Rethinking John 3:16

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.

pexels-photo-733881.jpegThose 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.

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What’s Essential in Worship?

This reflection is based on the story of Jesus Cleansing the Temple–John’s version. Before I really get into the story I need to clarify some of the language being used. Many translations use the word Jew. Because of time and distance from the original context recent scholarship suggests that this word has been mistranslated and should be translated as Judean. Judean simply meant someone from the territory of Judea. This is especially important in reading John because John paints this group in a very unfavourable light and John has been used through the centuries to foster anti-Semitism.

The other thing we need to understand in order to make sense of John is that there were Jews who believed they had found the Messiah in Jesus. Continued to practice the Jewish faith and follow Jewish customs but their insistence that Jesus was the Messiah put them in conflict with other Jews. Eventually, these Jewish Christians were forced from their communities of faith and no longer permitted to worship in the temple. In this story, when we hear Jesus arguing with “the Jews” it will be helpful to remember that the writer of John was having a specific conflict with Jewish authorities over access to the temple.

That’s the stage for the story we heard today. This story does appear in Matthew, Mark and Luke. In those stories, Jesus quotes from Jeremiah suggesting that the temple has become a den of robbers. In these gospels, there seems to be a focus on the money changers and sellers of animals.  In John, it is the disciples who quote Psalm 69 as a way of making sense of this story. “It is zeal for your house that has consumed me.” By doing this, John shifts the focus from specific practices to the bigger picture. He questions the entire system that needs the sacrifice, the money changers, the animal sellers.

He seems to be suggesting that all the required ritual is getting in the way of truly worshipping. The temple and everything that goes with it is unnecessary. In our own context, we sometimes lose sight of what allows us to truly worship and what just seems normal because it has always been so in our lifetime. Could we worship God without this building? Could worship God without bulletins or powerpoint? Could we worship God without musical instruments?

It goes to the heart of a question. What is it that is truly necessary to worship God? God doesn’t need our worship so God doesn’t particularly care about all the outside trappings. We care because they are helpful or comforting or beautiful or even just familiar. God doesn’t need all the trappings. Worship is for ourselves. It is one of the ways that we open ourselves to God at work in our lives. As a community, we need to reflect on what is truly necessary for worship. In the Greek worship and service have the same roots.

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I want to use our hands as a model for reminding us of some of the important aspects of worship:

  • Thanks/gratitude/Praise
  • Concern for struggles – our lives, people around us, our community, our world
  • Experience of the Christ within and among us
  • Story – roots us in our history, reminds us of who we are and whose we are. Sometimes scripture, sometimes other stories, stories of God in our time and place, stories of God in other places, at other times
  • Sabbath—rest, nourishes and sustains

All the fingers are connected. The veins in the hand form a heart of love. Our hands are meant for doing. Sometimes we fold them in prayer. Sometimes they are active. Our hands are one of the most common ways we initiate contact with another human. They connect us. Our worship sends us back into the world to be the hands and feet of Christ.

In Isaiah 58, the prophet is protesting people who follow the rules and yet forget what’s at the heart of their worship.

 

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

They were doing the proper fast but forgot how to care for their community. Jesus seems to be protesting something similar. All the proper sacrifices are happening in the temple but the people have lost sight of the reason for their worship. They have lost sight of how the sacrifices are actually harming people and preventing people from experiencing God. We need to be attentive to this in our own lives and in our community—worshiping properly but without concern for the people whom God calls us to serve.

Life Changing Moments

pexels-photo.jpgJesus has gathered some disciples and he heads off to a wedding in Cana with his mother. They are into the wedding (which will last several days) and there’s a bit of a disturbance. Jesus’ mother comes to him and suggests that perhaps he could do something about it. Jesus resists this little nudge and questions why it’s his problem. He tells his mother he isn’t ready to respond to her suggestion or to allow God to be at work in him. He isn’t ready yet. It isn’t time. But his mother knows that he is a dutiful son and that he will give in eventually.

Sometimes our life with God includes a bit of resistance. When I was about fifteen, our minister at the time suggested to me that I become a minister. I considered this until I realized I would have to talk to people. It took me almost fifteen years to be ready to respond to that call.

Jesus only takes a few minutes to resist and then respond. How did he know to fill the jugs with water and they would become wine? Did he have a list or miracles packed away in the back of his mind that he could just pull up at moment’s notice? Had he gone to miracle school and learned this skill? He simply responded to God’s call. I wonder if he knew what his actions would set in motion? I wonder if he knew that responding would change the course of his life? Maybe he just wanted to have a nice quiet, ordinary life. That one response changed everything going forward.

