Today’s scripture contains the most often quoted Bible verse in American culture (3:16). But we often forget the context, because you can’t fit that on a hand-held cardboard sign at a football game. The story of the late night visit of Nicodemus is unique to John who tells this story with majestic poetry, an easy-to-miss double entendre, and much dualism. Notice the wordplay and dualism throughout: the images of light and darkness; earthly things and heavenly things; the true and the false; salvation and condemnation; and the flesh compared with the spirit.
Nicodemus comes at night to ask Jesus a question of clarification. How’s he doing these miraculous signs? And why? Is he sympathetic to Jesus, but fearful of the opinion of other Pharisees and so comes under cover of darkness to camouflage his visit? Or is he against Jesus, coming in the confusion and division of darkness to harass or test Jesus? What do you think?
Jesus answers his question with an answer that confuses or makes it all clear…. He says that one must be born anōthen [ἄνωθεν]. In Greek, the expression can mean both that one must be born from on high, from heaven, as in by the Spirit of God; and it can mean that you must be born again. The former insists on the action and agency of God to give faith. The latter insists upon faith as our choice. Jesus presents faith as being a born a child of God, [John 1:11-13] of the Spirit, on top of being born of the flesh (regular human existence). Nicodemus seems to not understand, and so asks a comical question about re-entering a mother’s womb.
It’s in the context of this exchange and fundamental question that the famous verse of John 3:16 asserts that God sends his Son into the world to save the world through his life. While many love this verse, some don’t. It, like the answer of Jesus to Nicodemus, point to a theological division at the root of American Christianity: is faith a gift, or a choice?
How do you feel about the phrase “born again” Christian? What does it mean for you? How do you employ it? … as a self-identifier?; or as a stance, you don’t embrace?; or maybe both? It has come to be the main distinction between what we call evangelical Christian faith and mainline tradition. In our current political context, it contributes to the polarization and division among American followers of Jesus in regards to immigration, civil rights, and nationalism.
What do you think? How are this scripture and idea the root of your faith?
Questions for the practice of Examen & Contemplation
- What shimmers for you in this story & sermonette?
- What word, phrase or image touches your life today?
- What does being born again or “from above” mean for you? In Greek, the word “to save” or “salvation” (sozo) means: to save, to deliver or protect to heal, preserve, to make whole. How has knowing, seeing, following Jesus saved you? How do you need or want Jesus to save you today? How does the world need saving?
Download a PDF Study Guide of the Text we use in our church discussion HERE.