Reading: John 3:1-10, 14-21
Lent. We started this journey a few weeks ago when we shared in an Ash Wednesday service at the Church of Christ. It was a beautiful service led by Dennis Ryle, and perhaps not as dire as many of you might think. Because both Dennis and myself, along with countless others, see the Easter story differently from what the mainstream community imagine.
As Dennis said in his service, he wanted to take us from atonement to Theosis. Huh! I hear you saying. What the heck is Theosis? Well, it`s to become more like God, more like Jesus. More whole, more loving and giving in this world, with each other and with ourselves. It is union or at least participation in the divine project of life.
So what was Dennis getting at, when he spoke about going from atonement to Theosis? It was the idea that we have to revisit and reject many of the notions and ideologies put forward about Jesus, to capture the essence of him, and the essence of God in our lives and in the lives of our fellow travellers. It is to understand that Christianity is a path, a way of transforming ourselves and the world for the sake of all. Not a set of beliefs to which you attach yourself for a ride to heaven, or dismiss for a ticket to hell and fiery damnation.
So many people that I have listened to recently have been on this path of renewing and revitalizing our faith story. If you were at Bill Loader`s talk on Sunday night you would have heard him speak about fundamentalism, and the dangers of it. I have recently watched a documentary on Rob Bell, an evangelical Christian pastor, the golden boy of American evangelical Christians who left his mega church, Mars Hill, after writing a book called Love Wins, which dismissed the idea of hell altogether. He has gone from the golden boy to a heretic, the name of the film, because he speaks of Jesus` life, and teachings and way, rather than a set of rules. He speaks of Jesus, not as a blood sacrifice, but as a pointer to God, a God of each and every one of us, black, white, male, female, rich and poor, slave and free, gay and straight. Wait, that sounds very familiar doesn`t it? Unfortunately, the very conservative Christians just can`t seem to get rid of the idea that rejecting Jesus won`t send you to hell forever.
And of course Nev has opened our eyes for years about the distortions to the Christian faith which makes it unbelievable and dangerous for so many people. No text without context. No dogmas and doctrines without exploration, particularly in the 21st century.
So what am I saying here? Well, you know. I know you know. Jesus is not dead on the cross in some sort of payment plan for humanity`s sin. That somehow by believing in him, saying a prayer, or joining a church, will save you for a trip to somewhere else, while the millions and millions of people, many who live a very Jesus like life, are doomed for all eternity.
We have to look and explore and discover the truth about Jesus ourselves, and ask some very deep questions, about what does he bring to us and our world, if we leave some of this other stuff behind? I for one, believe that his life and teachings bring so much. And his death teaches us so much, about love, and nonviolence, and the hatred that can corrupt and blind people. And in all of this the God of the universe, the God of you and me is still there, before and after.
So if we are going to do some exploring we have been gifted some of the most famous verses today with which to do it.
The John reading comes after the Nicodemus story, but somehow just taking this part of John without the previous bit seems wrong.
So let me remind you of Nicodemus the strict Jew who wants to speak to Jesus about faith and life.
Nicodemus just can`t get it into his head that faith is not just about rules (think of Jim`s sermon from last week) or doing things in a right way, or the miraculous. Rather it`s about the spirit within us guiding us, leading us to light and life in the here and now, with one another. Jesus is keen to counter this form of literalism for love and action in the world.
So what does Jesus say? He talks about what it is to be born again, that to be born of the spirit is to see the world totally differently. It is to embrace the divine presence in this life rather than another. It is to undergo a radical change that is like a new birth. Pretty amazing stuff! And remember Nicodemus still doesn`t get it. He asks, can a person be born twice? Jesus must be thinking, Crikey, are you so stupid? (well I might be), but he`s too nice, too forgiving for that. Instead he talks about being born of water and spirit. We are both human and divine, all of us. To be born of water is to be born into the life of the world and to be born of spirit is to step into a new dimension of what it means to be human. We are all both water and spirit. Jesus then identifies the spirit with the mystery of the wind, blowing where it will. The God who loves the world is the God who gives new life to those in it.
