Sermon March 8 -- John 3:1-17 Nicodemus Believishness Rev. Betsy Hogan
Have you ever seen “John 3:16” scrawled in spraypaint on a building or written on a sign held up at a football game?
It’s the one verse of the Christian scriptures, John 3:16, that's probably been the most frequently used verse to inspire people to "believe in" Jesus, for lo these two thousand years or so.
John 3:16 -- just the numbers. Shared in the fond hope, I guess, that someone will see it, and I guess google it -- and be inspired.
"For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him would not perish but would have everlasting life."
I've always wondered if it actually worked. I guess maybe it has or people wouldn't keep doing it?
But the real question, it seems to me, is What kind of "believing in" is it really trying to inspire? And more to the point, the verse itself -- What kind of "believing in" is it really talking about? Because we know, there's more than one way to understand what it means to say we "believe in" something.
There's the notion, for example, of opting into or out of believing in -- in the sense of accepting as possible -- things for which there may not be, at present, empirical proof. But just the possibility, considering the general mysteriousness of the universe, is enough to raise the question.
So we talk about believing in -- or not believing in -- ghosts. Or the Lost City of Atlantis. Or UFOs. Or aliens living on other planets. And it's about sifting through the evidence, such as it is, for ourselves, and landing on what's essentially a feeling we have about whether or not something's true or real or at least possible.
When people ask me if or why I believe in God, what I pretty much always say is that for whatever reason, I can't not. It just seems to be there. Like at some level, presumably having shifted through the evidence, that's the feeling I've landed on. That God is. So I believe. Not that belief, in that sense, doesn't incorporate intellectual processing in considering the evidence – and my CEGEP diploma was in Pure and Applied Sciences -- but ultimately it's always going to come down to a feeling, a sense. That something's real or true or at least possible.
That's one way of talking about "believing in" something.
But there are others. Sometimes people will say that they don't "believe in" same sex marriage or they don't "believe in" women ministers. Which obviously has nothing to do with whether or not these things exist -- because, both of these things manifestly exist -- but in this case the use of the phrase "believe in" is really about declaring one's values, aligning oneself with a particular stance.
"I believe in democracy", "I don't believe in violence". These have nothing to do with an assessment of whether or not these things are real, and everything to do with naming the values that are part of our identity, sometimes as a way of aligning ourselves with a particular group.
And then there's a third kind of "believing in" that's more about trust. Like believing in a talisman or a lucky charm as being somehow protective or strengthening. Which of course we might sniff at as superstition, but for every one of us who might hold tight on a rabbit's foot or the cross we got from our granny when we were baptised while waiting for the doctor to come back into the room, there's probably ten of us just as wholeheartedly "believing in" that handful of blueberries every morning or that one glass of red wine every night or whatever else it is -- this week -- that's going to keep us from certain doom.
So the notion of believing in something as protective or strengthening isn't just about superstition, like making sure no one steals our lucky pen -- it's really about giving that something, whatever it is and to whatever extent, some of our trust. That it’s protective, or it'll somehow help see us through or maybe help us keep the pieces together.
So, to "believe in" something -- it can be about feeling like it's real or true, it can be about declaring our values, aligning ourselves with a particular identity, it can be about trusting in something's power to protect or to strengthen -- it really isn't a simple and straightforward phrase.
But why am I rattling on about all this? Because that one verse, John 3:16, that gets scrawled on walls and held up on signs to inspire people to "believe in" Jesus – it’s not just a teaching of Jesus that exists as a discrete little parcel, an easily adoptable slogan.
It emerges as part of a story. The story of Nicodemus, an elder of the synagogue. Nicodemus, seeking wisdom, seeking understanding, who visits Jesus by night. And that context matters.
If we look at John 3:16 within the whole story in John chapter three about Nicodemus that we heard this morning, and particularly if we look at this story within the whole gospel of John, which is the only one of the gospels it appears in, it becomes really important to understand that within this gospel, the point of saying that one "believes in" Jesus is ALWAYS about claiming an identity -- aligning oneself with one particular group as opposed to any other.
That is to say, in the context of the gospel of John, aligning oneself with the believing in Jesus Jews as opposed to the everybody-else Jews. Because that was the great and presenting issue facing the community that John is writing for at the time John's gospel is written. Identity.
