Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 31, 2015
John 3:1-17 Commentary
Comments, Observations, and Questions
I wonder what Nicodemus was thinking about when he walked home that night.
My guess is that it wasn’t the Doctrine of the Trinity! Yet this is the Year B passage assigned for Trinity Sunday 2015. So what did he ponder? No clue. John doesn’t tell us. That’s ironic seeing as, according to John’s reportage at least, Nicodemus was the first human being on earth ever to hear what has gone on to become the most famous Bible verse in the world: John 3:16.
Today people parade John 3:16 around as though it were some kind of a magic formula, the mere sight of which printed on a bedsheet and displayed at a baseball game, affixed to a car via a bumper sticker, or posted on a front yard billboard will lead to some kind of conversion. And it may be that upon reading this most famous capsule summary of the gospel that any number of people have been moved closer to God on account of it.
But if anything like that happened for Nicodemus, we are not told. He simply disappears from the narrative after John 3:12 (he actually speaks last in verse 9 but verse 12 is the last time Jesus refers to Nicodemus in the second person). This is what has led to the conjecture that possibly the dialogue with Nicodemus ends prior to that famous 16th verse and so we should remove the quote marks from around verses 16-21 and accept these as John’s own musings on the meaning of what Jesus had said to Nicodemus.
That idea is probably not right but be that as it may, the fact that such a theory can be concocted at all is due to the odd fact of the disappearance of Nicodemus from this chapter. The last thing we hear him saying is, “How can this be?” which is not exactly a ringing indication that he ever came to grasp what Jesus was saying. A question asked out of sheer befuddlement is not exactly the way most of us would want to be remembered! But at this juncture in John, that’s the last thing we get from Nicodemus (and even though he will re-appear in John 20 at the burial of Jesus, he does not speak there and so this question, fraught with confusion, really is the last word recorded in the Bible from this teacher of Israel).
But let’s assume he heard everything Jesus said through verse 21 and let’s assume that he thanked Jesus for his time and then shuffled on back home through the darkened streets of pre-dawn Jerusalem. What on earth (or in heaven) could have been going through his mind? Did he realize that Jesus was referring to himself through all that talk about God’s Son? Did he have a clue that Jesus was pointing forward to the sacrificial death he would endure on the cross? Did he ever really “get it” when it came to that metaphor of being “born again” or did he find the image as silly as when Jesus first uttered it (and which, in turn, led Nicodemus to poke a little fun of Jesus’ rhetoric by trying to envision a fully grown senior citizen re-entering a woman’s uterus)?
We don’t know. What we do know is that if Nicodemus went home a saved man—and if his later appearance in John’s gospel at the burial of Jesus indicates that he had come to love Jesus—it was not because he had managed to figure it all out on his own. After all, if Jesus managed to make anything clear in these verses it was definitely the idea that salvation is not about what we know, what we do, what we manage to accomplish in our lives. Seeing the kingdom of God is a sheer miracle, a miracle that is actually far more stunning than what would be required actually to stuff a grown man back into his mother’s womb! That would just be a parlor trick. The real spiritual re-birth of which Jesus spoke requires far more effort on God’s part. It requires a person to come to see the world in the upside-down terms Jesus always used when he talked about his kingdom. A person had to be re-born to the idea that humility and kindness are far more valuable than pride and brazen efforts to promote oneself, that the meek and lowly and quiet of the earth are of far more value than the bold and the lofty and the noisy of the earth.
Above all one had to come to the insight—and it is not an insight human logic could ever manufacture—that when God came to save this world, he did so by depositing a humble little baby into an animal’s feedbunk out on the edge of nowhere in this world. And if that idea was not startlingly radical enough, there was the other thing Jesus directly mentions in this passage; viz., salvation will come by paradoxically looking at an emblem of the very thing that terrifies us the most in this world: death. Just as the Israelites had to look at a bronze image of what ailed them to get healed, so all people would have to look at a bloody instrument of execution to find eternal life.
Christus Paradox is the title of a choral anthem and hymn that captures the both/and surprises of the incarnate Son of God. Within himself Jesus has all the majesty of the Triune God and all the humility of a lowly human being from a modest family. Christ is, as the hymn tantalizingly puts it, “the everlasting instant.” There is a whole lot of mind-blowing theology in that combination of everlastingness and a temporal instant but it is, in the end, no less mind-blowing than everything else Jesus had said in John 3.
And if on his way home old Nicodemus could grasp something of that paradox—and find in it the joy of his life—then it wasn’t because he was so smart as Israel’s teacher. It was because he had been born again of the Holy Spirit. And if that happened, then Nicodemus knew something else—he’d spend the rest of eternity savoring and marveling over the things Jesus said to him that dark night. But he’d never tire of reflecting on all that. Not ever!
Neither has the church ever since.
In his commentary on the Gospel of John, Frederick Dale Bruner frames up the famous John 3:16 verse this way, highlighting the GREAT import of these words:
God = The greatest subject ever
So (much) = The greatest extent ever
Loved = The greatest affection ever
The world = The greatest object ever
That He gave his one and only Son = The greatest gift ever
So that every single individual whoever = The greatest opportunity ever
Who is entrusting oneself to him = The greatest commitment ever
Would never be destroyed = The greatest rescue ever
But would even now have a deep, lasting Life = The greatest promise ever
Creation itself sprang from a bubbling overflow of God’s love. Like a shaken-up bottle of champagne, so also God’s love within the Trinity was so effervescent, so richly pressured and full that sooner or later the cork had to explode out and when it did, a river of sparkling love gushed forth and sprayed everywhere. Creation is that overflow of love. God wanted to share the life and the love he already had so exquisitely among Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Greek theologians of the Trinity in the early church liked to talk about what they termed “perichoresis,” which is a Greek word meaning in essence the interpenetrating dance of love shared by the three persons in the Godhead. Whereas in the Western tradition of the church we have tended to depict the Trinity as a triangle, the Eastern church has always preferred a circle. The Trinity is like an ever-moving circle of dance in which Father, Son, and Holy Spirit constantly and forever move in and through one another in perfect bliss, harmony, and self-forgetful joy. The three persons of God are so invested in one another, so interested in one another, so caring of one another that although three persons they form just one God. They have been serving each other from all eternity and finding holy joy in that loving co-service.
So it is no surprise that at some point those three persons decided that so great was this love, so focused was this love on the other, that they wanted an entire universe of others with whom to further share the love. God was under no compulsion to create anything. Yet it is just so like God to want to create, to want to share the love. God’s motivation to create the world is similar to what motivates us to invite as many friends as we can to the wedding of one of our children or to an anniversary celebration: we want to widen the circle of our own love and joy; we want to share the grand event with those who are close to us. Something very like that was what brought about creation in the first place: the love of God within the Trinity bubbled over in a desire to spread the joy around. “Let us create some more creatures so that we can then invite them to our holy party!”
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