4th Sunday in Lent (B): The Slow Work
By: The Rev. Joslyn Ogden Schaefer
We all know John 3:16…or the gist of it. When I see that verse spray-painted on a rotting piece of wood nailed to a telephone pole that I’m speeding by, I admit feeling judgmental. My internal dialogue, shaped by privilege and a mainline theological education, goes something like this: “If only they would look at verse 17…” or “What good are they trying to accomplish by posting that?” I feel of mixture of superiority, pity and disgust…and then ashamed that I’m so judgmental! In order to reconnect with the Good News in this passage, I need to distance myself from the cultural context and root myself firmly in the text’s context.
This monologue from Jesus is part of the dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus. Nicodemus is someone maybe like me, someone who has a position in the religious hierarchy, who is relatively secure, who probably lives in a bubble and thinks he has it all figured out. But then he encounters Jesus. He was a likely onlooker as part of the Temple elite when Jesus made a whip and drove all the merchants out. He may have been among those who asked Jesus for a sign to justify his disruptive behavior.
But something about Jesus “hooks” him enough to make an under-cover visit to Jesus. Maybe Jesus struck a chord with Nicodemus’ own doubts about how the temple was being run, or maybe Nicodemus just wants to cover all his spiritual bases: “What if this guy is really the Messiah…?” But Nicodemus doesn’t “get” Jesus right away. And, if I were a betting woman, I’d wager that most of us don’t either. So I read John 3:14 – 21 in the context of shedding some light on who Jesus is, what his purpose is, what his life and death “do” for humankind. Jesus is working with Nicodemus, planting some seeds that do germinate over the course of the Gospel (see 7:50 – 52) and blossom into embodied and tender devotion (see 19:39-42).
As I ponder preaching this text, I imagine that I will be preaching to a bunch of people who can relate to Nicodemus just as I can. Maybe they’ve had some encounter with Jesus, or with the Spirit, or with the Divine, that has shaken them up a little, made them wonder if there is “more” to life than meets the untrained eye, planted in them a seed that needs tending in order to blossom into self-sacrificial devotion. Three terms jump out for me, this year, as ones worthy of exploring from the pulpit: belief, eternal life, and judgment/condemnation (I pair these two because John uses one Greek word family, krine and krisis, that we’ve translated variously as judgement and condemnation in this text.)
Belief: If I had a nickel for every time a parishioner spoke with me about the difficulty of believing aspects of the Nicene Creed, I would have at least $2.00! Seriously, we get caught up on this word so easily because we restrict its meaning to the mind alone—cognitive assent to an objectively provable truth. Like many commentators before me, I think the word “trust” captures what Jesus is trying to explain better than “belief.” The concept of trust is big enough to acknowledge our cognitive ambivalence but say “yes” to Jesus anyway; it allows us to “lean in” to something far bigger than we can understand.
Eternal Life: Again, I quibble with how the Greek is translated. N.T. Wright suggests this is better translated as “life in God’s new age.” And it is truly Good News that God’s New Age overlaps with the “old age” of life-as-we-know it. The ages, or eons—which gets us closer to the Greek—overlap. Eternal life is not what happens when we “get to heaven;” rather, it begins for us in baptism and never ends. In God’s good time, the new age will completely eclipse life as we know it. The light (new age) is shining in the darkness (old age.) We might as well allow more and more of our lives to be lived in God’s good, truth-loving light.
Judgement/Condemnation: Condemnation connotes negative judgement. But the Greek text doesn’t have this negative connation; rather the root krine has to do with deciding or separating things. You might want to consider re-reading this text and inserting some variant of separating or distinguishing for condemnation in vv. 17 -18. For example, what if you translated verse 18: “Those who believe in him are not separated, but those who do are separated already because they have not trusted in the name of the only Son of God.” This translation opens up all kinds of sermon possibilities about how the ways we live either lead us toward God, toward truth, toward light, OR toward shame, toward darkness, toward isolation.
So back to Nicodemus. Jesus’ conversation with him was transformational. He goes from being a scared higher-up visiting Jesus at night to a higher-up who at least advocates for due-process when Jesus stirs up the crowds and threatens the hierarchy by offering his listeners the bread of life and living water, the basic building blocks of life in God’s New Age. And finally, Nicodemus is transformed into one of the brave souls who lovingly anoints Jesus’ dead body and places it reverently in a tomb. But the movement toward Nicodemus’ “belief,” toward his trust in Jesus took time. For preachers who proclaim the Good News in an increasingly skeptical age, reading John 3:14-21 in the text’s context of Nicodemus’ long conversion that happens throughout the book of John invites our trust in the often slow and steady work we’re called to do.
The Rev. Joslyn Ogden Schaefer began serving as the 22nd rector of Grace Church in the Mountains in Waynesville, North Carolina in February 2016. Prior to that she was the Associate Rector at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. She has degrees from Davidson College, Episcopal Divinity School, and the University of Edinburgh. As a priest, she loves crafting sermons, teaching all kinds of classes, and the challenge of faithful organizational development. Her husband, Brian Schaefer, practices law with a specialty in Elder Law. They have two young children, and therefore very limited time when it comes to hobbies!