John 3:1-21: Only John tells the story of the wedding at Cana, and only John tells the story about the Pharisee, Nicodemus who comes to Jesus in the night. John often has a rather harsh view of Jewish leadership, but here the portrayal is somewhat sympathetic. Having said that, Nicodemus one who has come to believe because of the signs he has seen (2:23-25), but still has not come to the kind of deep faith Jesus invites people to know. Nicodemus approaches Jesus in the night (a symbolic touch for John – Nicodemus has not yet fully seen the light) and offers a positive assessment of his ministry. Jesus responds with remarks that seem to come out of nowhere – but remember, we have just read that Jesus “knew what was in everyone.” It follows, then, that he knows Nicodemus is on the right track, but has not yet arrived at a faith that will transform his life. Jesus tells him that no one “can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” The phrase can also be translated “born again” or “born anew,” and the above language refers to being born of the Spirit. Nicodemus does not get it, still. He hears Jesus words literally and wonders how this is possible – a little comic relief from John. One must be born of water and the Spirit, not of the water and flesh alone. Word play continues in John – between wind and Spirit. This new birth in the Spirit has a distinct quality of grace to it. At birth, we receive the gift of life entirely as grace, without our decision, without getting to vote on it. We can only be grateful for it. John understands the mystery of salvation as this kind of divine grace. (People’s New Testament Commentary) At verse 10 Nicodemus disappears, and Jesus offers and extended discourse on eternal life and openness to God’s love, though where the words of Jesus end, and where the “author’s” words may begin is unclear. “Eternal life” does not speak of immortality or a future life in heaven, but is a metaphor for living now in the unending presence of God (New Interpreters Study Bible). God’s intention in Jesus, thus the heart of God toward all is that all should have this kind of life. God is not interested in condemning the world, but in saving it. God comes him/herself in Jesus to “save” the world. What might it mean to accept this gift, to be open to it? Pictured as birth, conversion is the gift of God, the result of God’s choice and initiative, for which the believer can only give thanks. Pictured as faith, conversion is the result of human decision and responsibility. These two views are juxtaposed but not combined or harmonized in the New Testament. (People’s New Testament Commentary) For John, the light and love of God have come into the world in Jesus, and every person has to make a choice about following the light or remaining in darkness. John is not interested in speculating about whether one makes a once and for all choice – Peter after all will deny Jesus in this gospel as he has in every other one, and yet he comes back to faith. Nor is John interested in speculating whether or not the light and love of God ever touch the world in other ways that demand a response. His concern is to witness to Jesus as the one in whom God’s light and love touch the world. And if God’s light and love touch the world in Jesus, we are invited to respond to that. We should ask ourselves whether our questions about the place of other religious traditions are genuine questions of faith, which they may be, or intellectual avoidance mechanisms, trying to evade the question before us – are we on a transformative journey of the Spirit, are we trying to walk in the light of God’s love in Jesus, are we being born anew? This is a rich story, one I plan to explore more in my sermon on Sunday.
John 3:22-30: Unlike in Luke where John the Baptist is related to Jesus, here they are seen as teachers and baptizers, working simultaneously. However, while John continues his work he is clear (in the view of the gospel writer) that Jesus is the greater. Some of John’s disciples continued to follow his way, and were a small alternative to the Jesus movement. Here the gospel writer again claims that it is clear who people should follow, though he is not particularly harsh toward followers of John.
John 3:31-36: These words look like they might be an extension of the words of John the Baptist, but it is unclear. There were no quotation marks in the gospel. Whether the words were supposed to be the Baptist’s or not is really not that important. They reflect the understanding of the gospel writer. Again, decision is emphasized, and I would reiterate what was said above. John is not engaged in some comparative exercise with other “world religions.” He is testifying to the way God’s Spirit moved in Jesus so that Jesus and God, while distinct are also identified. When God shows up, one has to make some decisions. Deciding for God - responding not just with the head, but with heart and mind and life – means life. Going another way means not seeing life, not participating in God’s dream for the world. This may or may not have much to do with what happens when one dies – heaven or not. It has everything to do with how we choose to live or lives now – in eternal life, or on the outside of that.