Sermon preached at St. Aidan's Episcopal Church on March 11th, 2018. Lent 4B reading from John 3:14-21, Ephesians 2:1-10, and Numbers 21:4-9.
Ok, so I know Bible verse memorization is not as big in the Episcopal Church as it is in the evangelical world, but my guess is that there are some of you here who are familiar with this reference: John 3:16. Right? Can anyone join me in reciting it from memory, with the caveat that I know it best in the King James? “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
Whether you can recite it perfectly or not, I imagine most of us are familiar with the general idea or at minimum have seen the reference frequently on billboards, signs at sports events, or in other contexts. According to “TopVerses.com,” which claims to sort Bible verses by frequency of use on the internet, it is the #1 most popular verse. The site goes on to claim that it is the third of only eight individual verses in the entire Bible which provide “the story of God's plan to restore his relationship with us.” I do hope the editors of our Lectionary don’t take that too seriously, as I enjoy having more than eight verses to preach on each year!
In 2008 the prolific evangelical author Max Lucado—called “America’s Pastor” by Christianity Today magazine—launched the “3:16 Movement” on the 700 Club saying: “John 3:16 has always been that one verse that I thought summarizes, encapsulates, [and] carries the heart of the Gospel like no other verse.” In an accompanying book, he “addresses such questions as ‘Don't all roads lead to heaven and God?’ and ‘What must we do to gain everlasting life?’ and also devotes chapters on heaven and hell.” He goes on to say, "This life is so brief. We are here to make a decision about where we spend eternity – either with God or apart from God. That is assignment No. 1. It's really just a warm-up for the world that is to come."
Implicit in all this are two things: 1) an assumption that this verse stands alone out of its context both in John and most of the rest of the Bible and 2) that there is one simple way to understand what is being said. My concern is that, if this verse is truly this significant—and it certainly is if only in how heavily it’s used—then surely it must be speaking at a deeper and more layered level in order to sum up vast quantities of Scripture. And I really don’t think we can get at that until we understand this verse within its surroundings. Rather than making 1 verse speak for all 31,102 of them, let’s at least expand out to 21 verses for context!
So—we find the sixteenth verse of John chapter three in the middle of eight verses read from our Lectionary assignment today, in the latter section of a broader dialogue starting with chapter 3 verse 1, and beginning a section which many scholars believe is a short commentary by the Evangelist on the afore-mentioned conversation. This section of narrative introduces a character named Nicodemus, a member of the lay reformation movement of the Pharisees and a man with influence and power in Judea. Nicodemus has apparently heard of the great signs Jesus has been performing, including producing wine for a wedding and clearing out the temple, and wants to meet this new celebrity. John very clearly tells us that he comes at night, in the darkness, but there’s no implication that it is a clandestine visit. After all, this is a time of feast and festival around Passover. I picture an evening under the Jerusalem stars, maybe some lamb barbecue going, plenty of wine at hand and a hum of conversation and laughter in the distance. Jesus is relaxing near the fire, light flickering over his face, as a special visitor climbs the stairs up to the rooftop hangout of this new Rabbi and his band of followers.
Nicodemus bows, greets Jesus with a Shalom 'alekem, and is answered with 'Alekem shalom and a proffered tumbler of wine. As Nicodemus settles into a reclining position opposite the fire, he gives high honor to this new preacher, saying, “Rabbi, we know that you have come as a teacher from God; for no one can produce these signs you perform unless God is with him.” He is confident in his welcome as an equal, if not superior, maybe expecting a complimentary note in return, and seems eager to get to know this newcomer and share ideas.
Jesus replies, according to my paraphrase, “Look, um, you may have missed something. The public signs are not the real point, right? I’m focused on the kingdom of God, that which can only be seen by eyes reborn from above.”
Nicodemus is totally confused. “Wait, what? Rebirth, like another birth after the first birth? I’m kind of old for that kind of thing, so’s Mom, and frankly the mechanics are suspect.”
Jesus doubles-down: “I tell you, unless a man is born of water and wind, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God. Flesh bears flesh, but Spirit bears spirit. Why are you surprised? The spirit blows where it will, but you do not see its origin or destination.”
Nicodemus is absolutely bewildered. Jesus continues, “You, a great teacher, have not yet experienced these things and made them part of your knowledge?” [paraphrase by Sanford based on Greek ginosko] Jesus is disappointed but unsurprised. He has met yet another representative of a religious institution who has not experienced that which it was founded on. Memorization of texts has not led to transformation.
“Look,” Jesus says, “it’s just like Moses lifting up the serpent in the wilderness, right?” Nicodemus, eyes wide and head shaking, is trying to decide if the man is simply insane. First rebirth, then water and wind, now snakes on a plane—er, sorry, stick? Jesus tries a final attempt: “It’s about the life eternal, life of the age-to-come, that which God promised.”
And here we get to that special verse, as our narrator takes over, leaving Nicodemus in either despair or ridicule: “For God so loved the cosmos as to give the Son, the only one, so that everyone having faith in him might not perish, but have the life of that Age.” (DBH) John continues on, explaining that God did not come to judge because judgement has already come, for men have loved the darkness more than the light—and only those who act in truth approach the light.