What happened when Jesus was finally prepared to respond? The most extraordinary thing: water became wine—and not just any wine but—the best wine ever. The steward in charge of the wine calls the groom and commends him for offering his guests such fine wine. Jesus doesn’t protest and say “Hey, I made that wine. It was water a minute ago.” Jesus allows the groom to take the credit and he gets on with being himself.

In my own life, when I was finally able to respond to God’s call to ministry my life did change. I find myself in situations I never dreamed of. My path has crossed with people that I wouldn’t otherwise have met. I’ve been stretched beyond what I thought were my limits. Sometimes, when things feel overwhelming or especially heavy or uncertain, I ask myself why I responded to this call. I ask myself why I decided to be a disciple of Jesus. There are moments when I look around and see people using their gifts and responding to God’s call. There are moments when I see the world shift for someone and recognize the spirit at work. There are moments when I see good things happening. In those moments I know why I responded but it isn’t about me. It’s about what God is doing when we respond. These are moments when the ordinary becomes extraordinary.

Each of us has a call. A call isn’t something that is learned. It isn’t something that we plan. A call is a response. Calls are not reserved for extraordinary. They are responses of ordinary people. As ordinary people respond to God, extraordinary things happen around us and within us.

Evangalism: An Invitation

pexels-photo-191034.jpegJohn is different from the other gospels. With Matthew, Mark and Luke there is a certain amount of overlap and the stories are similar. John has several stories that only appear here. John opens by declaring that Jesus is the word of God made flesh and that this “word” has been with God since the beginning of time. John the Baptist is introduced.

As a side note, this gospel was not written by John the Baptist. The gospel was written about 60 years after Jesus’ death so most of the eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life would have been dead. The stories in this gospel seem to come from a group of Jews who understood Jesus to be the Messiah but who maintained their identity as Jews. The stories are told by this group to help the Jewish community around them understand who Jesus is.

Further on in chapter 1 the story continues with John the Baptist pointing to Jesus and indicating that there is something different about him. Two of John’s disciples quit following him and begin following Jesus. These two disciples seem to be looking for someone to follow—someone to help them make meaning out of life. John wasn’t giving them quite what they needed and so they decided to see what Jesus had to offer. And Jesus’ first words to them ask a question: “What are you looking for?” They respond with their own question: “Where are you staying?” Finally, someone answers a question. Jesus responds by inviting them to “Come and see.” The go to where Jesus is staying. One of the disciples is Andrew. He goes and finds his brother Simon who Jesus immediately renames Simon Peter—meaning “the rock.” The next day Jesus comes across Philip and says, “follow me.” Philip then goes and finds his friend Nathanael. After some initial questioning, Nathanael also understands Jesus to be the Messiah and follows Jesus.

Within this story, we see how networking builds the community of followers. John points out Jesus to Andrew and his friend. Andrew brings along his brother Simon Peter. Andrew and Simon Peter are from the same place as Philip. Philip finds his friend Nathaniel. All of these people become followers of Jesus because someone they know has a connection and invites them into this mission. They don’t randomly find Jesus and begin following.

These first disciples are invited to come and see by someone they know. Folks who have spent their whole life in church sometimes forget that other people need an invitation. They may not realize that there is something to see in the person of Jesus or in the community of a church.

It’s a word that we sometimes avoid in the United Church. Evangelism sometimes makes us uncomfortable. It might conjure up an image of walking up to a perfect stranger and asking them if they know Jesus or handing out pamphlets on a street corner. Maybe it reminds us of missionaries in Africa or the role of our churches in residential schools.

Evangelism at its core simply means to tell the good news. It’s a good word that has a bad reputation. Evangelism is an invitation and it is a practice which has often been lost in the United Church. Evangelism—at its most effective—is an invitation to those around us who may not have experienced Christian community to come and see. It might be an invitation to someone who has been away from Christian community for a while to come and see.

Evangelism doesn’t have to be a grand gesture. It doesn’t need to have the purpose of converting or asking for a commitment. Evangelism is an invitation. It seemed to work for Jesus. He went from no followers to five in two days simply by inviting. Perhaps that is something we need to take seriously as a faith community. We sometimes have this idea that people will just turn up but sometimes the most effective way of engaging people is through invitation.

Who might you invite to come and see? How might you be an evangelist for the good news of God among us?