Sermon on John 3:1-17

John 3:1-17

Not What We Know but What We’ve Been Given

 Sometimes I feel like I don’t know anything. Do you know what I mean? Sometimes I feel that the more I explore, read, study, discover, and experience the world—the less I actually know. I love to travel, to meet people of different cultures and backgrounds; I love to learn new things. But as I do that, I often feel that I actually know very little. Perhaps I agree with US historian Will Durant, who once said: Education is a progressive discovery of our own ignorance. Life can certainly feel like that sometimes. Maybe some of you are in that place today. Perhaps there are things going on in your life that you just cannot explain. The more you try to understand, the less it makes sense. You scratch your head in agony over not knowing what to do. Should I take this new job? Should I move? Will my sister ever speak to me again? Is my kid ever going to get better? How long do I have to feel this loneliness and emptiness? Why did this person have to die and why did this person live? Why do people kill children in Syria? Why do people kill children in Greater Philadelphia? Is there a God? Does this God really care? Who knows?

Today is a good day to ask such questions and to struggle with what we do not know. It’s Trinity Sunday, after all, when we’re supposed to focus on God being known to us in three persons: father, son, holy spirit—at least, that’s what the doctrine tells us. I’m not sure I want to go there today, because, as some of you have heard me say before, years ago when I was serving a church in Honolulu, Hawai’i, I tried to teach the Trinity to some teenagers who looked at me like I was from Mars. Rightly so, because I failed miserably. Actually, throughout my years, I have unsuccessfully attempted to understand and teach the trinity and have watched countless others seek to do the same. Each time when we tried to explain it, we failed. Our explanations became too simplistic, superficial, and token.

Now I have mentioned this before, but I think it’s worth remembering: the word trinity does not appear in the Bible. Go ahead and look for it. You won’t find it. The closest thing you will get is the mention of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit at various times in the NT epistles. But the trinity itself did not come to be until hundreds of years after the Bible was written. It was the year 325 CE, and a council of Christian bishops got together in Nicaea, what is present-day Turkey. Their purpose was to come up with a theological agreement for all Christians around the world. Roman Emperor Constantine was behind it. But this council in Nicaea was more about controversy than anything else. There was this guy Arius, a preacher from Libya, who had written a commentary on the Bible; he had a wide following. These Arians believed that God was the Father of Jesus, and therefore, Jesus was born of God. This meant that Jesus was born after God, meaning that God created Jesus. The controversy was about Jesus’ divinity—whether or not he was equally God. Arius obviously lost the argument. The Council of Nicaea passed the Nicene Creed, which stated that God the Father and Jesus the Son were of one substance and that Jesus was “begotten” of God, not created by God.  But they weren’t finished.

The bishops added a line at the end of the creed: We believe in the Holy Spirit. It didn’t satisfy everyone, though, so in 381 CE at the First Council of Constantinople, they added: We believe in the Holy Spirit the Lord and giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father.[1] This is why I’m not going to use an egg or an apple to try to show you who God is, because the trinity is not perfect, nor is it actually taught by Jesus. The Trinity is simply about human beings trying to say [or write down] what they think they know about God. Ironic, I think, because today’s Gospel story is all about a guy in Nicodemus who thought he knew about religious things.

So who was Nicodemus? The name Nicodemus means “peoples’ victory” and is a name of a member of the Sanhedrin, or the ruling Council in Jerusalem at that time. He’s also called a Pharisee and a leader of the Judeans, which means that Nicodemus was part of the group that didn’t care for Jesus too much. But actually, the Pharisees and Jesus had a lot more in common than we think. They were avid students of scripture and people of prayer. The problem for the Pharisees was that they loved the status quo and the religious institution. People like Nicodemus were kind of torn between two worlds. On one hand, this Jesus of Nazareth made some good points in his sermons and teachings. But he was just too risky and threatened the dogma and doctrine of their religion.

