Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 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.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 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?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, 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.’ 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.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? “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. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. “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. “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.
So today I have probably the most famous Gospel text known to Christians to preach on.
No pressure then.
Last weekend I was at a residential with all the other curates I trained with. The subject was evangelism and when I was preparing for this morning much of what we discussed then fell into place.
But let me start with an anecdote which, to me, illustrate the problem we face with evangelism and with the key verse in this passage.
I used to have a teaching colleague, an African Christian. I would give him a lift home most evenings and it had become something of a nightmare because he insisted on talking to me about Jesus - and it really got on my nerves. This caused great hilarity amongst some of our other colleagues:
“Doesn’t he know you’re going to be ordained?”
“Yes, but that seems to make him worse.”
“This must be your Lenten discipline.” (That was a Muslim friend)
“Look, I gave up chocolate, cake, alcohol, biscuits and second helpings. They were my choice. I didn’t choose this.”
“Maybe it’s Allah’s will for you at this time.” (She’s very sharp, that one.)
I tried to analyse why this was becoming such an issue for me and I drew the uncomfortable conclusion it is because our Christianities were so different. His is a very black and white, literalist approach with no scope for nuance, areas of grey or holy doubt, whereas I am very much at the radical end of liberal.
“I’ve given up Alcohol for lent.”
“You drink alcohol?”
What followed was a diatribe against the laxness of the west.
“It is to do with low standards: with fornication and homosexuality.”
“Now let me just stop you there …”
Can I stop on the M621 and ask him to get out between junctions? Would that seem too inhospitable? I tried to bite my tongue, I really did, but sometimes I just couldn’t rise above it.
“… I’ve just read a very detailed biblical study of why the so-called traditional teaching on homosexuality is a gross misinterpretation of the various texts.”
Sounds of apoplectic gasping from the passenger seat.
“But it says in Leviticus and Romans …..”
“I know what it says, but that depends on whether you accept everything in the Bible as literally true, rather than seeking to understand the various types of holiness codes and laws to say nothing of the different genre, and whether you believe that we are the implied audience of the various passages rather than the people they were written to. We mustn’t assume that we are. Much of the Bible was written in a very specific religious and cultural climate which is not ours.” (Who’s on his soapbox now?) Note to self: triumphalism is not a nice characteristic in a trainee vicar ….. but it felt so good.
There was ominous silence for a while and I realised that I had been driving progressively faster.
There is a change of tack:
“What do you understand about the crucifixion?” he asked me.
I explained the theology of the atonement.
“Not all will be saved.” He says. “People who do not confess Jesus will go to Hell. It says in John 3.16…”
And here we have it: one of the most misunderstood and misused texts in scripture. This single verse has provided motivation for some of the most destructive and unchristian impulses in those who call themselves Christian.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son so that all who believe in him may not perish but have everlasting life.”
Now some of you know that I am a bit of a keyboard warrior: “I’ll be up in a moment Love. I’m just telling someone on the INTERNET that they’re wrong.” There seems to be a recurring theme in this activity: every two or three months I seem to end up in strident cyber debate with some other Christian, usually from either the Anglican diocese of Sydney or U.S. Southern Baptists or Nigerian Christians. The “discussion” is usually about the nature of salvation and the fate of those who do not accept Jesus as Lord and Saviour.
I am clearly a masochist: here I was in my own car having the same discussion.
Taken literally this passage from John suggests that those who do not believe in the Son will perish.
It is difficult to overestimate the damage that has been done by a literal interpretation of this text. It is difficult to overestimate the hurt, harm and abuse that have been encouraged by this passage. It shapes the way Christians throughout history have treated people of other faiths and cultures and the outcome of that has been conflict and violence and the crushing of indigenous culture and languages in the name of Christ.
And yet I can (just) remember in those far off heady days of my late-teenage post-conversion years, when I was a lot more evangelical than I am now, that this text was one I learnt by heart and which informed my attitude to other people. It didn’t matter who they were: they were either saved or they weren’t. Simple as.
My movement away from that stance happened gradually as I matured in my faith and God took me in directions and into experiences where I began to question the old certainties. I will always remember one particular joke a wise vicar told me.
A new arrival at the pearly gates was met by St. Peter and shown round Heaven. At one point they came to a very high wall.
“What’s behind there?” she asked.
“Keep your voice down” said St. Peter. “That’s where the Anglicans are. They think they’re the only ones here and we don’t want to upset them.”
Actually, it wasn’t the Anglicans in the original –just trying to be topical - I’ll leave you to guess: suffice to say that it works with any Christian group.
