Not to condemn but to save

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Second Sunday in Lent; March 12, 2017, Year A

Genesis 12.1-4a; Psalm 121; Romans 4.1-5, 13-17; John 3.1-17

Pastor Renee Splichal Larson


Grace and peace to you from the One who has given his life for the sake of the world God loves, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

What was the day, the time, and the place you were saved? I have been asked this question. I know many others who have also been asked this question. For people who have been baptized as an infant and raised in the church, like me, this is a confusing and condemning question. That somehow if I can’t pinpoint and exact moment that I know I have been saved then somehow I’m not. (Sometimes when I’m feeling snarky I’ll say, August 10, 1982, my baptism day when I was one month old).

Unfortunately, exclusion is often how one of the most popular and known verses in all of Scripture gets interpreted. John 3.16: “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.” Believes in him, here, gets interpreted by those who might ask the saved question, as a moment-in-time decision to give one’s life over to Jesus.

I’m not saying that making a decision to give one’s life over to Jesus is a bad thing at all. These are powerful moments for people when they sense a shift in their life, from living in a way that is selfish and destructive, to living with a change of heart and following Jesus. What is dangerous about it is believing that everyone else has to have that very same experience to have faith, or be considered a Christian, or “born again.”

I hear people quote John 3.16 all the time, but rarely do I hear people continue into verse 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.”

Pastor and theologian, David Lose, in translating from the Greek text, suggests this as a better translation for verses 16 and 17: “For God so loved the God-hating world, that he gave his only Son…” and “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn even this world that despises God, but instead, so that the world that rejects God might still be saved through him.”

God makes it so clear that the purpose in sending Jesus is not condemnation, but to communicate God’s unconditional love for the world and the people in it, to save and redeem all things.

Most people would not associate verses John 3.16 and 17 in the context of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus.

Nicodemus is a Pharisee, a prominent religious leader. He is part of the group that Jesus often challenges, a group that will eventually plot out Jesus’ death. Nicodemus is curious about Jesus. He knows he is special and from God and he has some questions. He doesn’t dare come to Jesus in the light and risk his reputation or appearing like he actually might be one of Jesus’ disciples. He comes to Jesus at night, in secret so that no one will know.

I don’t know what kind of answers Nicodemus was hoping to get from Jesus, but Jesus takes him down an unexpected, and confusing theological road. Nicodemus is perplexed and has no idea what Jesus is saying to him. To Jesus’ “born from above’ statement, he asks: “How can anyone be born after having grown old?”

Nicodemus is very smart. He’s been educated for a long time, particularly educated in God’s word. Still, Jesus befuddles him and the last words we hear from Nicodemus in our reading today is: “How can these things be?”

We shouldn’t feel so bad when there are things Jesus says that we just don’t understand. Like being “born from above,” or “born again.” With Nicodemus we wonder: What does that even mean?

Within the last year there was someone I knew who said a painful thing about another important person in my life. She said, “He is not a born again Christian.” This shocked, angered, and hurt me deeply. How could she say that about someone she hardly knew? How could she say that about someone I consider to be one of the most gentle, loving, baptized, Christ followers. I tried to understand and grieved all the ways Scripture has been used to exclude, judge, and condemn.

Like I said earlier, there are people who claim to know what it means to be born again, knowing this exact time, day, and place of what we might call, “conversion.” This is one interpretation, but we need to also interpret what Jesus says in light of the entire Gospel of John and his conversation with Nicodemus.

The Gospel of John is all about what it means to be in relationship with Jesus, what it means to believe and have faith in him. It’s not only about conversion or commitment to following Jesus. Pastor and theologian, Karoline Lewis says that to be born from above, or born again means that we are to “have a relationship where we trust in God for everything we need. It is to recognize that your entire existence is dependent upon God, and that you are God’s child ( podcast).” I will add my own thought to this definition by saying, then act as if it’s so.

Instead of being certain about a day, time, and place of a decision for Christ, to be born from above is to have an on-going and dynamic relationship with the One who has created you. It is to put your trust in the One who loves you and loves the world. It is to live out your faith by loving God and loving those around you. It is having eyes to see that the presence of Jesus is in you, and in me, and He is as near to us as our own breath.

Complex questions, like the ones Nicodemus asked, do not produce simple answers.

A life of faith has a lot of uncertainty to it. Life and faith are full of ups and downs, twists and turns. There are some in this world who have the gift of instant conversion and their life is never the same. They can name the exact day, time, and place. This is beautiful and to be celebrated.

Yet, for many, our experience of coming to faith is much different, much more like Nicodemus. It begins with curiosity or a question, or a desire to learn more.

So often in Scripture people encounter Jesus and we never hear from them again. We have no idea if they came to faith or what happened to them. Not with Nicodemus. He shows up two more times in the Gospel of John, once in chapter 7 and again in chapter 19. In chapter seven the religious leaders were scolding the temple police for not arresting Jesus.

Nicodemus speaks up: “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” The leaders lash out at Nicodemus for his asking of the question, accusing him of potentially being one of Jesus’ disciples.

We can see a gradual coming to faith in Nicodemus. We can see the seed of faith growing in him as he continues to ponder his first conversation with Jesus.

We finally get to see a different way of being in Nicodemus after Jesus dies on the cross. Chapter 19.38-42 says:

After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body.

Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.

In the Gospel of John, Nicodemus is one of the people who care for Jesus’ body after he died. He no longer worries about his reputation as a religious leader or being accused of being one of Jesus’ disciples. He is letting go of what he thought was important and is placing his life into God’s hands, as he risks his own to anoint and bury Jesus.

All of Jesus other disciples, apart from the women, went into hiding for fear for their own lives. And here we have the doubter, the one who didn’t understand, Nicodemus, living out the faith that has steadily taken root in him over the course of years. He could now see Jesus for who he really was, the Son of God given in love for the sake of the world and for him.

Sometimes new life or faith happens drastically and instantly, and sometimes it takes years or even a lifetime to occur, to be born from above.

A friend of mine said this: “I love Nicodemus, because he is me, he is you. An imperfect person, who in the end carries Christ to the tomb. Who doesn’t have the answers, who doesn’t always dwell in the light, who hides in darkness and shadows because of fear about what others think. But, in the end, Christ still works in him amazing things.”

No matter how one comes to faith in Jesus, whether it is in an instant or takes a lifetime, God has still given the Son for you out of love for you and the world.