Probably the one verse all America knows is John 3:16 and that's largely due to sports fans who hold up signs with the reference at televised events. I wonder how many folks actually look up the verse and how many of those who do check it out then go on to read it in context. Today's gospel (John 3:1-17) is almost the complete passage in which the verse occurs.
It starts with a stealth visit by Nicodemus, a wealthy member of the Sanhedrin, or Jewish council and supreme court. He comes by night because, we presume, having a heart to heart conversation with Jesus would be seen as a breaking of his vow as a Pharisee. To enter the chaburah or brotherhood of the Pharisees one had to vow in front of 3 witnesses that one would observe every detail of the written law found in the Torah as well as the Mishnah, the oral law codified by the scribes. Meeting with someone who had disrupted the temple as Jesus had just done would, at the very least, be frowned upon. Pharisee means “separated one.” The Pharisees set themselves apart from the ordinary world and from ordinary people by their observance of the law and all the regulations deduced from it. Jesus did not follow the law as closely as they would like.
Still it is a wonder that Nicodemus came to Jesus at all. And he obviously wants to discuss something with a person he regarded at this point as a prophet. Nicodemus says this because of the signs Jesus performs. But Jesus immediately moves the focus to the deeper matter of being born anew. I know our translation says born from above and that is one possible meaning of the Greek but based on Nicodemus' response, I think he perceived it as being born again. William Barclay, to whose Daily Study Bible I am indebted in researching this sermon, tries to capture both meanings by translating what Jesus says as “...unless a man is reborn from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Now Barclay has this interesting idea about Nicodemus' misunderstanding of being born anew. Perhaps he did get Jesus' meaning. After all, when a Gentile converted to Judaism, he was not only circumcised but baptized and treated as if he was a new and different person than he had been in his previous life. That was why John the Baptizer's ministry was so radical; he was baptizing not Gentiles but Jews as if they were just coming to Judaism. But perhaps Nicodemus was also skeptical, posits Barclay. He interprets Nicodemus' response as not crudely literal but almost wistful. “You talk about being born anew; you talk about this radical, fundamental change which is so necessary. I know that it is necessary; but in my experience it is impossible. There is nothing I would like more; but you might as well tell me, a full grown man, to enter my mother's womb and be born all over again.” And maybe Barclay is right. Perhaps Nicodemus would like to change but thought he was too old to start over, to start a new life. His hope was fighting despair.
But Jesus insists that such a change is possible; not by the will of mortals but by the will of God. And Barclay points out 4 closely interrelated Biblical ideas that go with being born anew or from above.
The first idea is, of course, rebirth, a new beginning. As Jesus says in Matthew 18:3, “Unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” In 2 Corinthians 5:17 Paul writes, “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old things have passed away and, behold, the new is here.” Being born from above is a new start to a new life, lived in and through Christ.
The second idea connected with being born anew is that of entering the kingdom of God. Jesus says no one can enter it except by being born anew. But what does this mean? Earthly kingdoms have borders; they are limited by geography and by treaty. God's kingdom does not, because it is not a place but a state of being. In the Lord's Prayer we say, “Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” That is Jewish parallelism, a poetic way of saying the same thing in 2 ways, the second time enlarging upon and explaining the first. We see it in the psalms, like verse 7 of today's psalm (121): “The Lord shall preserve you from evil; it is he who shall keep you safe.” So in his prayer Jesus is equating the kingdom of God with doing God's will in this life as perfectly as it is done in the very presence of God. Wherever people entirely follow God's will, there it can be said that God truly reigns. Being born anew makes us citizens of God's kingdom and wherever we are doing God's will, loving him and loving others, we are planting and expanding the reach of his kingdom.