I have a number of Muslim and Sikh friends. We often talk about religion and I’ve learnt a lot about them and from them. When other Christians berate me about mission and witness and how we must bring others to a saving knowledge of Jesus, I always think of them … and I always think that bringing them to Jesus sounds so simple but in reality is very far from it.
Of course it is never me who convicts and converts, it is the Holy Spirit. I know that and, yes, I sometimes wonder what the Holy Spirit makes of my witness by word and deed to anyone, not just Muslims and Sikhs.
But let me ask you two things:
· What does it take for someone – anyone to come to faith?
· What is it that we ask others to believe and accept as part of that act of faith?
You see I don’t think it matters whether you are Muslim or Sikh or Atheist or whatever: in order to come to faith you have to not only hear but to understand the Gospel, although if you come from a culture which is broadly Christian I suspect that it may be easier for you.
“How” I ask these other Christians “does a Muslim born and brought up in rural Saudi Arabia hear, let alone understand the Gospel? How does a Jew brought up in the most orthodox part of Jerusalem or a Sikh brought up in Amritsar, the Holy City? And yet you are telling me that God – my God, the God I believe in and follow – condemns to Hell a whole swathe of people for not following an injunction they could not possibly have known about. In terms of God’s justice, how does that work, then?”
“The Bible is clear.” I am told.
Taken literally John 3.16 becomes the foundation for the rejection of the “other” in society: the ones who are not like us. By that I don’t just mean race and religion, but gender, sexuality.
The irony here is that of the Gospel writers John was the one who was least likely to take a literalist approach to his writing and would most certainly have rejected that sort of literalist reading. The passage immediately before today’s Gospel reading is the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus. This is the same John who tells us that Jesus was amazed that Nicodemus understood Jesus’ comment about being born again in a literal way. If the life and teaching of Jesus gives us cause to be literal in our reading of Jesus’ words it is not John 3.16, but John 3.17 that we should look to: “God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”
Neither Jesus nor John was interested in establishing a belief system based on rejection by God. What they were very interested in was the question concerning how one came to have faith and the supplementary question about how one grows in one’s experience of God.
There seem to be a number of positions in the New Testament and the one I favour is “Believe and be baptised.” (Mark 16.16) but that raises other issues such as “Believe what?” or “Believe in what?”
So, I think my challenge to you this morning, and perhaps as a Lenten discipline, is to think of those Biblical passages which most closely represent to you what the life of faith is about.
Of course, there are many passages, but for me here are few ideas which sum it up: repent, believe, be saved by God’s grace, show the change in your life but recognise that you are still vulnerable to temptation. Be open to the spirit, continue to repent and seek the strength of the Spirit to grow more into the likeness of the Saviour.
Hang on, though. Weren’t you concerned about the Muslim in rural Saudi Arabia, the Orthodox Jew and the Sikh - and the Hindu and the Buddhist who have no chance of hearing, let alone understanding the Gospel?
Yes. But we must leave that to God. My responsibility is not to go with John 3.16 without John 3.17. We may turn out, like the Christians behind the wall in Heaven in the joke, to be surprised by the extent of the grace of God, but it is most certainly not for us to second guess the mind of God on this or to seek to put limits on his grace. Remember, righteousness was ascribed to Abraham through his faith in God and he predated Jesus.
So, I’ll leave you with a tantalising insight into the theology of C.S. Lewis on this topic: a theology which has become known as the theology of the unknowing disciple.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with his writings, Lewis writes a series of what appear to be children’s adventure stories, set in the land of Narnia, the most famous of which is “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”. However, Lewis wasn’t simply a children’s writer but a perceptive theologian and the Narnia stories are a Christian allegory.
In “The Last Battle”, which is a story dealing with the end times and judgement, there is an exchange between Aslan the Lion, the Christian God figure, and Emeth, a follower of the God Tash. Emeth is surprised to find himself on the right side of Aslan’s judgement and says to Aslan: “Alas, Lord, I am no son of thine, but a servant of Tash.” Aslan answered “Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me. If any man swears an oath to Tash and keeps the oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he knew it not and it is I who reward him.” Emeth replied “Yet I have been seeking Tash all my days.” “Beloved”, said the Glorious one, “unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.”
It is my personal challenge during Lent to concentrate on my own walk with God. I look beyond that to my immediate family. I must also continue to take responsibility for my witness through word and deed but it is also my challenge to let God be God and to work his grace where he will. It is not for me to misuse his word in a theology of exclusion.