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Journey Toward Faith: A Lenten Sermon on John 3:16

Readings: Genesis 12:1-4a John 3:1-17 

We have before us this morning what I would consider one of the most misused, misunderstood texts in the entire Scripture. One single verse has provided motivation for some of the most destructive and unchristian impulses of those who take the name Christian. “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.”

Taken literally it suggests that those who do not believe in this Son will perish. It is difficult to overestimate the harm, hurt and abuse that has been encouraged by this literal rendering of John’s Gospel. The bloody Christian Crusade against Muslims of the middle ages was based on the belief that Muslims were a threat to believing in the Son. The Holocaust toward Jews was nurtured by the notion that Jews were a threat to believing in the Son. Christian missionary work was often conducted among native peoples with John 3:16 as its driving force. If you do not believe you will perish. Therefore, we are free to use every tool at our disposal to stamp out Indigenous beliefs, including Indigenous language and culture, which was so naturally entwined with Indigenous beliefs.

John 3:16 is hung today in big banners at football games and baseball games as a reminder that unless you believe in a God who sends his son as a blood sacrifice for your sinfulness you will perish, and suffer eternal damnation. I grew up believing that Catholics were going to hell because they failed to believe the right things about Jesus. Lutherans were questionable and the rest of the world, of course, was condemned. Taken literally John 3:16 becomes the cornerstone for an edifice of beliefs that include rejection of those who differ in sexual orientation or gender identity, the dominance of women by men, the sense of entitlement that Western countries have over the rest of the world. A literal rendering of John 3:16 is alive and well. It remains a potent and I believe often destructive influence, from matters of individual salvation to the way we conduct foreign policy as a nation.

The irony is that of the four Gospel writers John was the least literal among them. All of the Gospel writers take great liberty with the actual events of Jesus life and the things he said. They were not historians. They were seeking to communicate a faith. But, John is the one who exercises the greatest freedom in reworking and retelling the story of Jesus in order to communicate who Jesus is for us today. John would be aghast at turning his Gospel into a wooden, sterile and literal interpretation of the things Jesus said and did.

It is particularly ironic that in today’s Gospel John’s Jesus specifically and unequivocally rejects the very literalism that has so often dominated the reading of this text. When Jesus offers the metaphor of birth to speak about spiritual growth, Nicodemus taking a literal approach to Jesus words says, “how can one be born a second time from your mother’s womb?” John tells us Jesus was amazed at Nicodemus’ literal understanding of this evocative image and says to Nicodemus, “You are a teacher of faith and yet you are unable to understand what I am saying?” Jesus would be equally amazed at how his invitation to deepen our encounter with God through a rebirth of the Spirit is still used today as a literal basis for exclusion, rejection, dominance, and judgment. If the life and example of Jesus gives us reason at all to be literal in our reading of Jesus words it would not be John 3:16, but rather John 3:17 “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”

Neither Jesus nor John in his Gospel were interested in establishing a belief system to be the cornerstone for acceptance or rejection by God. They were however very interested in the question how does one come to have faith? How does one grow and mature in one’s experience of God? If our interest is in deepening our walk with God rather than creating belief systems of exclusion, than this passage from John, including John 3:16 has much to teach us. Our text this morning offers three formative influences on our spiritual lives and our encounter with God. While these three are not exhaustive of the ways in which a person grows and deepens in their experience of God, it is difficult to imagine any substantial spiritual growth, any rebirth without them.

The first of those formative faith influences is a community of faith. Nicodemus comes to Jesus as one whose experience of God has been nurtured and supported by a community of believers. John begins his story by identifying Nicodemus as a leader of the Jews. One of the unfortunate consequences of reading John 3:16 literally has been an excessive, almost exclusive focus on individual salvation. The central question becomes am I saved? Have I experienced personal salvation? Do I know Jesus as my Lord and Savior? This go it alone with God approach, of course, fits quite well for people benefiting from an economic system that has a similar emphasis. The role and place of the community, the common good, is always secondary, even incidental to a focus on the individual.