The third idea that goes with being born from above is our being adopted as children of God. In Genesis 4:20, 21 it says, “Adah bore Jabal; he was the father of the nomadic herdsman. His brother was named Jubal; he was the father of all who play the lyre and the flute.” It's rather like when we call George Washington the father of our country and patriots the sons of liberty. Similarly, in the Bible, someone who not a literal child of someone else could still be called the son of that person if he followed in his footsteps. Thus in the Old Testament angels are sometimes called the sons of God. Sometimes the king of Israel is poetically called the son of God in the Psalms. In this vein Paul says, “...be imitators of God, as beloved children.” (Ephesians 5:1)
To be a Christian is to be adopted as a child of God. In Galatians 3:26 Paul writes, “...for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God through faith.” John 1:12 says, “But to all who did receive him, he gave them the right to be children of God, to those who believe in his name.” True faith naturally brings about a change in how one acts. Jesus himself says, “But love your enemies, do what is good, and lend expecting nothing in return. Then your reward will be great and you will be sons of the Most High.” (Luke 6:35) Like being a citizen of the kingdom, being a child of God means following God's will.
A fourth idea associated with being born anew is receiving eternal life. Which means more than life which never ends. Because eternity is outside time. Time is a creation of God who lives in eternity. So eternal life is God's life, which he shares with us. On the cross Jesus gave up his life so we could have eternal life. Through him we are born anew or from above into a different kind or quality of life—divine life.
In his discussion with Nicodemus, Jesus goes on to say, “I tell you the truth, unless a person is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” The water, of course, is baptism, the washing away of our sins, the sacrament in which we are buried with Christ and raised to new life in him. And the Spirit is God's Holy Spirit, who anoints us and seals us as Christ's own when we are baptized. This is symbolized by the blessed oil with which we anoint the forehead of the baptized. The Greek word Christ as well as the Hebrew word Messiah mean, literally, “the Anointed One.” As members of the Body of Christ we are also anointed by the Spirit to do God's work. We are to be, as C.S. Lewis put it, “little Christs,” reflecting our Lord and Savior in our thoughts, words and deeds.
We are both physical and spiritual beings, operating in both realms. But the two are not separate but interpenetrate each other. The physical gives the spiritual form and the spiritual gives the physical meaning. Water symbolizes death and rebirth; and H2O ceases to be merely a combination of chemicals but is also made a channel of God's grace. Bread and wine make Christ's lifegiving death and our internal dependence on him concrete; the Eucharist turns the basics of a meal into a communion with the divine, the Body of Christ on earth sharing the Body and Blood of Christ, becoming one with God and with each other.
The person of the Trinity we have the hardest time understanding is the Spirit. Nicodemus is having trouble, too. So Jesus uses the fact that the same Greek word pneuma means both “spirit” and “wind.” Wind moves things. You can feel it but you can't see it. The Spirit works that way as well. The Spirit moves us. We feel him when he is at work though we do not always know where the energy and inspiration he gives us comes from. Bacteria, atoms, energy—lots of powerful things in the physical world are invisible to the naked eye. God's Spirit cannot be seen but the effect he has can.
When Nicodemus still doesn't get it, Jesus shows surprise that a Jewish leader does not understand. But then Jesus has come from heaven, the presence of God, so he is the one with direct experience. So he goes with a reference to the Torah, specifically Numbers 21:4-9, where the people of Israel were plagued by poisonous snakes with a fiery bite. God commands Moses to set up a bronze snake on a pole. The people are told that anyone bitten who looks at it recovers from the poison. Jesus draws an analogy to what will happen to him. He will be lifted up on a cross and those who look to his self-sacrifice with faith will be reborn into life eternal.
And that brings us to John 3:16. We have learned that at the heart of Jesus' mission is not just getting people to sign on with God's side. This is not a competition between good and evil. It is about God bringing spiritual rebirth to his creatures, making them his children, citizens of his kingdom, participants in his divine eternal life. But why is he doing this? Because God loves the world. He loves his creation and all his creatures. He pronounced them good when he created them. They have turned bad but he wants to make them good again, bring them back into harmony with his gracious will. And so he sends his unique son to rescue the perishing and bring them back to life, true life. He is not interested in condemning this world but in saving it.
And he is doing it one person at a time, touching and healing them, washing and anointing them, adopting and transforming them. He opens to them the realm of the Spirit that they might grow into their fullness as beings created in his image, more than mere animals, more substantial than angels. As Christ is both fully God and fully human, so we are to reflect the marriage of the earthly and the heavenly made perfect in him. We cannot take credit for it; it is all his doing. What we can do is humbly and thankfully work with him until not our will but his will be done and we see all things through his eyes, eyes that look with love upon this world and look forward to pronouncing it good once and for all.