Lectionary Blogging, Trinity B, John Petty, 2012.
"What is crucial in our proclamation is the reality of God's activity in Jesus, God's only Son, sent and given for the sake of the salvation of the world. Only through the awakening of belief through the Spirit can this be known."
Commentary, John 3:1-17, Ginger Barfield, WorkingPreacher.org, 2015
"When we become too sure of what we know about Jesus (or indeed the Trinity on this particular Sunday), when we believe that we have grasped him at last, that is when we can perhaps expect to be undone like Nicodemus."
Commentary, John 3:1-17, Meda Stamper, WorkingPreacher.org, 2012.
O God Most High, in the waters of baptism you made us your sons and daughters in Christ, your only-begotten Son. Hear deep within us the cry of that Spirit, who calls out to you "Abba, Father," and grant that, obedient to your savior's commission, we may become heralds of the salvation you offer to all and go forth to make disciples of all nations. 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 3:1-17
|Nicodemus by Henry Tanner, 1899|
First, let us begin in the beginning. Nicodemus says that he believes that Jesus is from God. He literally says, "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God." But this meaning in English is better understood as "you are a teacher approved by God." Jesus then corrects him saying, "no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above." Often times we immediately go to the importance of this phrase in light of our one understanding of baptism. (We will get there.) But this is really a message to Nicodemus that Jesus is not himself just another prophet approved by God, but is directly from God, of God.
Nicodemus does not understand and thinks Jesus is speaking about people. So he asks about being born of God. Jesus answers in the language of the first century which held a mix of understanding that God was in you and/or that God adopted you as an individual. This language is very clear in the Pauline letters; and, I should say very important language in the Christian Faith. Though theological in nature these notions are not applied to Jesus directly as he is one with the Father. (Raymond Brown, John, vol 1, 138ff)
Raymond Brown argues that there is also enough language of adoption in the OT that Nicodemus as a righteous pharisee would have been able to understand that Jesus was offering a vision that the gathering at the end of times was at work in the world through Jesus' own ministry. (140) There is a notion here that the Holy Spirit of God is begetting, if you will, new members of God's family. In a time when birth had significant meaning to your culture, context, and religion, this is a radical all embracing notion. Just as today for the righteous it is difficult to wrestle with God's all embracing drawing in of sinners. This is a beautiful and mysterious thing. We are not as human beings able to understand and fathom the depths of God fully and so this Holy Spirit begetting is strange. Jesus says, ‘You must be born from above.’8The 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.” (vs 8, see also Eccles 11.5 "As you do not know how the spirit (wind) comes to the bones in the womb, so you do not know the work of God who does all things.")
This passage also has profound meaning for the Christian community within the context of baptism. For the first Christians this is about God and the family of God. It is about being born of water and spirit. It is about the ritual of Christian initiation. It is important to note that this is completely foreign to the pharisee sitting before Jesus. Nicodemus might have understood baptism as a cleansing or ritual bathing. Or, he could have understood this baptism or rebirth like the "proselyte" baptism of his own day where a person becoming a Jew went through a ceremony of new birth - literally a rebirthing. Neither of these are Holy Spirit baptism. (142) This is a hotly debated topic and can send us off into all kinds of scenarios. Let me simply say that for the purpose of our reflection, the church has understood this as the necessary form of the sacrament of baptism in order to be reborn and that the stronger pieces of scripture to support this sacrament are found elsewhere and not here.
What is important, what is amazing, is again this notion of grace given by the Holy Spirit. The idea so very difficult for Nicodemus is that being physically born into the family of Abraham, and following the law as a good pharisee, is not what matters in the end. Rather, the radical notion that the family of Abraham is being increased by the begetting work of the Holy Spirit! Moreover, that the begetting Holy Spirit is falling on people who do not follow the law like good Nicodemus. That is trouble for Nicodemus indeed! For at the end of the day I think Nicodemus like us (when we are honest) is a score keeper. He has a good score. He is born special and separate, and he has spent a life separating himself even more through his piety.
In the dark night of our souls when we come to Jesus what are we inviting him to bless? Our score? Our piety? Our actions? Our work of justice? Our right living? What are we inviting Jesus to curse? In the dark night when we sit at Jesus' feet what does he offer us? He offers us freedom from keeping score, keeping score on others; but most importantly keeping score on ourselves.
Next comes the important part of the passage: "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." The message here is one of the resurrected Lord. Jesus will be raised, the Son of Man, will be raised and this will undo the power of the law over us. Jesus' resurrection and ascension will unify man with God in a new way and in so doing will unplug our score board. He will wipe clean the slate. In the ascension, in his return to the holy community of God (the Trinity) he does so without any human effort. He does so without having asked our permission. He does so even though he is crucified. He does so purely as a measure of grace for the righteous and the sinner alike.
I believe he offers us grace. I believe he offers us grace to imagine the family of God as God sees it and to imagine the reality of our personal invitation to participate. Will we follow this Jesus? This Jesus of grace? This loving Jesus? Who is raised from the dead and ascends into heaven and unites us into the heavenly community? Will we follow him when he says:
“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."
Resources for this weeks second lesson
Resources for this weeks second lesson
"...the preacher will do well to bring up the fact that there is feminine, indeed maternal, imagery for God in the Bible also (Deuteronomy 32:18; Isaiah 42:14; 49:15; 66:13). That imagery is also used to speak of God in an intimate way, not to define God by gender."
Commentary, Romans 8:12-17, Arland J. Hultgren, WorkingPreacher.org, 2015.
"It is interesting that Paul, writing to what was probably a predominantly male audience, would have invoked the imagery of a pain that has never been felt by males."
"Labor Pains," Alyce M McKenzie, Edgy Exegesis, 2014.
"Even self assurance is not based on fetching the certificate of membership or recalling an even of the the past, but a sense of oneness or otherwise with the being of God the Spirit moving within our lives (8:16)."
"First Thoughts on Year A Epistle Passages in the Lectionary," Pentecost 6, William Loader, Murdoch University, Uniting Church in Australia.
But the life of the follower of Jesus is not hallmarked by feeding these personal desires and wishes but instead by overcoming our brokenness to work on God's work. We are to press forward dealing with our own sins and thus building up the character of God within us. In other words those things that are in us, which we do but do not wish to do, which are bad for ourselves or others are the very things that build us up into the character of Christ as we work on them. So it is that we groan we suffer we carry our cross - but we are not condemned.
We have hope. We know that while we still labor the final battle is won. We know that while we chose to labor because of God's grace that we do so out of a great sense of wanting to life a life within God's Spirit. Yet we hope. We hope on our good days and we hope on our bad days.
This hope of God's winning victory is what pulls us forward. Knowing that death and sin have met their match and God has been victorious sealing for us eternal life allows us to continue to live as "children of God." Knowing that we are heirs, that we are given as intimate relationship with God as Jesus had himself - we are able to apply ourselves tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that.
We are freed from hopelessness. We are freed from bondage to sin and death which kept us from hope.
It is here in this reception of grace, forgiveness, and love from God that we discover hope for ourselves, hope for our lives, hope for our relationships, and hope for our church.
So let us awake! Let us see that God has won the day. Let us see that in the end sin and death are conquered and let us chose to work on ourselves that we might ever more grow into the character of Christ. For we are one with God, we are his children, and his heirs.