March 11th 2018 John 3 14-21
It occurred to me while I was preparing this sermon that I’m still pretty new to this whole preaching thing. I gave my first sermon as a seminary student three years ago at St. Stephen in Kitchener, where I was a placement student. I spent the summer of 2015 as a “Student Pastor” in Sauble Beach at Christ the King. I did my seminary internship at St. Matthews in Kitchener. Glenn’s old stomping grounds and now home to Henry and Jean Fischer, whom many of you know. I was fortunate because I got to preach every other week at St. Matthews, really good experience for an intern, who typically preach once a month. My wife, Pastor Hilla and I, have been here at Peace now for nearly 9 months. Altogether that’s about 60 sermons or so that I’ve done so far. Not only are Hilla and I learning to be pastors, but we are learning to be pastors together, and that has perhaps been the biggest and most surprising challenge so far. But we’re getting better at managing a life of ministry together, I hope.
We are cognizant that the church is in a very transformational time, full of challenges and possibilities. We respect the history and the many diverse traditions of the multi-faceted church in the world, both locally and more broadly, the many members of the body of Christ. Yet at the same time, we recognize that our unique time and place calls for a unique and creative response to the Gospel, a re-examination of how we do church. We’ve been talking about this. In many respects, it would be easier to do things the way they have always been done, but this is not our call.
As I was preparing to preach this week I felt a certain unease. Unease with elements of the reading, unease with what I perceived to be this message stirring up in me. Unease about the expectations of the congregation. What is it that you expect from your pastors on Sunday morning? What is it that we in turn expect from you? These are just some human level questions, it gets a lot heavier when we start to think about what does the Gospel require from this sermon? What does God expect from me?
In some ways, I wish I could stand here and answer all of your questions about faith. Deliver a simple message of assurance with a tidy take home application for your life. But I can’t do that, and I can’t promise that next week I will either. Instead, I am here to share with you some of the questions that arose out of the reading this week for me. Sometimes, our questions about faith are more important than our answers.
Last week, we touched on some contextual considerations of the Gospel of John, the split between Christians and Jews, the imbedded tension in the text, etc. Today’s Gospel reading, or at least a verse from it, is possibly the most popular Gospel text in North America. People commonly hold up John 3:16 signs at sporting events for example. And because it is so popular it may be the easiest to take for granted, we’ve heard it so many times. It is good practice to continually return to the text to investigate. After all, education was at the heart of the Reformation. Scripture was translated in the common language that each of us might be able to study it, and this is a task that is never finished. In the end, we may arrive at the same conclusion, but the journey along the way is bound to be transformational, an essential component of faith development. With that in mind, let’s dig into this reading, the second half of Jesus’ interaction with the Pharisee Nicodemus.
First of all, let me say that the Gospel of John is a beautiful book of poetry. It has a unique style and grace to it. We can see evidence of the influence of Greek philosopher Aristotle’s dramatic structure in John’s Gospel. (Exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, denouement).
It begins with a Genesis-esque “in the beginning stanza, in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God… Here in chapter 3 we have “for God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. Etc. This poetic phrase also harkens back to Genesis and Abraham where he is asked to offer up his son Isaac. These auditory cues are not there by mistake. Remember that in the early days of Christianity, religion was an oral experience. Not everyone had e-copies, and hard copies of sacred texts, printed bulletins. As a hearer of these texts, these repetitive poetic phrases helped the audience remember and reinforce core theological principles.
One of the main problems with John’s Gospel, as in other sacred texts, is that sometimes the poetry can be taken literally and used as a weapon. The colonial church, which we are presently deconstructing was especially good at this. But that’s another sermon.
Back to the text, in verse 14 of our translated text, it states “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” In the Koine Greek, rather than “so must the Son of Man,” the direct translation is “it behoves the Son of Man.” A curious phrase. So rather than the imperative “must,” we have a choice being made. The Son of Man chooses, God Chooses to lift up, chooses eternal life. This distinction has far reaching ramifications.
In verse 15 and elsewhere we have a translation of whoever believes “in” him, but the Koine is rendered more accurately as whoever believes “on” him. This might make no difference, or it might make a significant difference. To believe “in” Jesus often gets reduced to an intellectual ascension. I choose to believe. But to believe “on” Jesus evokes imagery of foundation, like Christ is the foundation upon which I build my life and cultivate faith. You’ll recall Luther statements such as “here I stand, I can do no other.” Whether you like in or on, having both in play creates added depth of our understanding of the scripture passage and its theological implications.
In verse 17 It says God did NOT send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that it might be saved. What do you suppose is meant by the world? How narrowly do we want to define God’s world and God’s people for that matter?
One of the more problematic themes in Judaism is the chosen people paradigm. It creates this sense of superiority, an us versus them mentality which can sometimes do more harm than good. I know it’s more nuanced than that but Christians too have adopted this superiority thinking, that we are the people of God and everyone else is condemned. It seems to say so in the Bible doesn’t it? If we take Jesus’ ministry as a whole, can we really say that Jesus wants us to think we are better than non-Christians? You can see the slippery slope here.
Speaking of condemnation, verse 18 states those who do not believe are condemned already. Two things immediately pop out here. One, Verse 17 just said the Son of Man did not come to condemn, now it says exactly who is condemned and what the qualifications are. A second thing to note is that the judgement has already taken place, therefore there is no need for further judgement, and certainly not by us, for judgement is God’s alone. Which sets up the climax of this passage, verse 19 and 20 which says “and this is the judgement.” Wow! This is it! This is an important cue for the listener,
“That the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.
Again, a powerfully composed piece of poetry. An epic clash of light and darkness, good and evil. The light has come in to the world. God said let there be light and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. Another Genesis throwback. This cue is unmistakeably intentional and very effective. Poetry.
The passage concludes with verse 21, “but those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” Of course we read that and immediately think, of course that means me. What I have done is true, I live out the light, my deeds have been done in God.
It is easy to take this passage and interpret it in black and white for our own sake, our own comfort. Those of us who believe in Jesus are in and everyone else is doomed. We’ve made our choice. We are the light, and they are the darkness. Pretty straight forward, that’s what the Bible says, end of story. It is tempting to stop there, call it a sermon, sing a hymn, and move on. There is, however, more to scripture here than meets the eye. Consider this, our translation to verse 21 states “but those who do what is true come to the light.” The literal translation of the Koine Greek, however, is something altogether different. It states “the one, however, practising the truth comes to the light.” Practising the truth.
It’s not something we do per se, it’s something we do over and over again. Something to work on our whole lives, to get better at. Not that we get everything right, but that we keep practicing. Faith therefore is not a static achievement, it is a process. It is like playing an instrument, like preaching a sermon. Like training for a sport, cooking, or sewing, or reading and writing, poetry perhaps. Something we have to practice to get good at, even after we mess up. Faith, that freely given gift of God’s grace, is something we uncover over time. The more we exercise it, the more present it becomes in our lives.
Some final questions to consider: Who is talking in our Gospel passage today? Is it Jesus or is it the narrator? Nowadays, these verses are laden with quotation marks to indicate that it is Jesus talking throughout. A footnote in my Bible says “some interpreters hold that the quotation concludes with verse 15. This means that it is the narrator who begins with For God so loved the world… The original manuscripts of these sacred texts have no grammatical tools like punctuation, quotation marks, capitals, etc. These are all modern conventions. What theological difference does it make, if any, if it is Jesus talking or the narrator? How might your understanding of the text be altered? You may come to arrive at the same conclusion that you started with, but you will be forever changed by the process of practicing of your faith. For Aristotle said “that it is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”