John 3:16 may be the best known verse in all the Bible, certainly in the N.T. We usually hear it apart from the story of Nicodemus and the two are closely related because Jesus is making a point that Nicodemus has trouble understanding. Jesus and 'Nic' are speaking two languages from two different worlds. After last week’s tri-language worship service, we can appreciate the difficulty of communication when people speak different languages.
I sympathize on another level with poor Nicodemus. You see, he can’t get out of his head. He’s a well-educated Pharisee and used to debating the fine points of LAW. Nic was a devout worshiper of the One God of Abraham. In fact, the Pharisees were the ones who said everyone should have to obey the same rules as the high priest and observe the same strict diets as the priest did.
Nic just believed in the letter of the law.
If it required 2 dove be sacrificed for J-walking then he would sacrifice 2 dove.
If you could only travel 4,000 cubits on a Sabbath day, then he wouldn’t take one step more. (complex computations determined the distance)
Nicodemus was much like the devout Roman Catholic homemaker in the days when it was forbidden to eat meat on Friday. She would take the family stick of butter and wrap it up on Thursday night and put it in the freezer for later use. A fresh stick would come out on Friday so that should there be even the tiniest bit of meat on the butter from a past meal, no one in her family would be committing a ‘mortal’ sin by ingesting meat.
You certainly can’t fault Nicodemus on the piety front. But he’s stuck in a literal world and as long as he hangs out with other Pharisees -other literalists,- his logic works, but when he meets Jesus, all that he knows comes into question. He realizes he has heard a prophet speak and he wants to hear more. He begins the conversation with what he knows (head) to be true,
“Jesus is a teacher who has come from God, for no one can do the signs he does, apart from the presence of God.” (Jn 3:2) Then Jesus speaks from another world view. It is as if he is speaking a different language and Nicodemus is confused.
We’ve all had those conversations that begin with the assumption that we’re on the ‘same page’ as the person to whom we are speaking.
“You know,” I say, “The folder with the bills in it.”
My conversation partner answers, “Sure I know” and we continue talking - unaware that we are each referring to a different folder until the conversation hits a point at which we look at each other strangely unable to fathom why this simple request is so hard to understand and then - - - we realize – somehow – that our reference points are different and we’re not talking about the same folder.
Oh, and when these conversations are about directions, and reference points are different - well at least one of the 2 are already lost, literally.
Jesus concern is for the LOST, for those who can’t see and hear on the Divine Level. In the other gospel accounts, Jesus speaks in parables. Stories with deep meanings and many layers - to enlighten people to the Divine way of seeing. In John, we have layers of meaning, without the parables. And Jesus’ POINT-OF-REFERENCE is vastly different than the people around him. And Jesus’ word choice doesn’t make it easy for Nic. He uses a couple words that have dual meanings.
Jesus uses the word, ανωθεν which means “From above” “from the first”, and “anew”, or “again”.
Amen, amen, very truly, I say to you, If someone is not born ανωθεν he will not be able to see the kingdom of God.
Born from above? Born anew? Born again? How can we be sure what our ears are hearing and our minds translating?
And the word Jesus’ uses for Wind and Spirit is the same word, also.
It can be confusing to us as well as Nicodemus. We have to remember, John’s gospel often has two layers to whatever is being said. We, as the readers, are often clued into the higher level, because we know the full story of Jesus life, death and resurrection. The people Jesus speaks to, whether disciples, Pharisees, Jewish leaders, or bystanders, are often at the lower level. They are trying to make sense of his words using their brain when something else is needed to help with the translation. Nic needed to get out of his head when he listened to Jesus. He needed to listen with the ear of his heart. He needed to let his gut tell him what his mind couldn’t.
We have a similar difficulties. Today is Trinity Sunday, the day when we celebrate the 3-fold nature of God. Try to explain that in a Children’s Story! I’ve heard it done this way.
H20 is water… Here we have water, H20
It is also ice… which is H20
And it is steam…if we apply enough heat to the water in a kettle we get steam which is H20.
