Holy Trinity Sunday

by Crossings

Who’ll Redeem Us, Nicodemus
John 3:1-17 [with 18-21]
Holy Trinity Sunday
analysis by Bob Bertram

1Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 3Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can anyone enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8The 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.” 9Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? 11Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16For 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. 17Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. [18Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. 20For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21But 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.”]

(NOTE: This pericope study is published in the Lent 1999 Crossings Newsletter. It is reproduced here in its entirety by permission of the author.)

If you are planning to preach on this text, you might find the following Refrain between Preacher (P) and Congregation (C) useful:

P: What you see is what you get.C: And what we get with Christ is life.

P: But how do you see him so alive?

C: It takes one to see One.


DIAGNOSIS: What you see is what you get–Missing the signs

Step 1-Initial Diagnosis: Seeing the signs, poorly
Nicodemus’ (and our) external problem is this: he assumes he can spot the kind of inspired leadership that is needed in the new regime for Israel’s liberation. Having now observed the “signs” Jesus does, he says in effect, Jesus, I know a good man when I see one and you show promise of being on the way up. Not so fast, says Jesus, without even saying thank you for the “compliment.” What makes you think you are capable of reading those signs, given your limited background? (Remember, this is a young hillbilly preacher speaking to a venerable, kindly leader of the Sanhedrin.) You, Nicodemus, are hardly the one to be sizing me up. Really, it’s the other way around. (Refrain)

Step 2-Advanced Diagnosis: Evil
Nicodemus’ (and our) deeper, internal problem is this: the reason he cannot see who Jesus truly is and what kind of new regime he brings is that he (Nicodemus) cannot see how “evil” he himself is. And frankly, Jesus does not make it any easier for sinners to see themselves. So brilliant is the life he brings that we can’t stand the comparison with our own lives. Sin is extremely sensitive to light. So resistive is our sin to being exposed. That resistance is called unbelief. One way Nicodemus seemed to manifest this resistance is that like his fellow Pharisees he refused John the Baptizer’s baptism, especially water baptism. That was for Goys. A little extra booster shot from the Spirit? Fine. We can all use some of that. But to have one’s whole religious tradition, one’s very identity as a Jew washed away as something unclean, oh no. And we Lutherans, though we have been baptized, often feel little need of using our baptism-especially the drowning downthrust of it. That resistance is called unbelief. (Refrain)

Step 3-Final Diagnosis: Perishing
The eternal dimension of Nicodemus’ (and our) problem is called “condemnation,” “perishing.” It’s terribly hard to say that, especially in connection with something so evangelical as John 3:16. (Is that why the editors omit the “condemnation” verses from the lectionary?) True, Jesus makes very clear that “condemnation” is not why God sent his Son into the world. Au contraire, he sent him to “save” the perishing. But not if they don’t want him to save them. For all of us, perishing is still an option. It is true that “what you see is what you get.” But by the same token, what you don’t see is what you don’t get. (Refrain)

PROGNOSIS: What you see is what you get–Being Signed

Step 4-Initial Prognosis: The Sign of the Son of Man
One would expect that the way to cure Nicodemus’ (and our) problem is to concentrate on some internal solution, where unbelief festers-for example, by means of pious, disciplined introspection or meditation or at least by praying for the Spirit. Maybe. But that is not Jesus’ first response. Rather he directs Nicodemus (and us) to a new external sign: to the Son of Man out there, up there on the cross. “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” That very external, fleshly spectacle is God’s way, God’s eternal way of taking our eyes off our own snakebites. Jesus is on his “way up,” all right, but not the way Nicodemus had supposed. And aren’t we glad! (Refrain)

Step 5-Advanced Prognosis: Double-seeing
But now something truly internal does follow. Seeing this uplifted Jesus, which anyone with ordinary eyesight can do, Christian or non-Christian, and then seeing-with-one’s ears what the Johannine Jesus there says of himself (“God so loved the world, etc.”), a seeing which any believer can do, what happens? With this kind of double-seeing, “What you see is what you get.” Faith is not just a kind of believing or even a kind of seeing. It is a kind of getting. The Son of Man whom we see is the Son of Man whom we get. Being drowned and “born anew” in baptism and in the Spirit (our Second Wind) we get the Son of Man, complete with death and resurrection, as our own death and resurrection. (Refrain)

Step 6-Final Prognosis: Life
But in seeing the Son of Man, and hence getting him, what we get as well is “life,” an imperishable, eternal life. Of course, it isn’t that believing is one thing and “life” is something else added onto the believing. Believing is already this new “life.” But that isn’t all there is to this new life. It isn’t just believing. In other words, this eternal life isn’t just internal. It’s also very external, very bodily and very public-as external as our “flesh” is. Still, isn’t flesh perishable, biodegradable, terminal? Ordinarily, yes. But it is not perishable once the Son, the eternal Word takes on our flesh as his own and recycles it through his death and resurrection. Ever since he has done that, our flesh has been raised to sit at the right hand of God forever. One of our fellow fleshlings has made it all the way back into the deity. And that enfleshed but imperishable life is the life we are given when we are given the Son. No wonder you all look like someone who’s on the way up. (Refrain)

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