Nicodemus came to Jesus by night. This is John giving us a clue, because remember that in the 4th Gospel, Jesus is the light of the world. John borrows a lot from Isaiah of the Old Testament—contrasting darkness with light. You see, we live in this world and oftentimes things can seem pretty bleak. We walk in darkness, so to speak, when tragedy, violence, injustice, guilt, and despair overwhelm us. When you try to walk in the dark, you stumble and fall down quite a bit. You cannot see anything. So light, the concept of Jesus as Logos/Word of God, breaks through the darkness and illuminates people with love, grace, and truth. Nicodemus came at night. He came from a place of confusion; he stumbled over to Jesus. He came to Jesus with his assumptions and his proud knowledge of what he thought he knew.

John’s Gospel periodically criticizes characters who claim to know more than others. Why–because at the end of the first century, a famous intellectual movement called Gnosticism developed. Proto-Gnostics claimed to have special knowledge; therefore, they could set the standard for spiritual truths. This was contrary to what John was saying about this Jesus of Nazareth, the one who opened up knowledge for all people to receive and enjoy. So Nicodemus is a symbol of the institutional knowledge [doctrine and dogma] of the temple and religious bureaucracy that contradicted Jesus’ message.

Nicodemus was sure that he knew who God was and who Jesus was. After all, he knew the doctrines. He might as well have been present for the Council of Nicaea. But Nicodemus, in the dark, was about to get shocked with some light. Jesus said: No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above. That really wasn’t what Nicodemus wanted to hear. First, Jesus was basically telling Nicodemus that his knowledge was suspect. Second, he was teaching Nicodemus something new, at least for people like him who were so loyal to doctrine. Born after being old? How could a person go back inside mom’s womb? I kind of think Nicodemus was scratching his head and uttering a few what the…? Of course, he didn’t have the luxury of rewinding back to the beginning of this Gospel. John 1:10-13:

He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own,* and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

But Nicodemus still didn’t get it, and that’s obvious, because even though Jesus used the phrase born from above, Nicodemus asked how it was possible to be born again? He got stuck in semantics. So Jesus continued: No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.”Jesus clarified his point by using common, universal symbols of water and spirit. This is classic John—the 4th Gospel’s famous wordplay. John uses an almost spiraling repetition of words and phrases to help the reader see their double meanings. As words are repeated, their meaning is intensified and deepened. The more we read, the more the message moves forward. Jesus is moving Nicodemus away from his narrow view of life and God to a more mysterious, yet illuminated perspective.

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 Spirit.

Notice that I removed “the” from the end, because in the Greek it should read born of spirit, not the spirit.

Jesus’ mention of water and spirit inspire many thoughts. First, water is something directly connected to nature. Water is basically limitless; it goes around, under, and through things. It carves rocks, making rough places smooth. It’s powerful. The word for spirit, on the other hand, is actually the same word for wind in Greek. The spirit/wind blows where it wills. It’s unpredictable, chaotic, sometimes dangerous, sometimes comforting and soothing. To be born from both water and spirit/wind is to recognize full humanity as a child of God. Our bodies are not separated from our souls. This John wordplay brings together two things that Nicodemus [and most people] always see as separate. God and humanity coexist. It blew Nicodemus’ mind! So he borrowed from Mary, the mother of Jesus: How can this be?

Well, duh, Jesus answered. Nicodemus saw the world, himself, and God as existing inside a small box. His perspective was limited and therefore, it was easier for him to think that he knew things. But, as Jesus pointed out, once you let your perspective of the world, yourself, and God outside of the box—you realize you don’t know much at all. When perspective is small and rigid, it’s easy to say, “I know this or that” with certainty. But once your perspective expands to be bigger and freer, you tend to say: “I don’t know everything and therefore, I’m open to new possibilities.”