Three very different looking and feeling elements and yet the same compound of 2 elements, hydrogen and water, in the same combination of 2 Hydrogen molecules to 1 Oxygen. But somehow ice, water and steam is an insufficient allusion to the Almighty.
I heard another good try this week. It goes like this.
I am my parents’ daughter, my brother’s sibling and my children’s mother. I’m still Nancy, just one person with all 3 roles of daughter, sister, and mother. It’s a good effort at explaining that there are three primary ways that people have experienced the divine.
• We know of the Creator, the master of the universe, maker of all that is.
• We know of Jesus, called the Christ or messiah in whom rested the fullest expression of the divine that a human body could hold. People experienced God when they were with Jesus and so came to worship his name.
• And he promised the Holy Spirit, Paraclete, the great comforter would be with his followers to assure, guide and empower for continuing his work and his mission.
3 in 1, yet it is not an easy thing for us to get our heads around.
I don’t believe in suspending reason completely either. I think religion - good religion - has to combine faith and reason. Philosophers have differed over that concept for centuries.
Thomas Aquinas saw reason and faith as two ways of knowing.
"Reason" covers what we can know by experience and logic alone. From reason, we can know that there is a God and that there is only one God; these truths about God are accessible to anyone by experience and logic alone, apart from any special revelation from God.
"Faith" covers what we can know by God's special revelation to us (which comes through the Bible and Christian Tradition). By faith, we can know that God came into the world through Jesus Christ and that God is triune (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). These truths about God cannot be known by reason alone.
Faith builds on reason. (Aquinas said) Since faith and reason are both ways of arriving at truth -- and since all truths are harmonious with each other -- faith is consistent with reason. If we understand faith and reason correctly, there will be no conflict between what faith tells us and what reason tells us. http://www.jcu.edu/philosophy/gensler/RE/R-A4--00.HTM
Yet faith and reason leave out an important component, the body. There is a knowing that comes from a deeper place than the mind whether it be reasoning about our experiences or thinking in faith. Our bodies understand some things that our heads can’t.
Last week at Arlington Church of the Brethren, we had a different experience of worship. We moved to the music and clapped for a sermon most of us couldn’t understand. We took clues from the facial expressions and the actions of people, but I think we felt something at a deeper level. There was an excitement and Holy Presence here that could be felt. There was a communal understanding of praise as we swayed and sang the simple word, “Alleluia”. It was experience that went beyond our heads.
There are times, like when we kneel to wash each others feet, that our bodies understand in a language our heads don’t receive. How is it that a candlelit sanctuary conveys the holy? Explain to me what happens when we move into a circle on Christmas eve and we each hold a small candle and transfer the light from one to another. Tell me what it is in that moment that makes it so easy to believe that a newborn baby can change the whole world.
Our bodies experience something in moments of movement that adds to what we see and hear in a way that creates an inner knowing. Along with the sound of “Silent Night” comes the acceptance of Angelic hosts and an understanding of a Creator who “enters in” to humanity.
“The wind/spirit blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.”We don’t always know and yet, Jesus expects Nicodemus and US to understand that the point of reference of the Spirit is different than is that of the world.
The body-knowing that happens in worship is why we return here every week. It’s why we love to go to camp, it’s why we worship together rather than alone. We feel God’s presence here, when we sing together and pray together.
We feel God’s presence when we stand in God’s creation under the trees or the stars.
We understand at a deep inner level when we look to a cross and lift up our eyes that we are responding to the inner knowing that God is with us. It’s a knowing that takes us beyond the literal understanding that God is not up, nor limited to the communion table, AND YET,
At communion we celebrate God’s presence with us, not IN the elements (at least not in Brethren theology, although you are free to believe differently) because we celebrate the God who is here in God’s community.
And Christ is here in a special way when our bodies taste broken bread remembering a real body that was broken by the power of worldly authorities and yet a presence remained that could not be eliminated.
We understand with that deep knowing when we drink juice that there is life offered to us that goes beyond the blood in human veins and connects us to the God of all eternity.
“For God so loved humanity, that God sent the son of all that God is, that whoever believes, with all their body and soul, may have greater life. God did send this special presence so that humanity would be judged but that all of the world might be saved thru him.”