Because at first, in the time of the early church, you could be Jewish and "believe in" Jesus as the Messiah or you could be Jewish and NOT "believe in" Jesus as the Messiah and either way it didn't make any difference, you were still Jewish. That was your identity, you were part of that community.
It's really only fifty or so years later, when the Romans start getting really antsy about the Jesus Movement as it was called and ways in which it might undermine Roman power – by saying Jesus is Lord, and not Caesar -- that their decision to start cracking down on non-Roman faith groups as a result meant that the relative safety that the Jewish community had enjoyed until then was suddenly in jeopardy.
And suddenly it became extremely important for the Jewish community to draw a clear line between those troublemaking Jesussy Jews and the nice ordinary non-threatening Jews who really just wanted to be left alone. And the way they drew that clear line was simple: they expelled the Jesussy Jews out of the synagogue. They pushed them out of the Jewish community.
And so that's the context of John's whole gospel. It’s the reason the gospel sets up this whole adversarial relationship between Jesus and the disciples and “the Jews” that has been the essential fuel of anti-Semitism ever since. John’s gospel is written for a group of people for whom believing in Jesus has isolated them from their community. Caused a complete shift in their identity: in who they are, in where they belong. A group of people for whom believing in Jesus has become about consciously aligning oneself with this group that believes as opposed to that group that doesn't.
That's how Nicodemus would have heard John 3:16. He's being invited to "believe in" Jesus, and what that means is to consciously claim a new identity. To leave his place in the Synagogue, in the Jewish community, for a place among the Believers In Jesus -- one of those who will have everlasting life, who'll be saved, who'll go to heaven. As opposed to everyone else who won't.
That’s the adversarial context of the gospel of John and of this story of Nicodemus. It’s how Nicodemus would have heard John 3:16 -- and it's a way of understanding "believing in" Jesus that's still very much a part of Christian language and culture. Sometimes it's phrased as accepting Jesus as one's saviour, or accepting Jesus into one's heart -- but essentially, it's a way of understanding "believing in" Jesus that’s about identity. That’s about being one of “the saved”. And it's by far the most common way in which the church has traditionally understood and talked about what it means to "believe in" Jesus. Largely because of John 3:16.
It's just not the only way. It’s not the only way presented for us in the gospels and Nicodemus notwithstanding it’s not even the only way presented for us in the gospel of John! Which is good. Because for some of us, thinking about "believing in" Jesus as being primarily about embracing the new and separated identity of "saved" may not feel particularly meaningful. And in fact for a lot of people in the church, that sort of disconnect with those traditional ways of "believing in" Jesus have left them not really certain how Jesus fits into their faith at all.
But that’s not the only way of "believing in" Jesus that we’re offered. Because what we’re also offered throughout the gospels is the opportunity to consider the question and consider the evidence and decide if we think it feels true and real and possible… that in Jesus we see what God is like.
In his life, in his words, in his way. Looking at the words of the gospels to see the kinds of things Jesus says about caring for people when they’re in trouble, helping them when they need help. Looking at how he stands up for those whom everyone else has rejected or would rather ignore. Looking at how deliberately his first impulse is always to forgive, to love, to reach out. Looking at how emphatically his message is always ‘never mind your money and your power, what matters is ‘are you being kind?’ And never mind your rules and your laws, what matters is, ‘is this justice?’
Considering the evidence. Looking at what Jesus is like, and considering: Is this what I believe God is like, is this how I think God would be, if all the goodness of Godness were squished up into a person? Does that feel like it could be true, it could be real, it could be possible?
Because if it does, that's actually a kind of "believing in" Jesus that, in a culture in which being saved and feeling protected and going to heaven seem to have much less import than they used to, that's actually a kind of "believing in" Jesus that can be immensely transformative.
Because if we can say that we believe in Jesus as being everything about what God is like, all of God's Godness embodied in a person, then being born again isn’t about an identity. It’s about deciding on purpose to follow his way. So that with every effort we make to be like him, to reflect his goodness, to stick up for the hurting and care for those in trouble and treat others with grace – we're drawing nearer to God. And we're drawing the world nearer to God.
We may not be able to fit that onto a sign we can hold up at a football game, but you know what? The point is trying to BE the sign. Thanks be to God who helps us on the way. Amen.