Sunday 22 July 2018 John3:1-17
Both the Methodist Conference and the URC General Assembly, independently of each other, had at their respective meetings a conversation with other faith leaders, this set me thinking and I would like to begin this sermon by considering a verse that is well-loved by many in certain parts of the Christian Church. It is a verse that is often used to call non-believers to repentance and, in so doing, creates barriers between those who are in and those who are out – something contrary to all that Jesus eventually lived for and died for. The verse, of course, is verse 3: “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”
Traditional Protestant evangelical Christianity has presented this episode between Jesus and Nicodemus in terms of being born the first time from the normal physical womb, and the second birth by water and the Spirit into the spiritual awareness of baptism or ‘conversion’ into Christianity.
Although we all need spiritual experiences of being born again, for the sake of what I consider to be the Kingdom of God, it is time for all religions to cease creating barriers that come from the proclamation of the one off experience of ‘conversion’.
The more that I consider the life and teaching of Jesus the more I see that one conversion is NOT what Jesus was on about.
In his early ministry Jesus was inviting Jews, and in his later ministry also included Gentiles, to experience a continual cycle of converting moments and spiritual re-births. As I may have said before, for those of us who Follow the way of Jesus, these converting moments and spiritual re-births – these daily Good Friday little deaths to self and Easter Sunday little resurrections – happen each time that we die to our selfish demands, especially when we attempt to live and build a compassionate community by putting the genuine needs of others first and, although it is not always easy to do, when we love others just as they are.
This is the message of Matthew 25 when Jesus is said to have reminded his followers that whatever we do for the least of people we do to Jesus. Such a commitment to living this way will transform us by those small converting moments and spiritual re-births into the image and nature and character of the Infinite Mystery experienced by Christians in Jesus of Nazareth. This is the daily work of the Divine Indwelling Spirit just as it is our work with that Spirit.
Consider the story concerning Nicodemus, a Pharisee and a member of the Great Sanhedrin, the ultimate religious assembly based in Jerusalem. Nicodemus was a man steeped in Judaism, who visited Jesus under the cloak of darkness and was confronted by a new revelation of ‘God’ that went beyond his Pharisaic Judaism and the barriers created by his exclusive religion.
Nicodemus asked Jesus to help him understand what it was that Jesus had discovered. The response of Jesus was that Nicodemus needed to be born again. Jesus the Jew was NOT inviting Nicodemus to be anything other than a changing and developing Jew! But Nicodemus did not understand and responded with a perplexed, “How can this be – I cannot go back into my mother’s womb a second time?”
This morning I suggest that we need to look beyond both the physical re-birth that puzzled Nicodemus and beyond the traditional and institutional western Christian understanding of a one-off spiritual re-birth. I would also like to suggest that by the time that Nicodemus met Jesus for the first time, Jesus had discovered that the exclusivity of the ‘God’ of the Hebrews in which he was wombed and birthed had, like all other religions, set up barriers as to who was in and who was out [i.e. Jew and Gentile]. In this theological rather than historically accurate story that is told uniquely in the Gospel attributed to John, Jesus was talking of Judaism as being his spiritual womb of faith, when Nicodemus was still stuck on the impossible physical aspect of returning to his mother’s womb.
This Jesus and Nicodemus meeting tells me of the first birth, a physical birth into a religion and culture, and then of the second birth beyond the barriers and confines of that religion and culture. And here is the paradox – we can remain both within our religion and culture and yet we can also go beyond the barriers and confines of our religion and culture. That is the second birth.
As I interpret this story, the implication for all religious people is that we are ‘wombed’ and born and nurtured within a religion and its associated culture, but then we need to move beyond those human-made religious barriers. And as a Follower of the Way of Jesus, I reject the idea that this ‘second birth’ is primarily about conversion from one religion to another. Instead, this ‘second birth’ is both within and then beyond any particular religious grouping and into the glorious liberty of seeing that ‘God’ is not on the side of any one religion [usually the ‘my’ religion] and against the others.
The liberty that comes with this second birth enables me to see that all people are united as sisters and brothers under the Infinite Mystery, proclaiming their sacred experiences through different Gateways. And as Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and so on – we all have a responsibility to compassionately work together for the common good and for the future of Creation because that is where we will find and live the Kingdom of God here and now!
I am convinced that it is important for progressive Christians who have been ‘wombed’ and nurtured as ‘Christians’, to remain as followers of the Way of Jesus within the Church for as long as it is possible as a base for living and building the Kingdom of God for the benefit of all. The story of Nicodemus meeting Jesus has helped me to move beyond the separating and suffocating barriers of traditional, institutional Christianity so that I now experience the reality of there being One Infinite Mystery with many pathways to that sacred experience.
And with that we turn to my second point: v16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
This verse is often quoted to me by those Christians who think that Jesus is the only way to salvation and that we are either Christian and will therefore inherit eternal life or we are not Christian, in which case we will inherit and deserve eternal punishment. But, sadly, this is yet another example of where the Christian Church for two millennia has created barriers of exclusion when Jesus crushed similar barriers with his expanding and inclusive understanding of Judaism.
Such exclusive religious views merely underline the fact that for too many Christians and Jews and Muslims, the ‘God’ of Abraham who, according to our religious histories was our common ancestor – all our understandings of ‘God’ are far too small.
John 3:16 is seemingly used against me as a sledgehammer designed to stop all further discussion. No matter how much I wish to discuss the real issues of interdenominational and interfaith dialogue, some Christians just throw this verse at me to say, “The Bible says that Jesus is the only way to salvation, and therefore there is nothing more to discuss.”
But when this verse is quoted in an exclusive way it is also quoted out of its historical context. You see, what we have to understand is that John’s Gospel is full of developing theology and little of accurate history. Therefore it cannot be taken as historically accurate. Whenever John’s Gospel has Jesus saying “I am”, which includes “I am the way, the truth and the life” and, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” – these are late first century AD theology and not earlier 1st century history. Therefore they should not be taken literally. I suggest that John’s community was saying, “This is our on-going spiritual experience of Jesus who was dead but in our daily experiences is alive, and in him we believe that we already experience eternal life!”
In saying these things I am not arguing away John 3:16 but I am inviting us all to see it in this different and liberating context. But even though these statements in John’s Gospel are theology and not history, they cannot be ignored – but nor should they be used by Christian evangelicals and others to argue those who they consider to be ‘non-believers’ into accepting their version of the ‘God’ experience!
Yet, for all those of us who are trying to be progressive Followers of the Way of Jesus, we can each find personal sacred truth in John 3:16 if we search out what lies beyond the stories, histories, laws and poetry of the Hebrew and Christian Testaments. We really do need to listen to what the Spirit may be saying to us today as we marry together the sacred with social justice and equality for all. Perhaps we will then discover a fresh expression of the joy and liberating excitement of the sacred presence in our lives and in the lives of all people of good will, no matter by which religious label they choose to describe themselves.
Jesus was correct when he said that we need to be born again – and again and again! So be it, Amen