One Way - Week Three: "For God So Loved"
I can't find my birth certificate. I thought I knew exactly where it was, but it's not in the file marked "birth certificates" in our family filing cabinet. My three son's birth certificates are there, and my wife's as well. Not mine.
I can get another one, I suppose. It will take some emails, perhaps a letter, maybe even a phone call and some proof of my identity--apart from my birth certificate that is. I had to have an official copy at some point over the past twenty years because I was issued a passport, and then reissued one ten years later. I am not sure exactly why this bothers me.
It shouldn't bother me really. I don't need to put my birth certificate on the wall of my office to prove that I am alive---do I? The proof of my existence is that I am typing this, walking around, talking and such. Regardless of whether I have a certificate to prove it, I exist.
Recently, I heard a story of a lady who stopped receiving her social security benefits, insurance and other assorted necessary things for her to survive. She discovered that for some reason she had been declared dead. But she wasn't. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn't convince the drones on the other end of the phone tree that she actually existed.
I bet she puts her birth certificate and some photo ID on the wall after she gets this whole thing fixed...
Today we are going to be studying one of the most famous passages of Scripture in the entire Bible--John chapter 3. Along with containing John 3:16, John chapter 3 also contains the phrase "Born Again," which in the past several decades has become a catch phrase that is synonymous with Christians and what they refer to as "salvation." The problem with catch phrases is they only reveal one side of a story, and typically can be taken to mean different things by those on the "inside" of the catch phrase, as opposed to those on the "outside."
For example, the phrase "Born Again," can mean either "Saved, like Us" or "Crazy like Them," depending on your perspective. Honestly, I have been on both sides of that phrase at various times in my life.
Here's another problem that stems from the earlier problem: In the dominant Christian culture, the whole concept of being "Born Again" is centered on a moment in a person's life--a moment when they prayed a prayer, and declared their allegiance to Jesus. When I was growing up in conservative, evangelical Baptist churches, the story of the moment you were "Born Again," was the most important story you could tell. It was all about the moment.
What I realized pretty quickly, however, was that lots of people in Christian culture focused on the moment when they were "Born Again," and not all that much on actually living for Jesus. They kept the rules and regulations, mind you. But when it came to signs of life, evidence that Jesus was at work in their heart---that was secondary to the moment.
The way that most Christians in our culture approach being part of God's family is a lot like hanging your birth certificate on the wall, and then trying to convince everyone who met you that the real evidence that you were alive was behind the glass, not right in front of them. In other words, it matters more that you have documented proof that you are considered "in" more than actually living like it.
In his own context, Jesus had to teach a bunch of people that proof you were born into the "right" family wasn't enough to be a part of God's kingdom. In God's kingdom, Jesus taught, it doesn't matter who you are--it matters whose you are. It doesn't matter if you can remember a moment when you acknowledged God, it matters more that you live for God in every moment. Nothing that you could do on your own, or by virtue of your "birthright" would get you to God.
Which leads me to the big idea that I want us to lift up for this particular study: Jesus is the One Way to God That Doesn't Require A Resume.
Let's take a look at John chapter 3:1-17 to see what Jesus had to say about this:
Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”We aren't given a lot of information about Nicodemus, but what we do have tells us a great deal about who he might have been, and what may have motivated him to come visit Jesus. He was a Pharisee, which meant that he was the kind of faithful Jew who believed that all the Hebrew people needed to do in order to find favor with God, and be free from Roman oppression was keep the Law of Moses, and all of the extended rules and regulations stemming from the Law of Moses.
He was also one of the few Pharisees that was on the Sanhedrin, the Jewish religious court that was the most powerful non-Roman group in Israel. In other words, Nicodemus was an insider by every definition of the word.
In addition, based on all of the moments in John's Gospel where Nicodemus appears, he was successful, self-confident, spiritually open and curious.
And his journey is one that starts in darkness, here when he comes to Jesus by night, and ends by stepping into the light and declaring himself a disciple when he and Joseph of Arimethea take possession of Jesus' body after he is crucified. In John's Gospel, darkness is associated with unbelief, and light with belief.
There's something else that we need to note before we go any further: Nicodemus starts his dialogue with Jesus off with the words, "We know..." This could indicate that there are more secret, would-be disciples of Jesus in the Sanhedrin who are afraid of losing face, and possibly their status within the community.
3 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” 4 “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” 5 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’To begin, we need to ask if Jesus' words, "You must be born again..." are part of an invitation or a command. This may not seem like a big deal, but it definitely changes the tenor of his challenge to Nicodemus, and should change the tenor of countless Christians who want to make demands on nonChristians to establish a moment...