Ok. So in our larger context we have rebirth from above, flesh and spirit, water and wind, snake-banners, an invisible kingdom, judgement (but not from God?), darkness and light, and “acting in truth” to add to verse 3:16’s love, cosmos, only son, faith, perishing, and life eternal. No wonder poor Nicodemus was looking shell-shocked. He came for a casual fire-side chat, maybe some comparing notes for next Sabbath’s sermon, and got...well, this!
Now, there’s enough here to back up the popular narrative our friend Lucado prefers: “Jesus came so those who believe in him can go to heaven after they die while the rest go to hell.” But just as Jesus tries to push Nicodemus beyond a simple, literal, surface understanding, I think there’s something marginally related yet very different going on under the surface. Let’s take a step back and consider, just briefly, another reading on a more inward and symbolic level.
Jesus says that seeing the kingdom, the truth of what he is saying, can only be accomplished by those who are reborn, from above. Imagine, instead of a human mother’s womb, the very womb of God! Our passage is depicted as through water and pneuma—a Greek word meaning both wind and spirit, just like the Hebrew ru’ach. In symbolic terms, water is moist, dark, womblike, cool, and feminine. It overcomes all obstacles through gentle strength. In this way it is related to the Chinese yin. Wind symbolizes a penetrating force, which can rip up and destroy but also bring life-giving rain. It is the dynamic, spermatic yang. In Jungian analysis, water most often represents “the unconscious, a life-giving energy emerging from our depths that heals and brings life,” while wind “enters our dream-houses, creates disturbances, and produces numinous effects.” Wind has been called “the creative irrational masculine force of the psyche, coming from a source within us so deep and so connected to the power of life itself that we are justified in calling it the Spirit of God.” [compare to Job's "whirlwind]
In John 3:5 Jesus describes the rebirth as “out from the center of” water and wind, making passage through a dark and narrow tunnel—buoyed by a passive but irresistible medium and pushed by an active, penetrating force—resulting in spiritual transformation.
In the ancient world, the serpent represented both evil power and chaos from the underworld and fertility, life, and healing. In the Epic of Gilgamesh it is the skin-shedding snake who gains the everlasting life the hero worked for. Today, it represents healing in the caduceus of physicians. For dream therapists it can “symbolize the uncanny, objective, natural way in which our unconscious works to either bring about our undoing or our healing.” The serpent lifted up becomes for the Israelites in the wilderness a symbol of that which is killing them, upon which gazing will bring in turn deep healing, just as in gazing upon the Christ we humans continually crucify can be convicting and transformational.
Our text tells us that there is judgement, but not from God. The sentence is chosen already by those who avoid the harsh, unforgiving light of Christ for the comfort of concealing darkness. This is the natural bent of the human, to avoid looking at our shadow nature. John says we agape, we love the darkness! In this context, darkness stands for that which “darkens the mind, brings ignorance, moral and psychological obtuseness and unawareness;” whereas light symbolizes that which brings consciousness, illumination, knowledgeableness, enlightenment.
The great 20th century spiritual psychologist Carl Jung said that, “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making darkness conscious.” The Church Father St. Clement of Alexandria wrote in the 2nd century: “Let not us, then, who are sons of the true light, close the door against this light; but turning in on ourselves, illuming the eyes [the unconscious], and gazing on the truth itself, and receiving its streams, let us clearly and intelligibly reveal such dreams as are true.”
This is not easy. It takes real work to act in the truth, to live genuinely with integrity, fully within the truth about ourselves. “To live by the truth is to live with inner self-honesty, exposing oneself and one’s actions to the light.” In this way we are opposed to rationalization, blaming, or projecting our shadow onto others. It is only in this way that we can enter fully into what is commonly, but misleadingly, translated “eternal” or “everlasting” life. This life, more literally in the Greek read as the “life of the Age,” is not a future, after-death destination, but an entering into the life of the Eternal One in the present. To live in that moment of Eternity with each breath we take.
This journey is not as simple as the reading we started with. It will take great courage and fortitude. We may find benefit from having a Jungian analyst or spiritual director to walk with us through the Valley of rebirth. But we also have been promised that it is love which draws us, love which has gone before us, and that love will be reborn in us as fierce energy that gives us strength. It is this journey that leads us to salvation—from the Greek root sozo which means healing and wholeness. To be on exodus from imprisonment to liberation requires a journey through the wilderness filled with rebellions and reversals, just as the Jewish Paschal Feast remembers, but we know that God is always with us and promises great things for us.
We will end our alternate consideration of this passage today with one more thought from St. Clement: “The power of the Word, given to us...brings our whole system into unity.”
NOTE: Episcopal priest and Jungian analyst John Sanford's book Mystical Christianity: A Psychological Commentary on the Gospel of John was a great resource and source of quotes for this sermon. Raw reading notes available in this document for more detail on the ideas contained here.
Photo "Darkness is Not an Option!" (Diwali at Dehradun, 2012) by Arun Kapoor