January 23, 2022
Jesus and Nicodemus
Acknowledging the Territory
As we begin our worship, let’s take a moment to acknowledge that the land upon which we live, work and worship is, by law, the unceded territory of the Mi’kmaq people. Let us think carefully about what this means and commit ourselves to living into this acknowledgement.
Lighting the Christ Candle
As we light our Christ Candle this morning, we remember the one that we call the light of the calls us to share his light wherever we go.
Call to Worship * written by Katherine Hawker
For God so loved the world;
The sparrows, the mountain lions, the fish and the people.
For God so loved the world;
In success and failure, in sickness and health, in mediocrity and in the extraordinary.
For God so loved the world;
Enough to become one of us, enough to suffer along with us, enough to offer us new life.
For God so loved the world;
That in response we gather to worship God!
Opening Prayer (in unison)
Infinite Love, source of all life, you loved this word into being with such love that you were willing to take on human form, birthing yourself among us. By opening ourselves to your love, we become more than our mortal selves. Your presence with us and within us does not separate us from our world but unites us with you and with one another. Your love embraces us and makes us whole. Trusting this, we know that we are loved not rejected, forgiven not condemned, and made one with you, now and always. Amen.
Gift of Music Blessed Jesus, at Your Word #500
Scripture Readings John 3:1-21
Our Scripture reading this morning is the first of two lengthy conversations that Jesus has in the Gospel According to John. Today we hear his conversation with a Pharisee named Nicodemus. Next week we will hear about his conversation with the Samaritan woman at a well.
Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus is extremely complex and contains at least five distinct ideas that have become part of Christian tradition and theology. The first is the idea of being “born again” or more accurately “born from above”. Second is the comparison between Jesus and Moses and between the law and grace. And of course, there is the familiar words of John 3:16, “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.” There is also the familiar promise that Jesus came into the world not to condemn but to save. And lastly there is the focus on Jesus as the light of God coming into the darkness of the world.
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.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. “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.
“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.
Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”
The story of Nicodemus is another one of the biblical stories that is unique to the Gospel According to John. He is mentioned no where else in the bible, yet in John, Nicodemus appear three times, first, in our reading today, when he comes in the middle of the night to speak to Jesus, second when he questions the decision of the council to have Jesus arrested and lastly when he, along with Joseph of Arimathea, anoint and burry the body of Jesus after the crucifixion.
But who is this Nicodemus? Well, according to John, Nicodemus is a Pharisee of some importance, a leader among the people. He is a member of the council, the group of temple authorities. But what is never really clear is what Nicodemus’s motives were for coming to see Jesus in the first place.
Many people see Nicodemus as a seeker, one who is curious about Jesus and who is drawn to him. But he a member of the council, and as such he must be careful about appearances. And so, he is afraid to speak out publicly and instead, approaches Jesus at night. Other people however, suggest that Nicodemus is a loyal council member sent to quietly find out a what Jesus is really all about and perhaps to even find a way to discredit Jesus. We can only speculate on why Nicodemus came to Jesus that night, but when he arrives, unlike most people who begin with a question, Nicodemus begins the conversation by affirming that Jesus is a teacher sent from God. Jesus’ response to this statement however, is not what Nicodemus is expecting. Jesus responds by telling Nicodemus, “No one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above.”
It is in the King James version of the Bible, that we find this statement translated as being “born again”. In the original Greek, the word uses in this phase in almost every other context, is translated as “from above” and is only understood as meaning “again” if a very few unique cases. Yet “again” seems to be the interpretation that Nicodemus picks up on. And this idea of being “born again” has become a fundamental part of many Christian denominations.
So, what does the phrase “born again” mean in the context of modern Christianity, and what might it have meant to the Jesus we read about in the Gospel According to John? For most people today who talk about needing to be “born again”, the understanding is that you cannot enter heaven unless you have had some sort of conversion experience that has allowed you to be “born again”.
The problem with this interpretation is that, throughout scripture, the Kingdom of God is talked about in many different ways. Although sometimes it is interpreted not being a reference heaven, to a life beyond death, it is more often referred to as a way of living in connection or kinship with God. Jesus often talked about the Kingdom of God as already being present and as being revealed in his own words and action. In this context, “seeing” the Kingdom of God could be understood as seeing and understanding what Jesus was doing and how he was revealing the very nature and essence of God through his actions.
It appears that this is a much more likely interpretation, when Jesus goes on to say that a person must be born of water and the spirit. Although many people have understood this as being a reference to baptism, this is only one of the possible interpretations.
Water was of fundamental importance to the people of Jesus’ time, not only physically but also spiritually. John the Baptist used water to symbolically wash away people’s sins, preparing them for the arrival of the one who would follow him. In the story of the wedding in Cana, the water that was turned to wine was the water used in the Jewish rites of purification. Taken in this context, being born of water, could symbolize repentance and purification.
But water alone is not enough. According to John, one must also be born of the Spirit. Being born of the Spirit is not something we can control. It is not something we can physically seek out or achieve. It is something that is a Divine gift, something that must come “from above”. Like the wind, it cannot be seen or controlled. It cannot be called forth on demand. Yet when the Spirit touches us, we know it because we feel it. It moves us and changes us. We are not the same as we were before the Spirit touched us. You might even say that a person has been born, or perhaps reborn, “form above”.
