Gospel: John 3:1-17 1Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2He 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.” 3Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4Nicodemus 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?” 5Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8The 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.” 9Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? 11“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. 12If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16“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. 17“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.”
Grace to you and peace from God, our Father, and our Lord and savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Last week, one of my schoolmates from high school posted reference to an article reporting that a Denver City Councilwoman had pledged support to someone who had stated an intention, if infected with the coronavirus, to attend as many rallies of the opposing political party as possible. My schoolmate then described the entire party of the offender as evil people, Satan’s army.
I did my best to moderate the discussion, posting how overblown the fear tactics of this virus are, and that I can’t imagine someone knowingly infected actually behaving with such ill intent, that such things are usually spoken primarily to get a rise out of those listening.
I’m not sure if what I said had much influence, as those who responded doubled down on how hateful those of the opposing party are, that some might even pay infected people to invade the rallies. However, my response did garner a few “likes.”
It was after this that I created my own posting on my personal page, with doves carrying olive branches in the background, saying, “Let’s try to start bridging the gap and stop demonizing “the other.” This post has nothing to do with the coronavirus, other than being inspired by the hatred which uses the fear of it as a battle tactic.
My final response in that thread is that there will always be “others” at the extreme who embody hatred, but that there are also “others” more moderate who are appalled by the extremism. I begged that we resist painting ALL those “others” with the same brush.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus speaks of how the Son of Man must be lifted up just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
Of course, there may be a difference between the “All” in my title and the “everyone who believes in him” from the words of Jesus. Faith must mean something, right?
The problem (some might say) is that we have such difficulty determining who actually believes, who actually has faith. I will disagree. It’s really not our job to determine whether someone else believes in Jesus or not. We can’t make someone else have faith.
What is our role, then, in spreading the faith?
Let’s look back at the story to which Jesus refers in his conversation with Nicodemus. Jesus reminds Nicodemus how Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness. The old story has no sense of sacrifice other than the gathering of the bronze utilized to create the image of the serpent. No one had to die to fashion that serpent and raise it up on a pole. The only thing required was that those who were bitten were to look at the bronze image, because God had told them that doing so would mean that they would not die from the venom. The bronze serpent itself had no power. People had to believe the word of God that Moses had given them. They had to turn from their focus on themselves, their focus on the bite of the serpent, and to look outside themselves, to trust in God’s word of life.
Jesus says that he (as the son of man) would be lifted up much like that serpent of old. He doesn’t make it clear here that his lifting up would be on the Roman executioner’s cross, that he would die there, or that he would return in the resurrection. Here he merely compares himself to the serpent to which the people had to look in order to live. Jesus is the one who gives us life.
So what is our role in spreading the faith? Our role is to find a way to convince people that it’s worth it! Our job is to show that there’s benefit in looking to Jesus Christ, as both inspiration for life here and now and for eternity.
How do we do this? Do we accomplish this by demonizing those whose public speech is focused on hatred and blame, or by working to embody a better way? Do we gather people for faith by proclaiming judgement against their sins, or by recognizing that our view of perfection is not a requirement for salvation?
I know a guy who seems to see a kind of perfection in himself. I’ve known the guy for most of my life, and some in my family like him very well, while others can barely stand to be within sight or sound of him. The problem with him, I believe, is the same problem people have with many people within Christianity. He, along with many of us, looks at others with an attitude of judgement.
Nicodemus, from our Bible story, was likely caught in the midst of that himself. He was a Pharisee. Pharisees took pride in keeping God’s laws as perfectly as possible… and they looked down upon others who could not do as well as they as a matter of course. But Nicodemus saw something in Jesus that must have made him begin to question all that. So he came to Jesus, under the cover of darkness, to explore his curiosity—and Jesus responded with good news—that may not have sounded so good at first.
Jesus says to Nicodemus, “No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.” Not one of those perfect Pharisees had earned his way into heaven by following all the laws and looking down in judgment upon those who could not!
When we spend our time judging the imperfections we see in others, we lose. God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
So, how do we embody the benefits of faith in ways that are inviting rather than off-putting? Our tendency is to point out what we see as wrong in others, especially if we can tie it to a Biblical reference. What if we emphasized what is good instead? What if we focused on building people up rather than tearing them down? God so loved the world, so let’s love the world, even those who are different in some way, maybe especially those who are different in some way—because God loves the world, all of us—and all of them! God loves the world, and comes to us, so that all may have eternal life. In Jesus’ name. Amen