I have always like the story of Nicodemus. There is something about this man who arranged a meeting with Jesus at night. I wonder if they passed notes between disciples and servants. Maybe there were clandestine meetings or quiet whispers while they arranged the time and the place. I wonder if the nighttime with Nicodemus’ idea. I wonder if Jesus understood why it was so important or if the reasons he started out so cryptic was because he was amused or annoyed.
Nicodemus was a Pharisee, one of the groups of Jewish leaders. In the gospels they often are set in conflict with Jesus. The Pharisees were the leaders of the work of the people. They were the leaders of how to live as Jews in your daily life. They are quite possibly the primary reason that Judaism survived the destruction of the temple. The reason that Jesus was in “conflict” with them is that they were outside of the time, they were the ones who were around the places that Jesus kept going to, outside of Jerusalem, out where everyone else lived.
The Pharisees that Nicodemus traveled with at least, had seen Jesus. They had seem him do things. Maybe they had heard rumors about that wine in Cana. Maybe they had been in the temple when he drove out the sellers and the marketplace, heard him talk temple bring destroyed and rebuilt. Maybe there were things that the Gospel writer didn’t get put down in this story. Nicodemus says from the very beginning that “we” had see seen what Jesus could do and that he obviously had a deep connection with God. Nicodemus doesn’t even ask a question. But Jesus answers that one must be born from above, which could also translate into be born again. And Nicodemus imagines the most literal interpretation of that by asking about crawling into his mother’s womb. And when Jesus explains some more, Nicodemus basically says, “I don’t get it.”
We might give Nicodemus a hard time for being too literal but not too long ago, Kelly and were talking and she said, “We should get an egg maker.” and my first response was, “Do you mean a chicken?” She did not. She thought I was ridiculous. I thought she meant egg cooker, she could have said egg cooker. The other part is that, at least as we have it, it seems like Jesus’ answer is jumping into the middle of a conversation, asking questions Nicodemus didn’t know he was supposed to ask. and instead, Nicodemus was at the beginning of a conversation. Communication and understanding is hard sometimes.
But, you might have heard that verse in the middle of our reading today that sounded familiar. Maybe it was one you were even certain that you understood. John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” That’s how I memorized it at least. It was probably the first verse I knew by heart. Although, to be honest, it’s only one of a few I have committed to deep memory. I do recall being very proud of myself when I was able to add verse 17 to 16 in my memory.
John 3:16 is part of the public culture of Christianity. It is held up at football games, baseball games, and this guy, at rugby matches who didn’t really understand the assignment. It is silk-screened on t-shirts, affixed on the bumpers of cars. And it’s put there without any context, without any other verse, just the reference because we all know what it means! It’s about convincing people of God. It’s about making people believe. It’s about convincing others. It means that God loves the world so much that God sent Jesus to it to be murdered, and we have to believe in Jesus or hell. Except, that’s not exactly what Jesus said, and in Jesus in this gospel never talks about hell, so it seems kind of presumptuous for us to just insert something that isn’t there.
We have talked before, that sometimes is the translations from the text that The Bible was originally written and this one is Greek to English has been imperfect. Sometimes the Greek word has a multitude of ways it could be translated and English, sometimes the structure of the sentence is so different it could change the whole meaning. Sometimes we get a better manuscript years after the last translation and I wonder if we have loved what we have always known so much that we leave it the same despite what we know. So what if we use the other translation. What if these verses say that So this is how God loves the world that God-sent god’s only son.
And what if we look at how whenever John talks about eternal life it isn’t a life in another time it is here and now. So what if God-sent Jesus into the world that those who follow Jesus, those who follow the path Jesus has laid out, for those who follow the way of the spiritual choose light will have Life abundant now. What if it isn’t about judgment or condemnation but about salvation. What if The condemnation at the last few verses isn’t about judgment of God but about the things we have done to ourselves about whether or not or not we can live in that above is abundant life now. What if Jesus intended that all of his verses be connected together and hold apart and isolated.
Nicodemus showed up in the cover of night. Because there was something he didn’t want other people to know, something about what he was doing, he knew to? decided to keep it a secret. Maybe it was something he didn’t want Jesus to see or maybe he didn’t want his colleagues his CO-workers, The other Pharisees, to know that he was meeting with Jesus. And Jesus gives him options that you will choose the way of the flesh come of the way of the world the way of Empire the way of Or you will choose the way of Darkness. Or you can choose the way of God the way of spirit the way of light.
Secrets. The things we try to keep from seeing the light of day. There’s a whole thread of people on TikTok sharing the family secrets that they didn’t know about but somehow influenced their whole life. Every show aimed at teenagers in the nineties had some “on a special episode of” where a young person learns that sometimes secrets aren’t secrets and are actual crimes that need to be reported.
