(Jn. 3: 14-21)
by Rev. Kathy Itzin
Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a leader and teacher of the Jews. He came in darkness to talk with Jesus. John loves using the symbolism of darkness and light. Nicodemus came in the darkness. Mary discovered the empty tomb “while it was still dark.” Jesus says, “I am the light of the world.” Why does John tell us that Nicodemus came in the night, in the dark?
As their conversation deepens, Jesus says, “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.” Doing what we are called to do, being ‘children of the light,’ walking in the light, this is what Jesus is talking about.
People tie themselves into knots over this reading. “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.” Fist fights start over this. Is Jesus telling us that we have to believe with our heads, in the English name ‘Jesus’ in order to have eternal life? So that we can get to heaven?
That doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of the Gospel. Jesus is always bringing everyone into the circle of the family of God. Everyone that no one else wants. Everyone that we’d prefer Not be in the family, is included in the family. People with disabilities, those that people assumed were being punished for sins. Lepers. Sex traffickers. People with demons. Drug dealers. Tax collectors.
The sentence, “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,” hinges on John’s understanding of ‘believe’ and ‘eternal life.’ ‘Believe’ wasn’t a head trip. It did not mean intellectual assent to something. It meant living it. You could tell what someone believed by how they lived their life.
Are they making choices for themselves and their families, based upon selfishness, and ‘me first’ attitudes? Does their life revolve around money, getting ahead, or trying to impress others? My dad had this toast some of you may have heard. “Here’s to you, and here’s to me, and if by chance, we disagree, the heck with you, and here’s to me.”
That’s the attitude that we’re trying to avoid. Me first, at all costs, and it doesn’t matter what happens to you. Instead, we try to improve things, love people, and add to the good of humanity, creation, and the vulnerable. That’s the Way of Jesus.
We Know the Gospel. We live it. That’s what Jesus was talking about. And That is the way of the fullness of life. What John called ‘eternal life.’ Later, in another chapter, he says, “And eternal life is this, to know God, and the one whom God has sent.” (Jn. 17:3). Biblically, the word ‘to know’ doesn’t mean knowing something in your head, but rather an intimate relationship, like how a married couple knows each other. It isn’t something you believe, it is knowledge born of years of commitment, trust, and love. Knowing God, and the one sent by God, that intimate relationship of commitment, trust, and love means you are walking in the fullness of life.
The idea is not that God condemns someone for not ‘believing’ in Jesus. But a person who chooses the ways of darkness, the ways of death that Jesus stood against, that person is condemning themselves to a life of much, much less than Jesus’ ‘fullness of life’. Jesus came to show us how to really live, that real life is much more than bean counting, ‘I have this, and you have that.’ Instead, the fullness of life, eternal life, is in the way that Jesus lived, and in everything he taught us.
‘Love each other as I have loved you.’ ‘Love God with everything you’ve got, and extend God’s way of life into the world.’ ‘Don’t be afraid of dying to self when it’s called for, because that is the way to the fullness of life.’ ‘Pray. Invest in this relationship.’
God didn’t send the Son into the world to condemn it, but to save it. Jesus told Nicodemus that ordinary, birth, living, and death isn’t enough. To experience eternal life, the fullness of life, you need to be born again. You need an interior purpose, a center, an intimate relationship with God, with Christ’s presence of Love in the world. You all have that.
I told this story before, but it’s a good story, and it’s a perfect example. When our children were little, we’d go camping every year with another family. Shauna, who is developmentally delayed, and extremely nearsighted with a little cerebral palsy, was about 5. She came in last in everything she tried. The others kids raced their bikes up and down hill, and Shauna couldn’t even pedal hers uphill, so she and I walked her bike.
The others jumped off the dock into the water, having a great time, and making huge splashes, but Shauna is legally blind without her glasses, so she was too afraid to jump. I waited in the water at the end of the dock, holding out my arms, to catch her, but even with everyone rooting for her, she was too afraid to do it. She needed help with everything, and although Carol and I were happy to help her, in my mind, I was stressing out about her future. She will always be last. Others will make fun of her. She won’t ever be able to do things as well or as quickly as others her age. What will happen when Carol and I aren’t around? Will she have friends? Will she be happy? Will people love her? I was in the tent after swimming, helping her change out of her wet clothes, and she looked up at me and asked, “Mommy, this is my great life, isn’t it? It’s just my great life.”
That’s fullness of life. Could she say, “Jesus is my Lord and Savior?” No, and today she still wouldn’t say that. But she knows she is surrounded by love. She knew the love of God in creation, the love of God in family, and God’s love in the caring of others. She is surrounded by love. She is surrounded by God. “She who lives in love, lives in God, and God lives in her.” (1 John 4:16)
That is the fullness of life. The Way of Jesus, the way of light, the way of God. For God so loves the world. Amen.