And then, in the middle of the story, John’s Gospel throws us for a loop. Notice that starting in verse 11, we seem to leave the Nicodemus-Jesus conversation and start to hear from a narrator. There is “we” language. Most likely, this is the 4th Gospel addressing its community and context, for there were many people still on the fence about Jesus. So the writers of John appeal to Old Testament sensibilities and utilize the story of Moses and the serpent. You can read the original story in Numbers 21, but here’s the synopsis: snakes were biting little kids in Israel and so God tells Moses to place a fiery serpent [an ancient symbol of knowledge] on a pole so that when people get bitten by the snakes they could look at the snake on the pole and live another day. It’s weird, I know. But John’s Gospel changes the story. John’s version has Moses lift up the serpent on the stick, just as Jesus would be later lifted up on the cross. Both Moses and Jesus bring life to the people.

Jesus is then called the Son of Man [literally, son of humanity], a very common phrase that is the result of the long road of translation from Hebrew to Greek and then to English. Of course, Jesus spoke Aramaic. But in all linguistic cases, the phrase son of humanity is meant to lead us to recognize Jesus’ full humanity and our full humanity. It connects directly to being born of water and spirit, being children of God. Jesus, the son of humanity, fully demonstrated what it meant to live as a child of God. And he was “lifted up,” not to condemn or point fingers, but to exhibit God’s unconditional love.

That is the lead-in to the sparkplug of John 3:16. Ironically, the dark place—the world, which I mentioned before, is the reason for all this lifting up and unconditional love. Jesus’ own disciples are not specifically mentioned; only the world. God so loves that darkness. God so loves the Nicodemus in all of us. God so loves in a way that disrupts our three point sermons, doctrines, dogmas, and logical sensibilities. God so loves without any kind of condemnation awaiting those who don’t believe a certain way.

There’s a message for all of us here. When we become too sure of what we think we know about God, we can expect demanding, piercing light to interrupt just like it did for Nicodemus. Our certainty will be overturned, our black-and-white religion undone, our neat, little categories upset. And that’s the best part of all. Because when we’re upset and pulled out of our religious comfort zone, wrestled away from what we think and believe about Jesus, we’re invited to experience the miracle of a new perspective. It’s not about what we know, because no one knows more about God than another. When we’re infants, we know as much about God as we know when we’re 90. It’s not about what we know; it is about what we have been freely given. God has given us life, and the moving, blowing spirit wind; the relentless, cooling and shaping water; an unending, inexplicable love. God has freely given.

This grace is lifted up before us and we are drawn to it. We are drawn to this love; we are surrounded by it and filled with it. And we are so loved that we have plenty of this love flowing out from us in glad response. Friends, each day of your lives, embrace your identity as a child of God, no matter what. You are born of water and spirit-wind, and love. It’s not about what you know; it’s about what you’ve been given. Amen.

[1] Nicene Creed, 1973 draft ICET text.

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Josh grew up in the Midwest before completing a B.A. in Theatre at Northwestern College [IA] and a Masters of Divinity [M.Div.] at Princeton Theological Seminary [NJ]. An ordained minister in the United Church of Christ [UCC], Josh has lived and worked in the Midwest, East Coast, Hawai’i, and Mexico. He is the co-founder and Executive Director of The Welcome Project PA, host of the Bucks-Mont PRIDE Festival, and he is Pastor of Love In Action UCC, an open and affirming congregation featured in a Vox Media episode of Divided States of Women with Liz Plank and in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Josh has 20+ years of nonprofit experience, including leading workshops and training in corporate, medical, and academic settings, focused on diversity & inclusion, grant writing, fund raising, and program management. Josh is a fellow of Interfaith Philadelphia, and designs and coordinates HS and University student groups for interfaith immersion service-learning weeks. Josh also co-facilitates Ally trainings for LGBTQIA+ inclusion and interfaith cooperation. He is a founding member of The Society for Faith & Justice, and a Collaborator for Nurturing Justice, and a member of the Driving PA Forward team via New Sanctuary Movement. He also performs regularly with the dinner theatre company, Without a Cue Productions, and has developed theatre arts curriculum for use in religious and secular settings. Josh also enjoys running, singing, traveling, learning languages, or making strange and funny faces. He lives in Center City Philly.

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