And then there's the words born "again," which honestly isn't the best translation of the Greek word anothen (again) which is used here. A more accurate translation of this word would be "from above." So how would it change the meaning of Jesus interchange with Nicodemus? It speaks right to the heart of where Nicodemus lived and breathed--his pedigree.
God, Jesus is essentially saying to Nicodemus, is creating a new family, and requires more than your pedigree---more than being part of the "right" family---to be a part of it. Jesus says that both water and the Spirit are required--not a birth certificate. In other words, you are baptized in water to symbolize your inclusion into God's family, and then your life is transformed by the baptism of the Spirit. This phrase could also be translated, "water that is the Spirit," again emphasizing the power of God's Spirit, not a pedigree.
8 The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”Jesus describing the Spirit as a wind blowing wherever it pleases, is a highly inconvenient fact for Nicodemus and his fellow insiders. Some people have translated this "the voice of the Spirit," but either way Jesus words speak to the unpredictability of the Spirit and the indiscriminate way the Spirit blows on whomever it wishes---not just on the "chosen."
9 “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked. 10 “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? 11 Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. 12 I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? 13 No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man.[e] 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up,15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”Jesus draws Nicodemus back into Israel's history to help him understand that God is up to something completely new, completely revolutionary that will lead to the redemption of all people---not just the people of Israel.
Then he tells him this...
16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.The actual translation of John 3:16 is: "This is how God loved the world..." he gave his his "beloved" son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life...
No more pedigrees. No more birth certificates. No more being in the "right" family... praying the "right" prayer... being able to remember the "right" single moment...
Jesus invites us to open our imaginations and reconsider our relationship with God--to realize at last that it's not about who we are, it's about whose we are. It's not about what we bring to the table...
But so many Christians don't get this, and as a result they offer to the world a Gospel that really isn't "good news" to most people. And so we get phrases like Born Again, which lead to divisions between people who are "saved like us" or "crazy like them."
There's also a growing number of Christians who will claim to have faith, but then separate faith from "real" life. Faith becomes for them an act of self-restraint marked by the practice of tolerance and personal morality. In both cases we find people marking a moment---a "sinner's prayer," baptism as an infant---as their certificate of birth, the evidence of their life in Christ. Or they lump all of the moments into one moment and say things like, "I've always been a Christian for as long as I remember..." But in both cases faith is separated from life. And life suffers as a result.
N.T. Wright notes that when we look at the cross, we see what God's love looks like. "This is how God loved the world..." He sent his beloved. Moses lifted up a brass serpent and when people looked upon it, they lived.
This kind of faith lifts up the single moment, the pedigree, the "right" belief as a way of assurance of salvation.
God simply offers the cross.
The cross which is lifted up for our salvation is the sign that reads, "Believe... and live." Believing and living are inseparable. There's no space for "social" Christians in the kingdom of God---people who rely on their pedigree, their moment, their right family... It's more than having your moment on a piece of paper...
When I was six years old I came home from a Sunday night church service that I had just attended with my parents. I'd spent several years watching people walk down the aisle and kneel at the "altar" in front of the church while everyone sang a hundred stanzas of "Just As I Am." I had heard the prayer that you needed to pray in order to "get saved." I wanted to belong. I told my parents I wanted to become a Christian, and they knelt in the living room with me and led me in a prayer within which I confessed to God I was a sinner and wanted to ask Jesus to come into my heart.
My mom typed up the story and put it away in our keepsake album. It's still there, as far as I know. Whenever anyone would ask me when I "got saved," I would tell them the story typed on that little piece of paper. I didn't really live for God when I was a teenager, and actively turned away from God for many years. I didn't utter a single prayer for twelve years. I drank, smoked, caroused, avoided church and a few other sins I won't mention. But if you had asked me when I "got saved," I would have told you that story from my mother's keepsake album.
It was my birth certificate. And I was using it to prove I was alive... only I wasn't. That happened later when I realized that the moment recorded on that piece of paper was one moment in years of moments that led me to a place where I realized some important things.
1) I wasn't ever going to be good enough to deserve God's grace.
2) He gave it to me anyway.
It didn't matter who I was. It mattered whose I was. But the evidence of my life in Christ wasn't plain to see until I started actually living for him, showing that I belonged to Him.
If you have been relying on a birth certificate to prove your alive---but you would like to change, then look no further than the cross, my friend. Believe... and then Live. This is how God loved the world... He sent Jesus.
And Jesus is the One Way to God that doesn't require a resume.