But, for people like Nicodemus, whose faith was formed by the Hebrew Scriptures, the role of a community of believers was primary in his faith development. In the Hebrew Scriptures the shaping of a loving and just community is God’s central concern. As a child Nicodemus was taught the traditions of this faith. As a youth Nicodemus was nurtured in the collective wisdom and experience of a community who had long sought to know God. As an adult, Nicodemus was sustained by a community who encounters God at the heart of creation, in Exodus movements of liberation, in prophetic calls for justice.

John in his Gospel reminds us of Nicodemus place in a community of faith because John, like Jesus, considers the role of a faith community central in our own faith formation. The songs and hymns we sing together on Sunday morning, the prayers we offer, the support we give and receive, the study and reflection all reflect the important role a community of believers plays in our spiritual formation. When we absent ourselves from a the community of faith we are cutting ourselves off from one of God’s primary tools for inviting us into a deeper and more intimate encounter with God.

Service, caring for and about others, is the second formative influence on faith and our encounter with God revealed in this passage from John. Nicodemus is quite clear the reason he comes knocking on Jesus door at night is that through Jesus healing of the sick, feeding the hungry, caring for those in need, they have experienced the presence of God. “No one can do the things you do apart from the presence of God”, says Nicodemus. When we participate in Loaves and Fishes, Building Blocks Tutorial, Habitat for Humanity, community supported agriculture there is more at stake than the good we might accomplish. For Nicodemus it was the acts of caring and compassion of Jesus, which further opened his heart to God’s presence.

Among the many problems presented with a literal reading of John 3:16 is a resulting lack of concern for human suffering. If the over riding goal is to keep people from perishing in the life to come, than the problem of their perishing in this life due to lack of food or health care seems unimportant. Nicodemus reminds us we encounter the presence of God precisely in those places where our hearts are open and we respond to the needs around us. This week Maria McNamara and I participated in the Day on the Hill, an event intended to support people of faith in advocating with our legislators for policies and laws that enable the building of healthy, just and non-violent communities. Helping at Loaves and Fishes, advocating with legislators, building homes, tutoring youth or whatever means by which you share compassion and concern are central to growing in faith and our experience of God’s presence.

The third formative influence reflected in our Gospel this morning is openness to the guiding of God’s Spirit. The question faced by Nicodemus and anyone seeking to grow in faith is, are you willing to let go of your certainties about who God is? Are you willing to experience God in new ways? Are you ready like Abraham and Sarah to step out on a journey with God without the comfort of knowing exactly where it will lead you? Although Nicodemus came knocking on Jesus door, what he ultimately discovers is that Jesus is knocking his door. Jesus is inviting Nicodemus; Jesus is inviting you and me to let the Spirit of God be our guide, to be born anew. Are we as a community; are we as individuals prepared to trust God enough to live without absolute certainty about whom God is? When Jesus comes knocking on our door, it is an invitation to grow in faith through the guidance of the Spirit.

Finally, let us return to John 3:16. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” On September 11th we were reminded how sacrificial one human being can be for the sake of another. Hundreds of firefighters and police officers risked and ultimately lost their lives in hopes of saving people they never knew. Can you imagine any of those courageous individuals entering that building with the idea of determining who was worthy to be brought out and who was not? It would be ridiculous.

Rather than creating a belief system that saves some and rejects others, John is simply expressing the depth of God’s love, which can be encountered in the presence of Jesus. How do we grow in faith, how do we grow in our encounter with this God who so loved the world?

I don’t know about you but it has been my experience that my faith is strongest, I feel most close to God when I participate in community, when I care about others, and when I let go of my certainties and remain open to the guiding of God’s Spirit.


Genesis 12:1-4a
In our first lesson God calls Abram and Sarai to leave the home of their ancestors and to journey in faith to a place shown to them by God.

Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” So Abram went, as the LORD had told him; and Lot went with him.

John 3:1-17
Some religious leaders in Jesus time saw Jesus as a threat and responded accordingly, but there were others for whom Jesus, the things he did and said, raised many questions about their own faith. Our Gospel lesson today tells the story of one such person, by the name of Nicodemus, who comes to talk with Jesus about the questions Jesus is stirring up in his own heart.

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 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. “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. “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.

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