“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son so that whosoever believes in him would not perish but have eternal life.”
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Martin Luther is said to have called it “the Gospel in summary.” You find it scratched onto signs held up at football games, or etched into a football player’s eye black. It’s a shorthand for the salvation promised in Christ Jesus.
Sunday’s reading includes the entire first 21 verses of the third chapter of the Gospel of John (John 3:1-21). In this passage we meet Nicodemus, a PHARISEE, who comes to Jesus in the darkness of night. That he is a Pharisee should not surprise us. The church in its careless shorthand has painted the Pharisees as bad guys, though it is likely that Jesus himself was a Pharisee, or at least a close dialogue partner with the Pharisees. Why else would they be spending so much time with Jesus? They hang out so much because they were part of the same group … or at least they moved in very similar circles.
So this Pharisee approaches Jesus in the darkness of the night. Darkness is a sign of confusion or unknowing, and this passage turns on his QUESTIONS. When Jesus says that someone must be born anew (or “from on high” – the Greek word has two valid translations, a tension that certainly was intentional), Nicodemus asks how this is possible. “How is it possible for an adult to be born? It’s impossible to enter the mother’s womb for a second time and be born, isn’t it?” (John 3:4).
Jesus responds by telling Nicodemus that the birth of which he speaks is not the natural, human birth process but an experience of the SPIRIT. This experience of the Spirit is both clearly experienced and mysterious. You feel and hear its movement, you see its impact, but you don’t know how it works. “God’s Spirit blows wherever it wishes. You hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. It’s the same with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8).
The new life, the salvation, the ETERNAL LIFE of John 3:16 is a gift of the Spirit received and nurtured in community. Just as we are born in families and communities, so too this new birth takes place not in isolation but in community, in relationship with God and with God’s people, a “family” defined not by blood but by the Spirit. And the eternal life that is given is given now, and its impact is both now and in the time to come. (We “will have” eternal life, in John 3:16; but in John 3:36 the verb is present tense: “whoever believes in the Son has [present tense, right now] eternal life.”) That is, this gift of eternal life is not merely an “add-on,” an extension of this life into the next. Instead, this eternal life which is given by God impacts us and our communities right now. Our new and eternal life in Christ anticipates what will be in the time to come. That anticipation changes what is for us right now.
This is what is meant by the line in our mission statement that we are called “to live God’s promise.” We have the promise of eternal life. We know what lies before us. We’ve been given the winning lottery ticket. Though we haven’t cashed it in, that ticket already changes our life right here, right now. So too does the promise of God. God’s promises, God’s love for us and for the world, changes us right now, so that we can leave the darkness and enter the light (John 3:21).
There’s so much in this text – from the meaning of eternal life, to the nature of the Spirit, to Nicodemus’ questions, to the great verse itself, I’m not sure where I’m going with my message on Sunday (and, without the Wednesday Morning Bible Study crew meeting this week, I’m lacking some of the direction I would usually have by this point). Yet we know this – new life, eternal life, life itself are gifts of God, given to us freely because of the love of God. And this is good news.