Of course, John does not explain all of this. Instead, he quickly moves on to another of the themes that will continue throughout his account of the gospel. John frequently compares Jesus to Moses in a way that makes it clear that, at least according to John, that Jesus is far superior. This comparison is almost certainly directed toward Jewish followers who see Moses as fundamental to their faith.
And now, this is where we move to one particular verse, perhaps the most famous verse in the entire Bible. It is a verse that has been quoted and used many times throughout history. “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.”
Unfortunately, this verse is almost always taken out of context and has often been used in the past, and is still used today, to condemn anyone who does not identify as a Christian, telling them they cannot have eternal life unless they believe in Jesus as God’s one and only son.
This certainly appears to be what John believes, but if you look at the context of the rest of this story, especially the line that immediately follow it, a very different message is suggested. “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
I have often found that those who have a more inclusive theology, those who believe that there are many paths to the Divine Mystery, that we choose to call God, struggle with much of what is written within the Gospel According to John. I have certainly struggled with a lot of John’s theology myself. But I have also found that the deeper I dig and the more I explore this gospel, the more I find new meaning and new hope.
For John, most the fundamental elements of all of this are faith and love. God loved the world so much that God sent Jesus to help us see a living, breathing reflection of that love. The most important element of John 3:16 is the amazing, self-giving love of God for the entire world and that love is not limited to a select few who meet specific condition. It is for the whole world, for all of creation.
But being able to understand a love that overwhelming is beyond human comprehension. And so according to John, God sent Jesus to demonstrate that love in human form.
Yet even then, humanity did not understand. Such an overwhelming love was frightening for many, and they refused to believe even in the possibility of such a love. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”
This is where the other fundamental element of the Gospel According to John comes into it. Faith. For John, the love of God is not something that can be defined or explained. It is a gift that comes, in the words of our scripture today, “from above”, and it can only be seen in the actions of those who seek to follow the loving direction of God.
We cannot understand the gift of God’s love without faith. We cannot understand the revelation of all that Jesus came to teach and to demonstrate without faith. And we cannot have faith without allowing ourselves to receive that self-giving gift of faith “from above”.
When we understand John’s message in this way, it truly is Good News. God loves us and God offers us the free gift of faith so that we might be able to see for ourselves and to understand in whatever way makes since to us, the amazing, all-encompassing, self-giving love that is God. Amen
Gift of Music My Song Is Love Unknown #143
We Offer Our Gifts
At this time in our worship, we are once again reminded that our commitment to God also includes the gifts we offer. As we gather online, I ask you to think about what it is that you have to offer to God and to others this day. Whatever it is we offer, our financial gifts, the gifts of our time, our talents, our abilities, our commitments or our prayers, let us take a moment now to ask God to bless these gifts.
Let us pray;
Loving God, as we think about all the many gifts and blessings that we have received from you, we ask that your spirit will continue to bless us and that, through the gifts we give today, your spirit may reach out to touch and bless others. Amen.
We Offer Our Prayers
As has been our tradition in the past, let us take a moment of silence now, to offer our own personal prayers for the people and the situations that are in our hearts and on our minds this morning.
Minute for Mission
Prayers of the People
God of Moses and Nicodemus, God of all who think they are too old, too poor, too small, too weak or too busy, God of all who are daunted by the sheer wonder of the love you lay out before us: we come to you now, aware of all you have done for us, and yet still struggling with our doubts.
God, birth in us new faith, we pray.
God of Moses and Nicodemus, we pray for this world where so many are homeless not by choice, but out of necessity, where so many are longing for a safe place to call their own. We pray for those who are refugees, who have been forced out of their homes and their countries by war, violence, political upheaval, and terrorism. We pray for those who have lost their homes or who have never had a home because of poverty. We pray for those whose only home is a prison cell or detention center. We pray for those who may have shelter but who do not feel that where they are, is truly home.
God, birth in us new understanding, we pray.
God of Moses and Nicodemus, we pray for those who are ill, physically or mentally, those who struggle for each breath, those who live in constant pain and those who feel so helpless and alone that they wonder why they even bother to keep breathing.
God, birth in us new compassion, we pray.
God of Moses and Nicodemus, we pray for all those who long for a new beginning: those who stive to change the world or to change themselves for the better. We pray for those who commit themselves to stand up and speak out against discrimination and abuse, those who struggle to care for and mend our broken world, both the diversity and beauty of the natural creation and the complexity of our human creation
God, birth in us new commitment and purpose, we pray.
God of Moses and Nicodemus, give us the courage to leave the past behind and follow you into the future. Give us the commitment to act on what we know is right, even when we cannot see how our actions can possibly make a difference. Give us the grace to trust, to believe and to hold tightly to our faith even when we do not fully understand it.
God, birth in us new hope, new light and new life in Christ’s name. Amen.
Closing Hymn There’s a Spirit in the Air #582
And so now we go out from here into whatever new reality may lie ahead of us. But the Good News is that we don’t go alone. God is with us, Christ’s example leads us and the Spirit walks with us and within us, each step of the way.
Go with God.