Sunday Note: Seeing Anew

We got a little behind in posting our Sunday Notes to the blog. This Note is from May 27th.

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Text for Today : Trinity Sunday

John 3:1-17

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."

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Seeing Anew

One could describe John 3:1-17 as the gospel reading with verses most likely to be plastered on billboards.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but have eternal life.”

 “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again.” 

These verses are powerful and beautiful, but very truly these billboards feel out of touch. When these words are written on billboards, they appear as acts of desperation. Its as if Christians are shouting along highways hoping someone speeding by may hear these words and change their entire perspective on life. Putting these words on billboards and church signs feels distant from the intentional and powerful Spirit of God present at Pentecost giving birth to the church. The Spirit that comes to break down walls of division and create space for unity among all people.

The Christian community has a history of extracting these token verses from the story of Nicodemus without much thought to the larger narrative. Thomas Long writes that the story of Nicodemus is not a “crisis of God brooding in heaven waiting on us to make a choice, withholding a verdict on our souls.” Rather, it is a crisis of understanding the message of Jesus. It is a crisis of understanding what it means to be a child of God and what it means to be able to participate in the kingdom of God.

There is so much more to the story. Who was Nicodemus? What does it mean to be born from above or born a new?

Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a member of the Sanhedrin, Israel’s highest legislative and judicial body. He was the most renowned teacher of the Law and Torah of his day. He visits Jesus in the middle of the night and shows respect to Jesus because of his signs and miracles. 

However, Jesus is not impressed. Instead of focusing on the miracles, Jesus shares with Nicodemus that no one can see God’s kingdom without first being born again. Unfortunately, Nicodemus takes this information quite literally and tries to understand the biology of being born again in our mother’s womb. Not quite what Jesus was going for…

In ancient Palestine, birth determined a lot about a person’s life. It determined their social status, inheritance rights, and occupational opportunities. Being born again held potential to drastically change a person’s situation in life.

Nicodemus was a man of status and wealth. He was born Jewish, which meant he was born into the inheritance of the kingdom of God. When Jesus states that all must be born anew, it was a challenge to Nicodemus to expand his understanding of the kingdom of God. It was a challenge to see that all have access to God’s inheritance. Those who believe they have sole ownership must be prepared to see anew. To see that Jews and Gentiles a like are called to be daughters and sons of God. 

No one can experience, encounter, and participate in the kingdom without seeing anew. Nicodemus is focused on the miracles. He is focused on the heavenly things without understanding the earthly things. 

Jesus calls for us to be rooted in the abundance of this earth. For God so loved the world (the actual world, the whole world), that God sent Jesus to dwell in human form among us, that we might have union with God and that peace may fill the earth. The message is not about escaping this world, but extending peace to this world. 

This is good news. It is so good that we might want to plaster this message on billboards, but we need to remember that Jesus did not focus on the miracles and signs (pun most definitely intended). He focused on the message. A message grounded in relationship and embodied in extending peace to others. For God so loved this world. We do not have to fear and we do not need to act of desperation for God does not abandon the world that God loves. 

I have hope that kingdom of God is more than billboards. Our society is somewhat obsessed with posting our positions on billboards without the desire to be in relationship or to understand others points of view. This passage challenges Nicodemus, challenges the present day church, to see anew. Are we willing to expand our vision? Are we willing to engage the world and extend God’s peace?