This is one of the most familiar passages in Scripture. It contains possibly the most well-known verse in the New Testament, at least to people who watch football games where guys in rainbow wigs hold signs that say “John 3:16.” And I’ll get to that in a few minutes. But first, I want to talk about this conversation. Because, of all there is to say about this story, what strikes me the most when I read it this time is this conversation, where two thoughtful, well-meaning, intelligent men sit down to talk about something they both care deeply about, and they find they cannot understand one another. At. All.
At every turn in this conversation, Jesus means one thing and Nicodemus means another. In the Greek and the English, there are double meanings throughout this dialogue. The Greek is especially tricky, though. The word that we have translated here as “from above” actually means both “from above” and “again” at the same time. It’s not that it means one or the other depending on the context. It’s that it means both things. Where we have two words, “wind” and “Spirit,” the Greek has only one word, and the same is true with “voice” and “sound,” so that there is a play on words in verses 6, 7, and 8 that we don’t get in the English, but that surely makes Nicodemus’ head spin.
And that’s not even getting into the various possible understandings of what is meant by water, flesh, spirit, birth, or Kingdom of God. All of these words and phrases are open to interpretation and confusion, before we even get to verse 16, the verse that so many believe central to their eternal salvation, and that of others, so that they will use it as a litmus test, “do you believe? are you in or are you out?” assuming that everything Jesus ever said stands or falls on this one sentence.
So let’s look more closely at that sentence. John 3:16. There is a lot to unpack there, and entire dissertations have been written on it. What’s more, it has become a go-to verse for much of American Christianity, a way of determining who is in and who is out, who is saved and who is not. Whoever believes, according to this interpretation, is in, is saved, is worthy. Whoever does not believe is not. But what if, like Nicodemus, we have been talking past Jesus all this time, misunderstanding his meaning, hearing what we want to hear, and missing what Jesus is really saying? What if there is more going on here than just a flat-footed statement about who is in and who is out? What if this word of Jesus is actually good news?
For God so loved the world. Let’s start there. God so loved the world. The Greek word for world there is kosmos. Yes, the same word as the Carl Sagan show. And while that word can mean “everything that is in the universe,” what the author of John means by it, over and over again throughout the Gospel, is the parts of the world, and more specifically the humans, that stand opposed to Jesus and God’s purpose in the world. In other words, that first part of the sentence could be translated as “For God so loved those that opposed God.” So this is not about a blanket statement of love for everyone and everything (that comes elsewhere, to be sure, but not right here). It is about how much God works for those who work against God. God loves those who oppose God so much that God gave God’s only son to be born among them, to dwell among them, as John says in the first verses of the Gospel.
For God so loved those that opposed God, that God gave the only Son, so that everyone who believes in him. Everyone who believes in him. Here is another point where we get tripped up. This word believe, in English, it has to do with an intellectual assent to what someone is saying. A theory is proposed, and we decide whether or not we will believe it, based on the evidence that is presented. Someone who is persuasive enough with their argument will win us over to their theory, and we will believe it, so that it becomes a part of our way of acting in and interpreting the world around us. But believing someone does not necessarily lead us into a relationship with that person. If anything, it is more about a relationship with an idea.
But Jesus is not an idea. And the word that is here rendered as “believe,” the word pistis in Greek, is elsewhere translated as “trust.” Look at Romans. There in verse 5, “But to one who without works trusts,” that’s the same word. In fact, that word pistis appears at least 8 times in that passage, and is translated as believe, faith, and trust. In this passage, it is a word about relationship. It is a word about how Abraham entered into a relationship with God, and how God was true to that relationship, and invites others, us, into a similar relationship ,“to all those who share the faith of Abraham,” or to all those who share the pistis of Abraham, who share the trust of Abraham. In the Greek Old Testament, this word is most often “trust” or “support” or even “to foster as a parent.” That’s a word about relationship. In Greek mythology, the word Pistis was the personification of trust, of good faith, or reliability. Trust. This is a word about relationship. This is a word about setting aside my presuppositions, my agenda, my need to be right about every detail, and simply having faith that the person across from me is working for my good, just as I am working for hers.
For God so loved those who opposed God, that God gave the only Son, so that those who trust him may not perish but have eternal life. To my ear, that changes this whole passage. It is no longer about drawing the lines and deciding whether I qualify for God’s club. It is no longer about my ability to understand Jesus’ confusing propositions and doublespeak well enough to make an intellectual leap to endorse Jesus’ position and candidacy for world-savior. Instead it is about a relationship. About a personal engagement with this incarnation of God’s Word, the same Word that brought this whole creation into being, including the kosmos that stands against God and Jesus. The same incarnate Word that shines as a light in the darkness, and reaches out in love to the ones who don’t understand him, including Nicodemus, including the Samaritan woman next week, including the Pharisees in the Temple, including me. Including you.
There’s another place where we use this word pistis every week, though we don’t realize it. The creed that we say before the prayers. Each week, we say either the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed, and both of those were originally written in Greek, and both of those begin with a form of the word pistis. And while we have always translated it as “believe,” think about how it would be to use the word “trust.” Open your bulletin and try it with me, substituting “trust” for “believe.”
I trust in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I trust in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I trust in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.
It’s different, isn’t it? More about the relationship, and less about deciding what is factually correct, what is provable. Less about who is in and who is out. More about who is trusted. Who is grounding us. Who is holding us fast. And this is what Jesus invites us into. Not an intellectual argument about how we can construct the best path to God, how we can build the best ladder up to heaven. Instead, this is a God who has come down to us, to be in relationship with us. To invite us to trust.To dwell among us, not just near us, but among us, right in the messy middle of our relationships, so that we can not only trust God, but so that we can trust one another.
Now more than ever, we can relate to what it’s like to sit down with someone we love, someone we think we agree with on so many things, only to discover that we are talking past one another. That our basic assumptions are not so basic. That we cannot even begin to understand one another. At. All. We are beginning to buy into the idea that we must agree with one another 100%, just to be in relationship. That our intellectual assent must extend, not only to earning our salvation and our ticket into God’s kingdom, but also to the members of our family, our congregation, and our community. We talk past one another and become frustrated, and it becomes painful and so we just drop out. We surround ourselves with people who agree with us. Online, at home, at church, in social groups, we find ourselves more and more isolated in our echo chambers, because we simply cannot understand how someone can believe differently.
And then here is this God, who has come into the world, not just to save it, but to love it. To love those who stand against God. To show us how to love those who stand against us, and to teach us to trust, even when we don’t understand. But this God does not just come to serve as an example, but to dwell among us. To sit in the middle of our relationships, even and especially when they become fraught with distrust and disharmony. This God has come to be the mediator of our conversations, to not just demonstrate the trust we need, but to become the trust we need, to bring us the faith, the trust, the support, the love that we cannot muster for ourselves. In the cross and resurrection, Jesus overcame death and the grave, but also those things that lead us to death and the grave. Those things that stand in the way of eternal and abundant life. Those things that make us unable to sustain relationship, to understand one another, to trust even when we cannot comprehend.
In Christ we are free. Free to trust God. Free to trust one another. In Christ we are equipped to reach across boundaries, to embrace even those we do not understand, and to welcome all, exactly as they are to the feast of love that God has prepared for the entire for us. For you. For me. For uncle Bob who voted for Trump. For cousin Jo who voted for Hillary. For the Muslim neighbor, for the Jewish neighbor, for the Missouri Synod neighbor, for the Catholic neighbor, for the agnostic and the atheist neighbor. For the neighbor who dumps their leaves over the fence. For each and every one of us. For the whole world, for the whole kosmos.