Commentary, John 3:14-21, Marilyn Salmon, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2012.
God of mercy, who sent your Son into the world not to condemn it but to save it, open our eyes to behold Jesus lifted up on the cross and to see in those outstretched arms your abundant compassion. Let the world's weary and wounded come to know that by your gracious gift we are saved and delivered, so immeasurable is the love with which you love the world. We ask this through Christ, with whom you have raised us up in baptism, the Lord who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.
From Prayers for Sunday and Seasons, Year B, Peter J. Scagnelli, LTP, 1992.
Some Thoughts on John 3:14-21
Commentary, John 3:14-21, Marilyn Salmon) With this in mind then, what are we to do with this passage?
So let us begin by remembering that these words come from a conversation that Jesus is having with the Pharisee Nicodemus. He has come to believe in God and in Jesus because of the many signs. Key to John's Gospel are not the signs themselves but the revelatory power of Jesus who happens to be performing them. The purpose of the signs is belief in the Gospel. So it is no wonder that Jesus in our passage has moved from a previous discourse about spirit to one about God's intentions: the salvation of the world.
Second, the passage we read today follows directly upon Jesus' teaching about being born again. The baptismal conversation is important. How it plays out sacramentally is one discussion that I will not go into; nevertheless, it seems that the basic idea here is that one is born both by the spirit and through water. (Raymond Brown, John vol 1, p 142ff, has an excellent discussion of the details surrounding this particular piece of Johnanine liturature.)
What Nicodemus has heard so far is that while coming to believe through signs, entrance into the kingdom is not something humans can accomplish on their own. In other words your faith does not save you, only God saves you. Moreover, one is brought into the Kingdom of God through God's outpouring of the spirit. We believe in the Episcopal Church that such an outpouring is measured in the sacrament of baptism. Nicodemus then asks, "how does this happen?" He fades into the background as we move into the monologue we have for today's passage.
We receive the Holy Spirit, we are are welcomed into the Kingdom of God, only through the power of Jesus' work on the cross (vs 14), his resurrection, and his ascension (vs 15). Leaning on Isaac typology (Brown, 147) Jesus explains. The purpose of not allowing death to be the final answer (just as Isaac's death was not required) is for the gathering in of the world and its people. God intends the embrace of God's people; and their freedom to live and be who they were created to be. The creation story will be successful. We enter the reign of God only through Jesus' work. The incarnation and Jesus' presence in the world will necessarily create a decision point for individuals: to either live life following Jesus; or to live life not following Jesus - perhaps against him.
What is interesting here at this point (vs20-21) is what we typically do with this passage. While Jesus is not here to condemn the world - we do. Our human nature is to immediately divide up the world into working groups we can get our minds around. That typically means we go to the save and the not saved. We move quickly to do the judging. But it is (according to our Nicene Creed) Jesus in his second coming that will judge. It doesn't seem to stop us, so we typically take what comes next to decide who is in and who is out. I also think we do this in a way that automatically removes us from the sinning proposition and into the category of people who "do all kinds of good works." Such a missionary mindset is hardly one I think Jesus would recognize. Raymond Brown writes:
"...the purpose clauses which end vss. 20 -21 are not to be understood as giving the subjective reason why men come or do not come to the light, that is, a man does not really come to jesus to have it confirmed that his deeds are good. Rather, the idea is tha jesus brings out what a man really is and the real nature of his life. Jesus is penetratiing light that provokes judgment by making it apparent what a man is." (John, vol 1, 148-9)Before the cross we are all judged. And, instead of condemning we are to engage in a conversation not unlike the one between Jesus and Nicodemus. We are to let people come to the cross for their own judgment and make thier own faithful pilgrim way into relationship with Jesus.
Our work is the invitation. We are to invite people into this sacred relationship. Not unlike Jesus, we are to make the Gospel message known: "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."
As a Christian we believe that this is the only way to salvation. To believe anything else is essentially to not be a Christian but to be a henothiest; that is believing there are many gods and many salvations. We have one language and one cultural story to tell and that is of Jesus, his cross and his resurrection. We are to engage the world in a conversation that allows people to be listened to, and invited into, a deeper profoundly transformational relationship with God in Christ Jesus.
The world will be drawn into this relationship not by condemning the world but by disciples living transformed lives. Through the rebirth experienced in baptism, through the grace and mercy of God, and the empowering Holy Spirit, we are to live lives worthy of the cross and resurrection. As we do this people will be drawn into life with Christ and may in turn be discipled. They are drawn in by our example. Subsequently, like our own, thier lives are transformed by their own coming to terms with who Jesus is and his work.
When we as a church community move away from this singular proposition we are apt to argue over all manner of condemnations: sex, structure, liturgy, and polity. When we begin with this singular proposition (that we are saved by grace alone) then we may all find ourselves truly transformed as we come to the foot of the cross together.
A Little Bit for Everyone
14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.16“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.17“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.18Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.19And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.20For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.21But 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.”