One verse in our gospel lesson today stands out. Not necessarily because of what it says so much as it is likely the most well known verse in the Bible. I haven’t seen it here, but in the United States, John 3:16 is everywhere. A lot of times just that scripture reference. For a long time there was a crazy guy in a rainbow wig who would be at all American football games on television. Whenever there was a field goal – that’s when one team would kick the ball through the goalposts similar to what you have in rugby – he would be there to hold up the sign with ‘John 3:16’. With that much use, it probably has been reduced to more of a cliché than anything with any power. It is hard to brush off the familiarity of this ancient text and allow it to speak to us. Many times I wonder if the church has forgotten what it means to speak of God’s love in giving Jesus and his offer of eternal life.
For three years now I have been asking my three churches what need they think they are fulfilling with an hour on Sunday morning and a ten-minute chat over some coffee and maybe a biscuit. If one is really lucky, then an offer may come to serve on a committee, where conversations, like the one with Jesus and Nicodemus, can go late into the night. Unlike this conversation with Jesus and Nicodemus, the church’s discussions seem more self-interested and talk about locks on doors and organs and pews. Some people have challenged me on this and said, ‘Yes, this does provide a need for people who are looking for a quiet place to come where they can do as they always done.’ My responses have typically have had two parts. The first, I usually ask this question in the context of evangelism. Someone says, ‘We need more people to come to church,’ and I ask who is looking for what we have to offer? The second part of my answer is, ‘Even if we are fulfilling a need for those who come, does that necessarily make it the need God wants to fulfil?’ What I’m asking is, is this the ‘eternal life’ that Jesus is promising to those who believe? Is that all there is to it?
Let’s jump back to the beginning of the chapter – the part we didn’t read, but our short passage makes little sense outside of it. The second verse tells us that Nicodemus came to Jesus at night. Remember, in John, staying in darkness is a bad thing. The verse you likely read on Christmas morning was John 1. What does it say about darkness? ‘The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.’ That’s an extraordinary statement about what Jesus came to do and in today’s passage, we find out why. In verse 19 Jesus tells us ‘that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light.’ So right there we read that Nicodemus wanted to stay in the dark. It likely meant that as a leader of the ruling party, he could get into serious trouble by meeting with Jesus, by showing any interest in his message. Jesus and his message were so dangerous that a religious leader was too scared to meet with Jesus in the open. Jesus even foreshadows what it will mean for him in the near future. He tells Nicodemus, ‘And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.’ ‘Lifted up’ here means ‘lifted up on the cross’. Jesus is telling the end result of his dangerous message – that he will be killed. This offer of eternal life does not come easy or cheap. It challenges and threatens, and for those who do not want to confront it they simply slump off into the darkness. For those of us who will be confronted by Jesus, we have the offer of eternal life.
Despite his reluctance to meet Jesus in the daytime, I have to hand it to Nicodemus: he sought Jesus out and wanted to talk about more than just the agenda for the next finance committee meeting. Today, churches in the United Kingdom and the United States meet openly and proudly, but are we saying anything? One of the reasons I pick on our Sunday morning gatherings is that during the service, it’s the preacher who does the talking. The rest are looking straight ahead, leaving the preacher unable to gauge whether or not any of this is sinking in. Then after the service, when we finally get a chance to talk about something, we keep it easy and distant. Jesus seems to be like those who make for the door as soon as the final blessing is given – he isn’t spoken about. There is a joke among preachers that as people come out and shake our hands, the normal comment is, ‘I liked the hymns’ or something general like that. I can’t make out whether I was understood, boring, or listened to. Nicodemus came to Jesus in the dark out of fear but he wanted to talk about eternal life. Is our message of eternal life so tamed that we feel that we can openly display loyalty to it, but not really have to think about it outside of that one hour?
Perhaps we feel we have tamed it to the point that eternal life is no longer worth talking about. Maybe we feel that we have it all figured out. But we get to listen in on this fantastic conversation in which one of Israel’s religious leaders gets nothing right in this conversation. Jesus reduces him to sputtering questions that make him sound like an idiot. Jesus tells Nicodemus he must be born again or born from above. Nicodemus starts talking about getting back into his mother’s womb! The message of eternal life is much deeper than we can fathom. Yet, we start our faith conversations much like Nicodemus when he said, ‘We know…’ Jesus proves to Nicodemus, ‘You don’t know anything.’ To meet with Jesus, we have to put all that we think possible on the table so that Jesus can open us up to new possibilities. This is more than can be done in a once a week service or even one conversation. Nicodemus’ last words in this story is simply the question, ‘How are these things possible?’ It took him a while, but evidently he didn’t stop with this conversation. We meet Nicodemus twice more in John. Once when he timidly tried to get the other leaders to consider Jesus’ message and another when his loyalties came out in the open for real as he helped Joseph of Arimathea to bury Jesus. The message of eternal life cannot be tamed, and it cannot be understood that once we reach 16 we can graduate Sunday school.
