Lent Post #8: Why John 3:16, Why? (Or, Preaching on the Scripture Most Frequently Taken Out of Context in Christianity)

This Sunday’s lectionary text comes from the Gospel of John, and if it couldn’t be more complicated and convoluted, it has to include John 3:16 AND the text that the more conservative branch of Christianity lays claim to their justification of or rather, claim to being “born again” in coming to a faith in Jesus Christ. WHY of all weeks that I am going to preach did this text have to be the lectionary text? 

There are few texts in the Bible that make me more uncomfortable for cultural reasons, rather than theological reasons, and this is one of them; why, you ask? It is less because of the theological message, as John 3:1-17 (the lectionary text for this Sunday) contains many pearls of wisdom, and even proclaims the very reason for Christ’s coming into human form. It documents the story of a man – Nicodemus, a Pharisaic Jew and leader in his community – who approaches Jesus in the dark of night to ask deep faith questions from the heart. Jesus challenges Nicodemus, who is what we might in modern parlance, “a seeker,” by answering his questions, not with direct and clear answers, but with more questions – a very frustrating and discouraging situation initially for a “beginner Christian.” 

However, what this type of pedagogy teaches is not that Jesus doesn’t care, or that he only bothers with those who are capable of fathoming the answers, but rather, it sends the message that there are those Nicodemuses all around us, and that we too are Nicodemuses too – whether we have been raised in the church, or whether our hearts were touched by the Spirit later in life. 

What bugs me most about the interpretation or prooftexting of only John 3:16 without reading the entire passage of verses 1-17, which goes all together – is that you cannot read this so-called famous passage without the tale of Nicodemus. Making the claim that John 3:16 is the source of Christian faith and the “be all, end all,” is all well and good, and may work for some, but is so limiting! The days of Tim Tebow putting “3:16” on his eye black, advertising: 

“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.” 

Yes, that is definitely true. But Christ came not only to be present with us here in this life and in this place, but also TO DO SOMETHING. Christ wasn’t an armchair messiah, but he was also an active messiah. To read verse 16 without verses 1-15 and 17 is doing a disservice to the fact that Christ came not just to bring humanity back from the wasteland of sin and despair, but also to reconcile us to the God who created us. 

To leave out the verses around 3:16 means that Christians neglect to recognize the fact that we will always be seekers (or refuse to?) after God. Faith, after all, is not about the destination, but is about the journey, and thus, to be constantly seeking after God is what we should and must be doing, not for one period of time in order to be “born again” in Christ, but to be constantly renewing, reengaging and reinvigorating our relationship with God the way Nicodemus was in the dark of night with Christ. It involves asking questions – not the easy, simple and basic ones, but the ones that go to the heart of the issues, and the ones that might cause some challenges to our faith. But in asking these questions, we get to the heart of what it means to be born of the water and the spirit. 

As it is impossible to be “born again,” but rather completely to be reborn in Christ through the water and the Spirit precisely because of God’s compassionate grace and love for humanity, as expressed through Christ. Paradox? Mystifying? Yes. But where would the fun be if it were straight forward, plus, as the original humans learned, it is not up to us to know and learn everything, but rather for us to trust in God, and to continue to seek after God as we take the journey. It isn’t about being “born again,” and then arriving in a location, having received all the information necessary for a life of faith. Rather, to journey alongside and ask the tough and wonderful questions of life is what we are intended to do as dynamic people. Life is too exciting to remain static, too filled with new opportunities for growth to have simply arrived somewhere in the middle of it all. 

It is important to emphasize however that regardless of whether you believe it is necessary to be “born again” to be accepted in the church or whether you come from a mainline Protestant tradition like I do, and so a belief that being born in the spirit and in water is more appropriate, all are accepted in Christ. All are gathered in by God, and all are the beloved in the eyes of God. Christ came to show us that we are reconciled to God, to meet humanity where we are, and to refresh life anew. This means that regardless of our theological positions, we are all forgiven and gathered in. The kingdom of God is not separated based on how you came to Christ (or your theology of how you come to Christ…that takes way too much energy, and is so dang silly). The Kingdom of God is for all who have been gathered in by God, and all who have been born of the water and the spirit – however you see this. 

 

Accepting and reconciling God,

You are the one who sees, knows and works in our hearts.

You are the one who came into the world, 

And the one who brought the world from darkness into light.

And You are the only one who can unite the many churches and their many beliefs.

Each claim “true beliefs,” but the only one with a true understanding is You in heaven.

Bind us together in unity, 

Heal our hearts, open our minds, soften our hearts as you softened the hearts of the Egyptians. 

Help us to love one another as we are all one in Christ Jesus. 

Amen.

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