poor and less important. Status didn’t change much through a lifetime. The situation you were born into was your situation for life. So in this passage, we hear Jesus saying that a person must be born again or born from above—born of God’s spirit. This rebirth means that a person is no longer poor and unimportant but is a child of God. Anyone who believes in Jesus has this rebirth which elevates their status.
God—of course—has the ultimate status so to be a child of God raises those with the least status to the highest status. The other thing this rebirth does is to level the playing field. All of the children in a family (with the exception of the first-born) are of equal status. Jesus is the first born and everyone else’s status is evened out. In a society where status determines all of your social interactions and opportunities, to equalize the status fundamentally changes the world.
In this passage, we hear a famous verse: “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.” I will admit that I struggle with this verse because when taken on its own it seems to suggest that if you believe in Jesus you will live forever. If you do not believe in Jesus, you will not experience God after death.
There are a few words in here that need to be examined. The word believe has taken on a different meaning from what was originally intended. We think to believe means to know intellectually that something is true or real. According to James Rowe Adams, (Episcopal priest, founder of the Centre for Progressive Christianity) the intent that we find in John’s gospel seems to be “a recognition of a desire for God rather than an intellectual assent to opinions about God that cannot be supported by imperial evidence.” To believe in Jesus simply means that we have a desire for a relationship. This is more about an experience of the Holy than it is about knowledge. We do not need to sign on to particular statements of belief about Jesus.
Eternal life is another phrase that is sometimes problematic. It is often taken as a reference to life after death but in the Greek, it is in the present tense. So it is not intended as something that will happen but something that is happening… Here. Now. This is not about the length of life but about the quality of life.
So here’s what we get so far out of this scripture…As we are born from above we become children of God, equal to all other children of God. If we have a desire for a relationship with God and Jesus, the quality of our life changes. But wait…There’s more!
The passage goes on to speak about judgement and condemnation of God in the world. “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
We need to think of the world in the broadest sense. The world includes the universe or entire cosmos. All creation is included in “the world.” Condemn means to separate, to distinguish or to decide. Jesus did not come into the world to separate. What we translate as judgement can also mean justice. To save means to heal or make right.
So thinking about this verse another way might mean: God did not send Jesus into the world to separate the world but in order that world could be made right.
Those who have relationship with the holy are not separated. Those who have not found relationship with the holy are separated. We might think about this in terms of all the ways we are cut off or separated from ourselves, each other, the earth. When we no longer have a sense of ourselves within our relationships we lose our ability to love, to show compassion, to care. We are separated. Relationship with the holy mends the separation.
The final part of this passage adds one more twist. Claiming faith in Jesus does not give a get of jail free card for doing things that destroy or harm. And God will claim anyone who does what is good and right. Jesus’ role is to point the way. Jesus himself does not offer judgement but offers an invitation to be in relationship with the holy. By being in relationship with the holy, we find our own sense of purpose for good in the world.
There is no one who is outside of God’s love. That love is made known to us on a daily basis. We don’t have to wait until after death to experience God’s love. Simply a desire to be in relationship with the holy brings eternal life. Nicodemus came to Jesus with questions and uncertainty. He didn’t have the answers at the beginning of the conversation and he went away more confused than when he started.
We don’t have to come to faith with answers. We come to our faith with questions. Through the questions, Jesus gives us an invitation to deepening relationships, a sense of purpose and works through us and others to heal the creation.