1st Sunday after Pentecost, May 30, 2021, John 3:1-17
The Reverend Dr. Arnold Isidore Thomas
My last sermon addressed the need of the church to release itself from the chains that confine it to dogma and theological speculations that fail to speak to the dilemmas and challenges of modern-day spirituality, political and social unrest. If our commission as followers of Christ is to proclaim the coming realm of God and to encourage a change of heart and mind toward the way of God, then the church should be engaged in every aspect of life to bring about that transformation. And that engagement with the world will incite controversy, intrigue and inquiry. It will inspire followings and provoke oppositions. And for the sake of reputation and safety, one must tread carefully in discerning whether and how to associate with us. Prior to Emperor Constantine’s acceptance of Christianity, the church often met in secrecy and hiding to protect its members from persecution.
Mindful of these necessary precautions, Nicodemus, a highly respected religious leader of his people, came to Jesus under the cloak of night. He seems to have represented a constituency that secretly admired what he said and did, but were afraid to openly support him. So Nicodemus, speaking in their behalf, raised questions about his message, especially about being born of the spirit, all of which came down to the bottom line and basic premise of Jesus’ ministry: For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that whoever believed in him would not perish, but have eternal life. (John 3:16)
Now while most biblical scholars are convinced Jesus did not actually say this, the saying nonetheless represents the cornerstone of the Christian faith, raising further questions beyond those of Nicodemus.
What does it mean that Jesus was God’s only son? Was God’s spiritual household mostly comprised of daughters? This, of course, was not the intent of the reference. The designation of Jesus as God’s only son intended to convey to believers that Jesus was the pure reflection of God’s spirit and desire for the world.
You should also know that the reference to Jesus as God’s only son is not an indication that God showed partiality. I remember a sticker on which Jesus was smiling and saying “God loves you, but I’m the favorite,” which, in turn, reminded me of a common feature in a Smothers Brothers comedy skit. Dick would accuse Tom of something that would rile him to the point of blurting out, “Mom liked you best!” God does not play favorites. The reference to Jesus as God’s only son is meant to understand Christ as the entry to the heart, love and family of God to which all are invited and equally adored.
Jesus was, in so many ways, like us. He was mortal possessing human urges. He needed food and drink. He went to the restroom to relieve himself. He needed sleep. He laughed and cried and got angry. He was tempted, and mostly likely had sexual desires. He harbored prejudice. He doubted and felt abandoned by God. He bled, suffered, and died.
But what connected him to God was a divine spirit that inspired his heart and motivated his actions. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” he said. “For God has anointed me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed.” (Luke 4:18) And as Christ allowed himself to be moved, motivated and embodied by the Spirit of God, he enabled the same to happen in us that we might be reborn as offspring of God.
My father once told me that though I was born in the slums of East Cleveland, Ohio, the slums were not born in me. All people of God are divinely fashioned for a realm far greater than they presently perceive, and must devote their lives, in the words of the Lord’s prayer, to striving for that realm God wants on earth, “as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:10)
The bottom line is that God so loved the world in such a radically new and liberating way that Nicodemus finally got the message, though he remained cautious and quiet in his support of Jesus. John’s gospel tells us that, with his colleague, Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus buried Jesus in a tomb following his crucifixion. (19:38-42) Nothing is known or said about him following Jesus’ resurrection.
But God knows, just as God knows every one reborn of the Spirit, and knows what we must do when the Spirit of the Lord is upon us. Amen.