As Grant said our gospel passage is replete with familiar passages. Perhaps the most famous scripture verse of all is John 3:16. If you can’t quote it by heart then you have probably seen it at sporting events. For many years, every
time someone kicked a field goal at football game in the United States you saw an Evangelical Christian holding up a sign reading John 3:16. When I stayed in a cheap motel in Niagara Falls it was framed in needlepoint on the wall. Maybe I should have paid extra but that was what I could afford. Anyway, John 3:16 is the passage that reads, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son so that those that believe in him shall not perish but shall have eternal life. “
This is the sine qua non of what it means to be Christians for many people. If you believe in God’s only son, Jesus Christ, then you’ll go to heaven. It’s as simple as that! Only it isn’t that simple. The first thing that complicates this
interpretation is the very next verse. John 3:17 reads that, “God did not send the son to condemn the world but in order that world might be saved through him.” What this does is move focus of salvation from the individual to the community. It is not so much about my personal salvation as it is the salvation of the world. It doesn’t say that I am not important but that my salvation is tied up in everybody else’s salvation. It is the salvation of the world that should be our focus. What about that eternal life? I thought we were getting eternal life. Well, we can, but before we get to eternal life we have to understand salvation.
Of course, salvation is another Christian world that carries a lot of baggage. But it is a word that as people of the Judeo-Christian tradition we cannot escape. The desire for the salvation of our world is one of the most ancient problems ever explored in our tradition. The story of the flood is an attempt to
reconcile the horror of a natural disaster with a broken world. Our ancestors in faith were wrestling with evil. They were trying to understand why the world is such a harsh and unforgiving place. That is why story of Noah’s Ark and the flood evolved; that God flooded the world to get rid of the evil people of the world. People were trying to reconcile the devastation of a massive flood with all the problems of the world. God attempted to rid the world of evil through a flood.
Afterwards God admitted that it was a mistake and made a covenant never to flood the world again. So that attempt at salvation of the world failed.
The next attempt came through Abram and Sarai. That is what it means when God covenants with them “to make of you a great nation” God is trying save the world through a single people starting with Abram and Sarai. That is why
Jewish people refer to themselves as the chosen people. God chose Abram and Sarai and through them and their descendants God would save the world. There was no idea that only the descendants of Abram and Sa rai, the Jewish people, would be saved. Rather it was believed that the chosen people through deep relationship with God would bring about a better world. God was trying to save the world through the Jewish peoples.
So the notion of communal salvation is at the heart of our tradition. God sent Jesus so that the world might be saved through him. This is what I always talk about when I speak of the kin-dom of God. Salvation is for everybody and all things. Salvation is for the whole world.
But what about eternal life? I thought I was getting eternal life. What’s the point if I’m not getting eternal life? Well, eternal life still possible. But eternal life doesn’t just mean going to heaven after you die. By eternal life, the author of John isn’t just talking about an afterlife. No, eternal life means a deep, unflinching comingling with God. As Marjorie Suchoki says, “God is eternal; God IS eternal life, and the eternal life of God is a sending love that gives to the other. God is Love. From this very being of God there is the sending of the Son with the sole aim that we shall through him open ourselves to God, whereupon God's love flows into us unhindered, shaping and forming our own loves to greater conformity with the love of God--which is, of course, sharing in God's love for the world, seeking the world's well-being.”
This is what Jesus meant when he said we need to be born from above. The author of John’s gospel creates the character of Nicodemus as a literary device to highlight what it means to be means to be born from above. There is intentional wordplay here. The Greek word used is anothen which has a double meaning. Anothen means “from above” but also means “again”. This is where our evangelical friends get the phrase born again Christian, which they often conflate with attaining personal salvation through belief in Jesus Christ. But really being born from above is, as John Spong says, “a new consciousness, a new dimension of humanity, a new way of relating to the holy.”
I have a friend and a colleague named Adam who on occasion exemplifies this new way of relating to the holy. Adam is a real character; a young black man or as he would say, “negro” who is also a minister. He started seminary when he was 23 and in many ways young for his age. But he also has a certain joie de vivre, a certain zest which I can’t help but love.
One time we were talking about our goals for our internship. This was in a formal setting and we had to have a list of goals for the eight months that we would be student interns. Everybody was pretty earnest and we had goals like preaching, leading worship and pastoral care. When it came time for Adam to share his goals, he was leaning back in a chair all relaxed and kind of splayed out and he said, “My goal is to get in the way of the Spirit.” I thought that was just great. Here we were all serious and sincere with specific, well-meaning goals and he wanted to get in the way of the Spirit. He didn’t mean that he wanted to block the spirit but get in its way like a kite in the wind or a sail that sends a windsurfer skipping across a lake.
The wind and the Spirit is more wordplay from John’s gospel. The Greek word pneuma means wind, breath, and Spirit. When Jesus says, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit,” he is calling us to get in the way of the Spirit. When you get in the way of the Spirit you don’t necessarily know where it will take you but it can change lives and it can change communities and it can save the world.
Abram and Sarai got in the way of the Spirit when they heard God’s word and followed the Spirit. They left the comfort of their past and ventured out into a new and scary world. They know what they have at Haran, the home of Abram’s family. It is comfortable and familiar. But they get in the way of the Spirit and journey out to be part of God’s cosmological salvation.
We are facing something similar here at Wesley United Church. Like most mainline protestant churches we are facing changing realities. Church attendance is no longer culturally mandated, the religious “nones” are a growing demographic. The way we do church will change. And we don’t know where we are going. We can’t know where we are going. We are entering uncharted territory. God is calling us to do new things to enter into new ways of being. And
getting in the way of the Spirit is how we will do that. We have to let the Spirit take us where it will. As Bruce Epperly tells us, “God’s Spirit is unbounded, unexpected, and unconfined. It comes to any and all persons on God’s terms.
We cannot localize it through doctrine, worship style, spiritual practice, or ecclesiology. It is free and untamed, and invites us to be free and untamed as well."
I can’t tell you what our community will look like in 5 years or ten years but if we get in the way of the Spirit I assure you that it will be an awesome place and we will have an amazing journey along the way. If we get in the way of the Spirit, tapping into God’s free and untamed Spirit we will participate in the salvation of the world. God has created and is still creating if we get in the way of God’s unbounded, unexpected, and unconfined Spirit we can be co-creators of the kin-dom of God. I can’t tell you what will happen or where we are going but I can tell you that if we get in the way of the Spirit we are in for an amazing ride. If we get in the way of the Spirit we can have eternal life. Amen.
John Shelby Spong, The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic, (Harper Collins: Toronto), 2013. http://processandfaith.org/resources/lectionary-commentary/yeara/2014-03-16/second-sunday-lent