A Homily for the Fourth Sunday in Lent
Texts: Ephesians 2:1-10; St. John 3:14-21
Grace to you and Peace from God our Heavenly Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, who has called us to be born again. Amen.
John 3:16 — this is sort of THE Bible passage for our culture, isn’t it?
How many of you were expected to memorize this at some point growing up? I know I was — it was almost a rite of passage in youth group. And how many of you still have it memorized? In that way, it’s sort of up there with the Ten Commandments.
How many of you have received a tract or a pamphlet with this verse in it? Or seen it on a bumper sticker? On a billboard? A t-shirt? On a sign at a sporting event?
It’s everywhere, isn’t it? Not the verse itself, just the quick citation — as though that shorthand is enough to get the point across.
Do a quick image search for it on Google, and you’ll find it on Christmas and Easter cards — which is not terribly surprising — and on Valentine’s Day cards — which is kind of surprising. It was on Tim Tebow’s eye black during his days with the Gators. I’ve seen it on more than a few business signs and on the back of a lot of 18-wheelers. If you ever find yourself at the California fast food chain, In and Out Burger, check under the cup they give you with a meal — just under the bottom rim, you’ll see John 3:16 written in small, red letters. When I was in seminary in South Carolina, I would drive home along country roads, passing through small towns and far out of the way of any major cities; along the way, I passed two different signs with this verse: one, a simple, hand-painted black sign that said in white lettering “John 3:16,” the other a large billboard paid for by some ministry or another that boldly proclaimed all readers “GUILTY!” and then declared Christ had paid our debt by dying on the Cross to appease God’s anger. At the bottom, it cited John 3:16 as its proof text.
John 3:16 is so commonplace that many people who have never been to church have a least a passing familiarity with this passage. This verse has become so ingrained in our culture, in twenty-first century American Christianity, that many people learn the verse by heart before learning the context: that it’s part of a much longer conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. They may not know who Nicodemus is or what Jesus is talking about, but they know John 3:16. I dare say some people have it memorized just from hearing it so often. It’s a part of our cultural lexicon, our shared language of common phrases. It ranks up there with others such as “Four score and seven years ago,” “Ask not what your country can do for you,” and “I’d like to thank the Academy.”
I’ve preached on this text twice already in my young career, and I must confess that both times I pulled up a list of the readings, took note of the Gospel lesson, and my first thought was, “Oh. It’s John 3:16. Great. I get to find something unique to say about the most popular verse in the New Testament.”
Unfortunately, this familiarity has diminished our ability to truly hear today’s Gospel reading. All too often, the entirety of the Bible is reduced to this one verse, as if to say John 3:16 is the only thing you need to know about the Christian faith. In doing so, the story of Nicodemus has lost its strangeness and made this one single verse the only thing we hear during the entire nighttime dialog between Jesus and the curious Pharisee. It’s a struggle for us to keep this verse in its full context, both in the story of Nicodemus and in the entirety of John’s Gospel, but when we see “John 3:16” printed on billboards or bumper stickers or when it pops up in the lectionary, we must remember that there is more to the story – more to the interaction between Nicodemus and Christ, more to the Gospel According to St. John, more to the life of Christ, and more to the witness of Scripture. But we are far better at remembering the verse than we are the context.
When we cut out the rest of the narrative, we miss the rich imagery of light and dark, the strange references to the bizarre healing serpent in the Old Testament, the call to flee from Death to life. Instead, we default to the typical, generic understanding of the passage, reducing the entirety of God’s activity in the world to one verse, and reducing the one verse to a single idea. We tend to treat this verse – and only this verse, ignoring the rest of the narrative – as nothing more than a boiled down presentation of the Christian faith: “Believe in Jesus, go to heaven.” Often, the result of such an interpretation is a notion of Christian belief that is limited to a single cognitive act.
Our rich, vibrant faith is reduced to nothing more than knowing one single fact. In this view, salvation comes down to our knowledge; belief becomes nothing more than a factoid.
In treating the verse so simply, so isolated from the rest of the passage, so isolated from the rest of the Gospel According to Saint John, so isolated from the rest of Holy Scripture, we miss what John 3:16 is really saying.
We miss an important point: that the Gospel of Our Lord can’t be boiled down to a single piece of information. It’s not just about what we know.
To quote one of my mentors, Pastor Nathan Hilkert, it’s about more than just the top two inches of your head. Rather, the Christian faith is embodied; it’s lived out.
Pull out your Bibles and turn to today’s Gospel reading. But let’s start a little earlier than the lectionary, at verse one:
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He 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.’
Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’
Nicodemus 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?’
Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.”
What does belief look like? What is faith if more than a single fact? It’s being born from above, of Spirit and water. To use a popular phrase, it’s being “born again.”
And like Nicodemus, we’re kind of dumb-founded, especially those of us who didn’t grow up in an evangelical environment, where “born again” was not part of our vocabulary. How are we born again? And again, we have to resist, to push back against the idea that this is purely a mental exercise. Jesus came to save us – all of us. Every part of us. Not just our minds, not just our souls, but our bodies as well. If only our minds are saved, or only our souls are saved, then it is only our minds or our souls that will be raised on the Last Day.
But no! Our faith is incarnational – that is to say, our faith is about a God who became human, who had a body, who was born, who breathed and perspired and and wept and ate and knew the pain of hunger. A God who died. And a God who rose again – in body and in spirit. And that same incarnate God gave us sacraments – physical means of grace.
Water that can be splashed and sprinkled and poured, that soaks us through. We are born again through the waters of Baptism, blessed by an outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Not through our own understanding, our own knowledge of a single verse. On the contrary, this faith is quite a mystery, something we can understand only through a mirror dimly. No, this is purely God’s grace, the gift of God, so that none of us may boast.
And as people re-born into the Body of Christ through the waters of this holy font, we are fed with food that is both spiritual and physical: bread and wine that can be tasted, chewed, swallowed, digested, that become part of us.
The bread and wine we are about to receive will infuse our very cells! But this bread and wine is also the Body and Blood of Christ, made truly and mysteriously present. This mysterious grace will infuse our very cells!
What do we do with this?
With these mysteries, so difficult to comprehend?
What do we do with this belief?
Store it in our minds for some future exam? Certainly not!
Rather, let us put our belief in Christ to use. Let your faith flow through you, guiding your hands and your feet, so that it may be clearly seen that your deeds have been done in God.
Listen to our Lord’s call: Christ is beckoning us into eternal life.
Let’s get living.