So it would seem that our message of eternal life is much more than a campaign slogan or even a feel good sentiment. Eternal life comes when we meet Jesus. And here again we find this contrast of light and dark. Jesus is the light that exposes all things. We don’t like talking about judgment, but we can’t get away from it here. Maybe we try to tone down this part of Jesus’ message because… well, we don’t like to be judged so we don’t want to judge others. The problem with this is that Jesus himself brings judgment by simply walking in the room. I think it’s something like this: if I ever met the queen of England, I would not have to hear her tell me that she is richer, more influential, or more royal than I. It would be apparent in the meeting that there is a difference between the two of us. When confronted with Jesus, we see ourselves for who we are and we can choose to say with him or continue to hide. Jesus judges all, but the point is not how much we have done wrong – or even what we have done. Jesus judges all that, but the final judgment comes down to our response to Jesus. Do we stay with him or do we continue to stay in the darkness? Do we change our life or do we want to stay as we are? As I said, this isn’t a literal darkness as with Nicodemus, but out constant avoidance of any spiritual talk at any of our meetings, social gatherings, or even worship services. We must stop locking up Jesus in a room somewhere like he is an unwanted family member. Jesus will get out anyway – John tells us that darkness cannot overcome the light!
Our message of eternal life with its consequence of judgment gives us an alternative. Jesus offers us this new life because of the cross, resurrection, and ascension. We are born again, but also born from above. The original Greek word means both ‘again’ and ‘from above’, and we have to hear both. Nicodemus only heard ‘again’ and not ‘from above’. Being born from above means that this new life comes from God himself. We live no longer human will, but by God’s will. Eternal life isn’t in the future, but it begins now. It is the power to no longer live in darkness trying to hide evil deeds, but a call to live in the light with the Holy Spirit-inspired good deeds that proclaim God’s love and not condemnation. The work God does in us after this new birth will be a calling to others to come out of the darkness and step into the light. We need to recapture John Wesley’s understanding of ‘new birth’. ‘New birth’ is not simply forgiveness for our past sins. It’s not just forgiveness of our future sins. It is the start of a whole new life lived in the Spirit of God. We have the freedom not to sin. The old life has died and Christ has given birth in us a new life in which we are powered by the work of the Holy Spirit. This life is one that stands in stark contrast to the notion that being a Christian is about going to a service once a week. It’s a faith that inspires us to see the world differently. Rather than surface relationships, we dig deeper with Christ and with one another. Where we see the darkness of injustice, we bring Christ’s light of justice. Instead of simply accepting our lives for what they are, we continue to move on allowing the Holy Spirit to make us holy. This is eternal life that begins now, and this is what Christ through us offers. This is where eternal life gets exciting.
1776 is one of my favourite Broadway plays. I imagine you can figure out what it is about. The Continental Congress are deciding on whether or not to debate the issue of independence – not decide it, mind you, only debate it. The colonies are tied at 6-6 when the representative from Rhode Island walks in. He will cast the deciding vote so he says, ‘Well, in all my years I ain’t never heard, seen nor smelled an issue that was so dangerous it couldn’t be talked about. Hell yeah! I’m for debating anything. Rhode Island says yea!’ Maybe the issue of eternal life is so dangerous that it needs to be talked about. People everywhere are looking for answers and the question becomes, ‘Is Jesus’ offer of eternal life worth talking about?’ I’m not talking about saving our church buildings or getting more people here on Sunday morning. I think those days are past us. We need to focus on where people are and what we can do to show that more than meeting their needs, Jesus wants to change their life, give them new birth. We cannot simply wait for them to come us, resting on what we have always known and think it is clear to them.
One final story, and it is another American illustration. Each January there is an American college football game played between the two top teams. This will decide who wins the national championship. It is a game that was watched by over 24 million people. The star of the game, Florida quarterback Tim Tebow, is one of the games best. Some say of him that the bogeyman looks under his bed for Tim Tebow and that Superman wears Tim Tebow pyjamas. That night on his face he had written John 3:16. It was his witness to the world. But, the next day Google’s most searched for term was John 3:16. Most Americans had no clue what ‘John 3:16’ was and had to look it up. I don’t think their confusion was made any clearer. We live in a world where our old assumptions are dying out – we cannot even reliably say that people know what John 3:16 says anymore, much less what it means. So, we have to be able to show and talk about what Jesus’ gift of eternal life means. This verse has power, but we have to dust off the familiarity and find ways to allow that power out. And the church must remember the power those words have. Will we simply hope that our offer of an hour on Sunday morning is enough? Or will we decide it’s too dangerous that we have to talk about it?