Wicker Park Lutheran Church
Rev. Jason S. Glombicki
March 5, 2023
Today’s gospel can be a little confusing. Part of what makes it confusing is that the original Greek has a handful of puns and double entendres. John uses these literary devices throughout the Gospel, and unfortunately, they don’t translate well. But, John isn’t alone in using these literary devices. In fact, classical Greek literature along with the Tanakh or the Hebrew Bible use them all the time.
For example, just last week during Bible study we looked at the puns in Genesis. The exploration of these double meanings helped open a different way of viewing the text for some who attended. It’s almost as if the puns interrupt our normal thoughts and disarm us. This confusion requires us to stop and think, and in our pondering then we can come to understand our God, others, and the world in a different way. A similar thing happened to Nicodemus in today’s gospel. You see, in verse 3 Jesus said to Nicodemus, “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Now, the phrase “from above” is translated from the Greek word anothen (anh-oh-thin). It’s true that anothen means “from above” but it also means “again” or “anew,” as in “born again” or “born anew.” This triple interpretation helped birth the well-known evangelical “born again” movement in the 19th century. This word, anothen, also led to Nicodemus’ confusion. He thought Jesus said that you literally needed to be born a second time to see the kingdom of heaven. Yet Jesus corrects the statement to show that he means being born from above.
Now, the word “above” let’s talk about that. Let go of your own worldview for a minute and let’s talk about John’s. John saw the world as a two-story universe. There is the lower story, called the world, and the upper story, called heaven. The lower story is a sphere filled with hate, darkness, falsehood, slavery, and scarcity. It’s not just a place with living beings and nature; rather, it’s a place where there is only partial knowledge, pain, and death. The upper story is centered around God. It is a place of life, truth, freedom, and abundance.
Whether you or I believe in a two-story universe made of heaven and earth does not matter because John’s argument remains the same. What John emphasizes is that until you are birthed or made anew by this state of life, truth, freedom, and abundance, then you will not be able to understand how God’s realm works. And out of God’s abundant love, Jesus came to reveal God’s realm to rescue us from the ways the world tries to trick us into believing the lies of scarcity, hate, and falsehood.
And, what really gets me about today’s reading is that we, like Nicodemus, live in our own state of falsehood. For, we come to church, to the Scriptures, interactions with others, and so many things in life with a presupposition. We come thinking we already know how God works, we come assuming how certain people will act, and we come with minds made up. And, much like Nicodemus we sometimes feel that we must know all the answers in our career, faith, or life. But, even Nicodemus, who was one of the major religious leaders of the time, came to realize he doesn’t know everything about God. Jesus revealed to Nicodemus that being open to how God moves, sometimes unpredictably like the wind, is part of that journey toward eternal life.
You see, belief is not something you have or don’t have, rather it’s something active. In fact, throughout all of John’s gospel belief is always a verb and it is never a noun. What that means is that belief is not something we can own, have, and check off as achieved. Rather, belief is an action that is always developing. Belief is loving and listening, belief is working to understand, belief is moving and changing.
In today’s first reading, we get a glimpse of that kind of faith. Abram was blessed so that he could be a blessing. Likewise, that is the charge for the church. We don’t come here to be insular, to think only about ourselves, to acknowledge our blessings so that we can then bless ourselves. Rather, our call as people of faith, is to strive to recognize God; to see the gifts of abundance, truth, love, and grace; to come to know God’s realm. As we come to know that abundance, we can give abundantly. As we appreciate God’s extravagant love, we can love extravagantly. As we recognize truth, we can share truth. You see, belief, faith, and eternal life are all outward facing.
And because it’s so easy for us to think only about ourselves, about our wants and desires, and about the survival of the church building, rituals, and practices, is why we need community. That is why nine new people become members today. They come to both remind us and be reminded by us of God’s gifts, God’s unpredictability, and God’s abundance so that we can share those gifts with others. For far too long many churches have become social clubs and insular institutions that are not reflective of our Christian beliefs. Instead, church is about being here, together, and showing up with the people in this community each week, so that the rest of the week we can actively believe. It’s about being on the journey together to better understand God’s realm.
And that’s what we’ll see in the rest of John’s gospel. For this is not the last time we’ll see Nicodemus. He’ll be mentioned again at Jesus’s trial, and he’ll help embalm Jesus after his death. What we see through Nicodemus is that through coming to know how God works, we can recognize God’s acts, and then we have the opportunity to respond in action. And that’s today’s gospel reading. Week after week, we come here to read the Scriptures and to be a little confused by some of the words. Through this practice, we allow ourselves to be challenged by the text and to feel uncertain. In that uncertainty, we are prepared to receive God’s presence. Then, as we gather during fellowship time, Bible study, and by supporting the work of the Lenten Project, we practice the ways of knowing God. We come to notice that God loves us without exception; that God reveals to us a new way of thinking, being, and going; and that through all of that, God has revealed to us the gift of eternal life. Amen.