I wonder how many of you heard today’s gospel and began to cringe. Two verses from this passage have been enormously important in Christianity, especially among American evangelicals. Though our version, the New Revised Standard Version, translates it differently, the paraphrase of the old translation of John 3:3 “You must be born again” has shaped our understanding of the Christian life and experience at its most basic level, and John 3:16, even without the text of the verse itself, is a key marker for evangelical identity and a symbol of American Christianity.
It’s a shame, and a travesty of this larger story, that John 3 has been reduced to these two memes in American Christianity. There’s so much more than that going on in the text, and it is much, much richer than the caricature of it we’ve inherited.
Today, we are making an abrupt shift in the gospel readings on Sunday morning. Although this is the year of Matthew in our three-year lectionary cycle, from today for the next three months, except one Sunday in Easter when we read a passage from Luke, we will be hearing texts from the Gospel of John. Given that fact, I want to spend some time today giving you an overview of the Gospel of John before delving into the story we heard this morning.
You’ve heard me use the word synoptic to refer to the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. These three share a similar structure and chronology. In all three, Jesus begins his public ministry after being baptized by John and after John is arrested by Herod. Most of his ministry takes place in Galilee, which is to the north of Jerusalem. At some point in the narrative, Jesus begins his final journey to Jerusalem, “he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” On the way to Jerusalem, he continues to teach and finally, with the Triumphal Entry, begins the last week of his life. It is there that he celebrates Passover with his disciples.
John diverges significantly from this structure and chronology. It’s not explicitly stated that John baptizes Jesus, and in case, Jesus begins his public ministry before John is arrested. Jesus travels repeatedly to Jerusalem; the events described in chapter 3, for example, occur in Jerusalem. And John mentions at least three Passover celebrations, which is why it’s traditionally held that Jesus’ public ministry lasted for three years.
But it’s not just chronology and structure that distinguish John from the synoptic gospels. The image of Jesus that emerges from John’s gospel is very different from that of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The synoptics agree that Jesus taught using parables; there are almost none of this sort of story in John. Instead, Jesus’ typical means of teaching comes in the form of self-revelatory discourses which are characterized by statements like, “I am the Good Shepherd;” “I am the vine, you are the branches;” “I am the Bread of Life.” In the coming weeks, I will have more to say about these differences.
There’s another important point. While John provides us with a great deal of information about Jesus’ teachings, life, and followers, that information shows considerable reflection and development in the period between the events that are related and the time when the gospel was likely written—around 100 ce. Most scholars are convinced that the gospel of John reflects conflicts between the early Christianity and emergent rabbinic Judaism after the destruction of the temple as well as conflicts between different groups of early Christians.
The stories that we will hear in these weeks of Lent reflect some of these conflicts. The character of Nicodemus is one such example. He is identified as a Pharisee, a leader of the temple, who comes to Jesus by night. The time frame is significant, because darkness and light are important themes in John—in John 1, for example, we heard, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.” Nicodemus has some notion of the power and truth of Jesus’ message and identity. He addresses him as “Rabbi” and affirms that his message is of divine origin. Nicodemus returns later in the gospel, most significantly when he assists with the burial of Jesus’ body.
The dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus sets a pattern that will continue in future encounters Jesus has with people, as, for example, the Samaritan woman which we will look at next week. Jesus makes a statement that is puzzling, enigmatic, often seemingly out of the blue. In the case, Jesus tells Nicodemus, “You must be born from above;” and oddly, Nicodemus replies with what seems to be a nonsensical question, “How can anyone be born after having grown old?”
Our translation highlights the difficulty in this exchange. The Greek word translated as “from above” can also mean “again” or “anew.” In other words, Jesus has made an ambiguous statement, and instead of asking Jesus what he means, Nicodemus makes an assumption about the meaning and closes off the possibility that he might come to understand better who Jesus is.
One of the key elements in this story is the way the encounter begins. Nicodemus approaches Jesus with his mind made up. He calls him rabbi, and he asserts that Jesus must come from God, because of the signs he is able to work. One way of putting it—Nicodemus wants to take Jesus on his own terms. But Jesus will have none of it. A logical reply to Nicodemus would be either, yes, you are absolutely right, or no, you are completely wrong. Instead, Jesus shifts the ground. He introduces some new ideas, and throws Nicodemus off balance.
Jesus’ words to Nicodemus are a warning, and a challenge, to us, especially when we are seeking certainty. “The wind blows where it chooses and you hear the sound of it, but you do not where it comes from or where it goes.” Jesus is saying two things here. First, he is making the point that life in Christ, life in the Spirit is completely different from ordinary life—that’s what comes out most clearly if we interpret his first reply to Nicodemus as “you must be born from above.” His use of the images of water and spirit stress the same idea. But there is something else here, as well. Nicodemus wants to accept Jesus on his own terms, as a rabbi and teacher, as a worker of miracles, but Jesus is telling him that what matters about him is something different, new and different life, a different way of being in the world.
We can see in the way many Christians make us of John 3:16 something of the same temptation as the one to which Nicodemus succumbed, trying to force Jesus inside the box we’ve made for him. For many Christians, this verse serves as a boundary marker—between those who believe in Jesus and have eternal life, and everyone else but if you include the next verse, the overall sense of the passage is quite different: “God loved the world so much, that he gave his son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but have everlasting life. God did not send his son to condemn the world, but that the whole world might be saved through him.”
Instead of a God who threatens punishment, judgment, and condemnation, the emphasis in this longer reading is on a God whose immeasurable and uncontrollable love goes to radical extremes to save people. “The wind blows it where it chooses.
We live in a time of judgment, fear, and conflict. As deeply troubled as our political life is, Christianity reflects those larger divisions and turmoil. Many of us even struggle to identify as Christian in a context where Jesus’ message of love, mercy, justice, and inclusion is being warped and distorted. Too many Christians are like Nicodemus, demanding relationship with Jesus on our narrow, limited terms.
Our task is clear. We must open ourselves to the possibility that our encounter and experience of Jesus might be blown by the wind wherever it chooses. We must continue to proclaim God’s unending and uncontrollable love for the whole world, and we must open ourselves to the power of that irresistible, transforming love in our own lives.