So this has gone on before. Then we hear the reading today which includes the famous passage about God who so loves the world he gives his only son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. How do we hear this statement? Actually many people now translate `so` as `in this way`. The reading then sounds like this, `For God loved the world in this way`â¦ or `For in this way, God so loved the world`. Changes it a bit doesn`t it?
Coming after Nicodemus, it seems it is an overturning of the narrow vision of tribalism, the widening of our human limitations and awareness of what is possible in the world, light not darkness, love not hate, with Jesus. Jesus represents a different way.
Yet both the born again statement to Nicodemus and these following statements have been taken by conservatives as doctrines to believe, about Jesus dying for our sins so that we may go to heaven. These passages and this interpretation has led to so much violence and discrimination and destruction over the centuries it is one of the reasons people have dismissed Christianity. It is exclusive and damning.
Was that what John was thinking, I certainly believe it wasn`t what Jesus was thinking. He would have been horrified.
Just a couple of things about the reading to place it in context. So we can hear John`s theology. John`s story. The sentences at the beginning of the reading, about the serpent, refers to a passage from Numbers 21, in the Old Testament. It`s a great story. The Israelites were wandering in the wilderness and were growing impatient. God responds to their complaints by sending poisonous snakes, which began biting them and stopped them whinging. They instead started praying that God would remove the snakes. God tells Moses to erect a serpent on a pole and that everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live. Moses does what he is told, and makes a bronze serpent, puts it on a pole and people who are bitten live. Naturally!
How does the story fit? John knew the story, and in his gospel has God lifting up Jesus in the same manner that Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness. So that people can also have life, eternal life.
The funny thing is, in 2 Kings 18, King Hezekiah of Judah, has the bronze serpent destroyed because people were making offerings to it. In his time it had become an idol itself and Judeans were worshipping the snake instead of the God to whom the statue pointed. That sounds very familiar!
When we hear these references we are hearing the writer of John`s gospel.
This is John talking, the most mystical of all the gospels, and the writing is reflecting his own community`s understandings of Jesus, while at the same time also being marginalised and isolated as a group. For he was a Jew, a Jesus-following Jew. They were wanting to hold on to the truth about Jesus that led them to their place and time. They saw in Jesus a new way, but they described it in 1st century terms.
What about usâ¦
If we focus on the death of Jesus we miss his life and his teachings. When we interpret eternal life as being somewhere else we miss the light and love that is needed here and now. If we turn him into an idol we will become hard as stone ourselves.
John 3:16-18 are still special verses within the reading. The first sentence and the last remain the most vital. For God in this way loved the world, that he gave his son, and son was used by these Jesus followers to express a deep connection, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. And for John eternal life started now, in the living and did not refer to a future time. So Jesus comes to save the world, to give hope and love and light and justice and peace to the world and to everyone in it. Now!
And how does Jesus do that? By living and loving and teaching and eating with those others dismissed. By talking about water and spirit, and forgiveness, and inclusion and justice and peace. To realise we are all God`s children. Jesus showed what it means to have faith and believe in him. In his actions.
I could go on, but we know already. It is not to rescue humanity from a weird story about a serpent, a tree, and an apple, but to rescue humanity from ourselves, before it is too late. It is not atonement that we seek but Theosis, wholeness and oneness with the God of Jesus, to be on the way, in our humanness with the one who gives light and life.
As Frederick Buechner so aptly saysâ¦.
For those who believe that Jesus Christ rose from the dead early on a Sunday morning, and for those also who believe that he provided food for worms just as the rest of us will, the conclusion is inescapable that he came out somehow the winner. What emerged from his death was a kind of way, of truth, of life, without which the last two thousand years of human history would have been even more tragic than they were.
Our challenge is to stay on the path!