“I’m leaving you…” That’s what the “post-it note” on the counter read. In a panic, the husband stared at it. His mind raced, his heart clenched in his chest, and his stomach dropped.
Sure, there had been the normal ups and downs of relationship but nothing that would have prepared him for this.
“I’m leaving you…” The words burned.
He wanted to call.
He wanted to plead, to question, and try to discover what offense he had done that would lead to this. He reached for the yellow tag of paper lifting from the countertop on its half-adhesive edge as if by touching it he might somehow confirm or deny the words that seemed to leap from its surface.
And plucking the note he then noticed that the writing continued on the back side. Fearfully flipping it over from the “I’m leaving you” side he went on to read…“half a piece of pie in the fridge from my lunch… enjoy!”
It’s so important to read the whole note before jumping to conclusions!
It’s so important to read all the way through John chapter 3 verse 17 in our Gospel for today, because stopping at John 3:16 is like the husband not turning the note over.
People are really good about quoting and pointing out John 3:16. It pops up on signs at ball games, and in rallies. You probably know this verse by heart for its words are burned into the memory.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.”
But something strange happens in how that verse gets used and interpreted when we stop reading the bible story there.
I think it happens because we assume that we know what is going on in this story of Nicodemus.
Jesus is arguing with this Pharisee who has come to him by night that he must be “born from above.”
Nicodemus is inquisitive.
He recognizes that Jesus is a teacher, and that he is from God, but he has questions, and in the exchange that follows, Jesus engages in the give and take of what would be recognized at the time this was written as “rabbinical teaching.” It is the technique employed by teacher and student to lead one to a different perspective.
Instead of viewing the Nicodemus story for what it is, which is this dialogue in which Jesus is teaching and Nicodemus is learning, we read it as if it were the fine print on an infomercial.
We read it as “Some conditions may apply…”
We read that God so loves the world but then we assume from the teaching that precedes it that this is about conditions and expectations.
“You must be born from above.” Jesus says, and we are conditioned by one theological interpretation to read that as a condition, one not yet met by Nicodemus. The condition that you must be baptized.
“No one can enter into the Kingdom without being born of water and the spirit.” We read that as a condition, and one that is beyond Nicodemus’ grasp at this point, and so we leave Nicodemus in a kind of limbo, waiting for a later date when maybe he will “get it” and comply.
Maybe someday he too will make his way out to the wilderness to be baptized by John.
Maybe, someday, Nicodemus will do what we think Jesus commands here as a condition of entering the Kingdom, and comply with the ritual.
Instead of viewing this as an exchange of learning that leads Nicodemus to a new understanding, something that he has to let “sink in” for a bit. We assume that it is Jesus laying out conditions that must be met, and so John 3:16 begins to take on the ring of exclusivity.
Believe and you will have eternal life.
Question, like Nicodemus, and you must be left out.
That’s how we often read this, and by extension then we begin to set up our own categories of who is in and who is out. We qualify and quantify beliefs based upon our own experience, and assume that John 3:16 supports them.
If you believe as I do, well then as John 3:16 says, and you are in.
If you believe differently that I do, well then John 3:16 would seem to indicate that you are out.
Follow Jesus as I understand one is to follow, and you are in with me.
Follow in a way that I don’t understand or agree with, and well…. John 3:16 says….
Exclusivity rears its head if you end with the verse about belief, precisely because “belief” as we use that word tends to be a subjective thing, something open to our own interpretation of what it might be.
But if you push on to John 3:17, the landscape of this bible story changes.
“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
The removal of the condemnation is like the husband turning over of the note!
Now the exchange between Nicodemus and Jesus is not about coming to a place of “right belief.” It is rather about developing a relationship!
This is what Nicodemus came to Jesus by night to do! He already knows that Jesus is sent by God. No one can dispute that – given what Jesus does, the signs he performs, — what Nicodemus can’t quite figure out is how to relate to him!
It is in developing a relationship in which the wind of the spirit can blow where it wills that Nicodemus begins to see.
It is in developing a relationship where questions can be raised, where thoughts can be clarified, and where trust can be established that Nicodemus begins to understand how he, as a teacher of Israel can begin to discern what God is up to now in his midst.
Push on to verse 17, and what is revealed is God’s intention, which is considerably less about what one believes or does, and turns out to be more about what God seems to desire.
No, not just what God “seems” to desire, but that God expressly states, namely, that it is God’s desire to save the world, and that’s why the son has been sent.
Jesus has been sent for this very kind of engagement.
Jesus is sent to open up the dialog where questions can be raised, and where insight can be given, and where through the dialog the Spirit can then begin to move where it will.
This is good news for us, for we could use a lot of “world saving” right now, and preferably some that doesn’t depend so much upon “right belief,” because quite frankly, we don’t know what to believe anymore.
In this world of fake news, the denial of accumulated data and the questioning of factual or scientific evidence, we are uncertain about who or what to believe anymore.
We are at least as disoriented in our daily life now as Nicodemus was when he came to Jesus by night.
So, now is the time to push on to verse 17.
Now is the time to hear, with crystal clarity, that salvation is not dependent upon our belief or unbelief, but rather salvation is something that is put into motion by God’s desire. It is God’s activity of sending his Son that brings about salvation, and it is God’s desire that this be directed toward the whole world.
Now is the time to claim that, more than ever, in a world that is fractured, and where trust is hard to come by, that it is God’s intention and desire to save this world.
In a world where political powers and ideologies press us to want to isolate, to separate ourselves, to build walls, to label who is in, and who is out, and who is other to be questioned, distrusted, avoided, rejected and deported – we need to claim and proclaim that what God is up to is opening up dialog and engaging people.
Now is the time to remind the world of verse 17, for Jesus did not come into this world to condemn it, but to save it, and it all begins with establishing relationship, not labeling or dismissing others.
God did not send his Son to hasten the end of world, but rather to unite all things in Christ.
Jesus did not come to speak enigmatically to those who came to him by night in order to confuse them.
No, Jesus came to open up a dialog where even in the midst of deep misunderstanding and questioning the Spirit can blow and new insight can be given.
This is our legacy.
This is the hope to which we are called, and what we are called to proclaim.
John 3:16, yes… absolutely! God so loved this world that he sent the Son.
But do not end it there! The Son is sent not to establish right belief, but rather to foster the belief in us all that God does not condemn, but instead desires to save and to begins relationship.
Those in it.
Those who come by night, and those who follow by day.
All of them, all of it, God desires to save and God does so by establishing a relationship with in which the Word is made flesh and dwells in our midst, and where the Spirit can blow.
It is so important that we read this whole note, this whole story to a world that is always tempted to fall into division.
The world is depending upon it.
God is depending on the dialogue, and upon us to engage it. Amen.