“The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood. We saw the glory with our own eyes,…”
- John 1.14 (The Message)
Faith knows that Jesus was never Jesus till he was born from a womb, and ate soup and bread and grew up, and became, in the wonder of creation, Jesus, with a body and with needs, and a lovely spirit.
- D. H. Lawrence (Adapted for worship)
There was a man of the Pharisee sect, Nicodemus, a prominent leader among the Jews. Late one night he visited Jesus and said, “Rabbi, we all know you’re a teacher straight from God. No one could do all the God-pointing, God-revealing acts you do if God weren’t in on it.” Jesus said, “You’re absolutely right. Take it from me: Unless a person is born from above, it’s not possible to see what I’m pointing to—to God’s kingdom.” “How can anyone,” said Nicodemus, “be born who has already been born and grown up? You can’t re-enter your mother’s womb and be born again. What are you saying with this ‘born-from-above’ talk?” Jesus said, “You’re not listening. Let me say it again. Unless a person submits to this original creation—the ‘wind-hovering-over-the-water’ creation, the invisible moving the visible, a baptism into a new life—it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom. When you look at a baby, it’s just that: a body you can look at and touch. But the person who takes shape within is formed by something you can’t see and touch—the Spirit—and becomes a living spirit. “So don’t be so surprised when I tell you that you have to be ‘born from above’—out of this world, so to speak. You know well enough how the wind blows this way and that. You hear it rustling through the trees, but you have no idea where it comes from or where it’s headed next. That’s the way it is with everyone ‘born from above’ by the wind of God, the Spirit of God.” Nicodemus asked, “What do you mean by this? How does this happen?” Jesus said, “You’re a respected teacher of Israel and you don’t know these basics? Listen carefully. I’m speaking sober truth to you. I speak only of what I know by experience; I give witness only to what I have seen with my own eyes. There is nothing secondhand here, no hearsay. Yet instead of facing the evidence and accepting it, you procrastinate with questions. If I tell you things that are plain as the hand before your face and you don’t believe me, what use is there in telling you of things you can’t see, the things of God? “No one has ever gone up into the presence of God except the One who came down from that Presence, the Son of Man. In the same way that Moses lifted the serpent in the desert so people could have something to see and then believe, it is necessary for the Son of Man to be lifted up—and everyone who looks up to him, trusting and expectant, will gain a real life, eternal life. “This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life. God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again.
- John 3.1-17 (The Message)
On Sunday we will begin a Lenten sermon series on the Gospel of John here at OPCC. And as we begin, I offer a word of caution: if you like easy answers to your faith questions… stay away from John; if you seek the entertainment value of a consumer, or user friendly faith… stay away from John; and if grappling with significant questions of faith that defy final resolution is not on your bucket list… by all means, stay away from John. The Fourth Gospel is a profound and profoundly challenging work, and because of this, misunderstanding and misuse are woven into its history and its very fabric.
No gospel has been so misunderstood and misused as John. Most of us are aware of Hitler’s use of its frequent and argumentative references to the Jews to justify his depraved hatred of the children of Abraham. This despite the fact that John presents us with a family argument between Jesus and fellow Jewish leaders. It is a patent misuse of the gospel to claim it as a foundation for anti-Semitism. Misunderstanding is rampant as well among well-intended Christians. John, for example, has been claimed as proof of Christian exclusivism, while a careful reading of the gospel reveals a broadly spiritual notion of the way that Jesus made present in the flesh. Finally, need I mention the distortion of John 3.16 into a simplistic contract of belief that guarantees, at a minimum, a certificate of belonging to the kingdom signed and suitable for framing, along with a ticket stamped and dated for the peace train. John is nothing if not misunderstood, oversimplified, and misused.
To be honest, there is good reason for this misunderstanding. It is not only those who read the gospel that risk frequent misunderstand; even those characters intimately involved with telling its story – Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman, the Jews, the man born blind, Pilate, and for goodness’ sake even his mother – inevitably struggle through misunderstanding to meaning in their interactions with Jesus. Why? Because in their encounter with Jesus they are faced with the unique presence of the Holy in the Human, or the Word become flesh to use John’s language. It is the mystery and wonder of the incarnation itself that makes John’s Jesus so hard to grasp… it is the mystery of God with us that generates misunderstanding. And John is courageous enough to face this mystery openly, delve into its profundity, and explore its meaning for faith.
Long story short, it’s okay to scratch your head and mutter, “say wha’” when you read the dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus, or anyone else in the gospel for that matter. It’s also okay to resist jumping to a quick and easy answer because it relieves the tension and underscores what you want John to say. Most importantly, it’s okay to listen closely for John’s voice and in so doing find your horizons expanded, your faith deepened, your ideas challenged, and your eyes opened to a new understanding of the way of faith. I look forward to our time together on Sunday.