01/28/18 – JV – Seeing the Light from Above


January 28, 2018
Jazz Vespers
Homily: John 3.1-17
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones


This passage from John appeals and repels both Fundamentalist and Progressive Christians. It has something for everyone to both love and hate. John 3:16 is particularly beloved by the fundamentalist group, which is largely made up of white Evangelical Christians. In fact, it is kind of their “code word.” You see just the scriptural identification, John 3:16, on bumper stickers, billboards, t-shirts, and engraved jewelry. This citation is a reference to the verse that reads: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Taken out of context it fuels the claim of Christian triumphalism and exclusivism, which leads to religious bigotry. Alone, it is interpreted to mean that if you don’t believe Jesus is God’s Son, you will not have eternal life, but eternal damnation. This is not “good news.” Then taken with the Nicodemus story in which Jesus declares, if translated literally, to have eternal life you must be “born again,” another biblically unfounded claim is made which divides Christians from one another. Attached to the theological notion that one must be “born again,” is the requirement that you must have a dramatic, conversion experience that causes you to immediately accept Christ as Lord of your life before you can be “saved.” If you are not “saved” you are locked out of the gates of heaven.

The problem with this interpretation of Jesus’ response to the Nicodemus is that it misses the play on words Jesus employs in his verbal repartee with the Pharisee. The Greek word translated as “again” in our bibles, can also be translated as “above” or “anew.” If translated as “from above,” then Jesus is referring to God. Jesus made it clear to Nicodemus that he was using the meaning “from above.” Based on other passages in John’s gospel, Jesus was most certainly preaching that following the will of God meant perceiving the world from God’s perspective, rather than physical rebirth.  Jesus challenged Nicodemus’ wrong assumption that he must be “born again” by re-entering his mother’s womb. In this way, Jesus demonstrates that Nicodemus does not understand what Jesus is about. Note also, Jesus did not say ‘no one can enter heaven,’ he said no one can “see,” meaning “perceive,” the kingdom of God on earth without the gift of the Holy Spirit which Jesus received at his baptism in the flowing waters of the Jordan River. Jesus was not talking about being judged as fit for heaven on Judgment Day.

In John’s gospel, Jesus was declared to have brought the kingdom of God to earth upon his arrival. Again, Jesus wasn’t talking about Judgment Day, but the kingdom of God.  He was talking about living life as though the kingdom of God was already fully realized on earth. Jesus was telling Nicodemus that he must live a God-centered life rather than a self-centered or human-centered life. When the religious seeker Nicodemus discovered this, he would begin a new life.

Now back to that John 3:16 issue. Those who would take out that verse and paste on their properties or person neglect is the corresponding statement in the next verse, John 3:17: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Jesus tells Nicodemus that God’s intent was not judgment and punishment, but to offer a means of being reconciled to God and experiencing “new life” in this life. It is through our relationship with the Eternal One that our lives become part of eternity. Our new life is not revealed in our worship practices, but in loving others as Christ loves us.

Like many “Progressive Christians,” as well as “The Spiritual but Not Religious” folk, Nicodemus prided himself on being a careful, analytical thinker. He wanted to deal with concrete ideas and provable facts. He was intellectually curious, which made him skeptical of anyone who didn’t have the proper qualifications. He was embarrassed to talk to Jesus in the daytime when he might be spotted by other Pharisees. He would only encounter Jesus in secret, under the cover of darkness. He wouldn’t commit to anything until he was sure he was right to trust Jesus. He had a reputation to maintain that was more precious to him than a relationship with this man who offered him “new life.” For Nicodemus, it was safer to keep religion in his head, keep it private, rather than be challenged or scorned or embarrassed.

Fortunately, Nicodemus didn’t just stop by for a visit, never to return. Later, in John, Nicodemus, a member of a group of judges known as the Sanhedrin, defended Jesus’ right to a fair hearing but was shouted down by the rest of the group. After Jesus was crucified, Nicodemus assisted Joseph of Arimathea in preparing Jesus’ body for burial, contributing 75 pounds of spices. That sounds like a man who might be ready for new life.

John, the most “literary” of the four gospels, used light imagery to demonstrate Nicodemus’ progression in his relationship with Jesus. His first encounter with Jesus was in the dark of night, the second in the morning and the third in the bright light of the afternoon. This is worthy of note.

Nicodemus did not have a dramatic conversion experience, but he did keep seeking answers to his questions about Jesus. In the end, he was with Jesus, when all the disciples had fled the city. It appears as if the reluctant follower was more open to the power of the Holy Spirit than the disciples who had such strong convictions about Jesus before he bore the torturous indignity of the cross. I wonder what Nicodemus thought when he heard the rumors that Jesus had risen from the tomb? John leaves us to wonder and challenges us to examine our own relationship with Christ.





© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2018, All Rights Reserved
Westminster Presbyterian Church – Peoria, Illinois