In 2005, people started sending their secrets anonymously to Frank Warren on postcards. Every week he posts a few on a blog. Some of revelations of pain and trauma. Some are just silly. Some are sweet. Some are sad. But sometimes they just need to be known. People will write to him later that even sending their secret in gave them the freedom to tell someone, or seeing it online gave them liberation from their pasts.
If you have children in your life or Disney plus, Disney’s Encanto tells, among other things, what happens when we keep secrets. When we don’t talk about something, or someone who makes us uncomfortable. While they don’t talk about Bruno, Bruno is a presence, an influence, and is hurting because of their silence. And living in that way hurt the family too.
Things I learned about this week: There is a town in Kansas called Nicodemus. Founded during Reconstruction, and for a while it was a prosperous black community filled with farmers and education. Until some harsh weather destroyed their crops over a series of seasons, and they couldn’t get the loans they needed to grow again. We might fight about what to call it, but a broad, multi-perspective view of history, sociology, psychology, political science, views that are honest, critical even, allow everyone to come to terms with the past, to be hopeful in the present, and strive for a more equitable future.
So maybe, these verses aren’t about getting saved rather about why we stay. What if it’s about who we are called to be as the church. It is about who we are as individuals in the church and it’s about who we are as Emmanuel in Dousman and maybe even about who we are called to be as the church universal. We are to be about the Spirit of God, about the way of Jesus, the light. We shine a light in our own lives, because our secrets don’t secret, and living a secret can destroy one’s relationships with themselves, with their loved ones, with God–ask anyone who has felt they had to live in the closet. Secrets breed shame, shame tells us we’re wrong and drives us inward, isolates us. Vulnerability is shining a light. It is choosing community, choosing the way of Jesus, it’s choosing to live in the truth. And it’s choosing to let others live in their truth, too, to make space for honest and abundant living in the fullness of who God has made each one of us to be.
And it’s about who we are the church in Dousman. We are to choose between the empires of the world and the ways of God, between the flesh and the spirit, between darkness and light. So, what in our time controls our world like the empire did in the time? The Empire controlled the economics, the lives of the citizens, and the world. What are those things today? There are systems that tell some people where they can live and where they cannot. There are exploitive economic practices, taking advantage of those in without enough and coercing people into these high-interest loans. We are still sold convenience and cheap over what is sustainable. We know our economic systems are unsustainable, are incredibly beneficial to a few. In 2018, the 13% of households in the United States lived at or below the poverty, but that amount is a bit misleading as the Federal Poverty Level hasn’t changed, hasn’t continued with the increased cost of living. The United Way uses different metrics they call ALICE Asset Limited, Income
Constrained, Employed–a measure for those who cannot meet their needs for living, housing, childcare, transportation, healthcare. With that metric, more than 40% of the US lives in a way that they cannot afford their household basics. And that was before the struggles of the pandemic.
And I know all the arguments, get a better job that pays more, go get a college degree but how often that isn’t the answer and the loans that many students have to take out to get that don’t often equate to the pay one will get and become this boulder that keeps one from being able to move forward.
And people grow rich on the backs of students, or the poor, or the laborers, or prospective prophets. And the reality is, most of us say nothing because many of us are doing ok. We are not suffering under the weight of incredible poverty. Most of us are surviving, maybe doing well, we’re not the uber-rich whose wealth is more than some nations but we’re doing ok.
And we like the convenience of food that has traveled out of season from around the world. And we like the price tag of clothing that has been made by labor that can be paid less, and we like our technologies, and cheap chocolate and coffee. I like it.
Sometimes, even we love the darkness and hate the light. The light reveals those places where as a society we don’t live up to our ideals. The light reveals that we could and we should be doing better. We love the dark because it lets us continue as we have been. But we can’t continue as we have been.
The church, the people who are church, have a choice, it’s the same choice we’ve always had and we get to make it again, and will again and again: will we choose to live in the flesh or the spirit, in the way of empire or the way of Jesus, in darkness or in light. Are we going to stand on the side of the powerful or raise of voice and the cause and the lives of those on the margins? Are we going to turn our eyes from the needs of those around us, of the land and the seas and the creatures, human and animal alike who fill them, or are we going to shine a light. And when we shine a light–it means we can invite others to join us and we don’t do the work alone. When we shine a light we are saying that we don’t accept the way the world is. When we shine a light we are willing to be honest about our pasts and live in hope and strive for a better future. When we shine a light we make room for everyone to live in wholeness and abundance, not is some far off time and place but now, today, always. Sometimes the darkness becomes overwhelming, no so much because we love it but because we are trying to expose forces so large, so long-established, so loved. Archbishop Tutu “Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s these little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.” At little paraphrase might say, “Shine your bit of light where you are and where you can, it’s these little bits of light put together that might free the world of darkness.”
God loved the world this way: that God came to earth not to judge but to show us love, to reveal the way the world could be, the way of the spirit, and to give us courage to live in the light. May we learn to love the light, to reveal the light, to shine a light.