A sermon based on John 3:1-21
Okay, first of all, I need to start my sermon with an apology. When I preached a few weeks ago, I didn’t communicate clearly.
I made the comparison of how someone asking if anything good can come from Nazareth is like Dog River speaking ill of Wullerton in Corner Gas, or how Steinbachers make fun of Grunthal, and how we need to repent of our arrogance.
The feedback I received was the most passionate and immediate I’ve ever received in 8 years of preaching here, and I’ve said a lot of things. But of this feedback, there were definitely two camps. I will apologize to both of them.
The first camp was those of you who are from Grunthal, or have family there, or love it, and you felt you had to defend it, and were a bit miffed at me comparing it to Wullerton <spit>. I am sorry for not clearly communicating how our arrogance and conceit are sin. Nobody is better than anybody else. I have coached ultimate Frisbee for the past 7 years in Grunthal, and I have genuinely seen the light.
But the second camp… You were the ones who came up to me in the foyer and started telling me jokes about Grunthal, and how the only good thing to come out of Grunthal was highway 205. I am sorry for not clearly communicating to you how arrogance and conceit are sin. And nobody is better than anybody else. There will be alter call after today’s sermon, and you’ll be invited to come as you are to repent and be born again.
But the worst that week was Mel. Yes, wise Pastor Mel, whom I missed so much when he was on Sabbatical. He was the worst because in the office that week, he introduced me to a new teacher from the Red River College English classes. He said “Kyle, this is so and so, and she’s from Grunthal. Hey, you mentioned Grunthal in your sermon on Sunday. Why don’t you tell her what you said?”
After I told her that I invited people to repent of their arrogance, she said to me, “Oh, don’t worry about it. I may live in Grunthal, but I’m from Kleefeld, and Grunthal think they’re better than Kleefeld, so I get it.”
(And we won’t even start with the Mennonite town, French town thing).
We do this wonderful ability to divide ourselves up and declare ourselves better, don’t we? We take a piece of our identity, an important and good and healthy piece of our identity, and we sometimes put it up on a pedestal and use that position to criticize and disparage others, and think we’re better than them.
I think that’s what happened with the “born-again” over the past several decades. The phrase was used to describe those of us who made a deliberate decision to follow Jesus, an acknowledgment that Jesus is Lord and that we give Jesus the right to tell us how to live. To be “born-again” was an attempt to articulate all sorts of good things that we Christians participate in: confession, repentance, salvation, growing in relationship with God.
But what some of us turned it into was a checklist of things that we use to prop up our own sense of self, our own sense of rightness, often at the expense of others. So being a “born again” Christian meant something else, something special, something better, than the other Christians.
Great example: I grew up Catholic here in Steinbach, and I distinctly remember being told in Grade 10 Geography that Catholics are not Christian. I didn’t take kindly to that assertion, so I responded with some ingenious non-violent resistance by taking that kids binder and writing all over it “Catholics are Christian! Catholics are Christian!” I think I converted him that day <smile>.
As I was preparing this sermon, I actually had quite a few stories of people being told “Are you born again? You should probably say a prayer, just to make sure you’re good.” Or, “Some Christians believe, but we, true Christians, believe this.” Or, if we’re flying somewhere and the stranger next to us asks “Are you a born again Christian?” we quickly put in our earphones? They were so easy to come by, I took most of them out.
But I do think it’s remarkable how something that can be a good part of our identities, can become something toxic. I think it’s because we the labels we use, such as Mennonite or Evangelical or Born Again or Catholic or Christian… I think we use these words, very earnestly and well intentioned because they’re an important part of our identity and do a decent job to describe how we try to live in this world. But when we use those labels to divide the world up into categories, or make ourselves seem better than others, well, yeah, I think we’re setting ourselves up for some disappointment.
We’re going to come back to the phrase “born-again” in a bit, so just hang on to it a bit
Let’s go to John 3:16.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” This is probably one of the most well-known verses in the Bible.
I preached on this verse 6 years ago. I found my old sermon, and I kind of still liked it, which is surprising, because usually I re-read old sermons and think “What was I thinking?”
So, many of you weren’t here 6 years ago, so this might be new. And some of you might have been here 6 years ago, but I’d be pleasantly surprised if you remembered it! But I’ll risk it and repeat some of what I still find to ring true.
John 3:16 has been understood as a pathway to get to heaven (eternal life) and avoid hell (perish). That Christianity is about spending eternity with God, playing our harps on streets of gold, and most of us will surprised to see that Mennonites aren’t the only ones in heaven. <smile – That was a joke>. Some people call it fire insurance… others call it God’s evacuation plan.
But I don’t really think that’s what this verse is saying, though. It’s one of these questions about reading Scripture: Are we reading what the text is saying? Or are we reading what we think the text is saying? What came first, the chicken or the egg? Is the text shaping our thinking? Or is our thinking shaping how we read the text? In this case, I think that when we read the words eternal life and perish, what we end up doing it taking take our pre-conceived ideas of heaven and hell and applying them to the text.
Why do I think this? (Thanks to Shane Hipps in Selling Water by the River for spelling this out so clearly to me).
When we read in English “eternal life”, the Greek words are aion zoe. Which we have traditionally translated as eternal life, the literal continuation of time as we know it. 365 days a year, over and over and over again. Billions and trillions of years.
That is not the proper translation of aion zoe. Aion zoe is not forever and ever and ever in the afterlife.
Aion has two meanings:
The first is that it means an age, a period of time. Something that has a beginning and an end. Not forever, but a tangible timeframe. For example, if you see someone at Sobeys you haven’t seen in a while, you say: I haven’t seen you in forever! You’ve been gone for ages! You don’t mean literally millions of years. You mean: I haven’t seen you the last time I saw you. A beginning and an end.
Or we say: The hippie era was a good era. By driving your electric VW van, you are really capturing the spirit of the age of the hippies. Woodstock was so great, it was like I was there, man. Beginning, end. An age.
The second definition of aion means an intense experience that transcends time. Positively, it’s like a good movie. You’re having such a good time, 60 minutes passes and it feels like seconds. Kind of like church on Sunday morning. Or, negatively, Aion is like a boring university lecture, or a sermon about the Greek words used in John 3:16 might only take 20 minutes, but it seems like hours.
Aion. So it’s an intense experiences that transcends time, but has a beginning and an end.
Zoe, besides being a very popular name for children, and the same name as my favourite actress, Zooey Deschanel, it means life, but not life on the surface, like the things we do or what happens to us, but existence itself. Like no matter how great or how hard life is at any moment, we still breathe in and we still breathe out. Easily or barely, we breathe. Zoe is life itself.
Zoe goes by other names in English. Some call it the human spirit, the divine spark. Others call it unconditional love, others call it grace, and others call it the peace that passes all understanding.
So eternal life, aion zoe, is the intense experience of peaceful, grace-filled life that transcends time.
God loved the world so much that he sent his one and only son so those who believe in him can have aion zoe.
But what about the word perish? That surely means hell, right?
No. Jesus refers to Hell only a handful of times in all of the gospels, and the only people he sends there are either rich people or religious leaders. Which is bad for pastors who live in suburbia. And Jesus uses the word Gehenna, which was a dump outside Jerusalem where they threw dead bodies and was always on fire.
And even then, Jesus does not use the word Gehenna here.
The word used in John 3:16 is Apollumi.
And Apollumi can be translated:
Ruin. Loss of personal welfare. This is the word Jesus uses to describe the Prodigal son who took half his Dad’s wealth and partied. He was apollumi. Not dead, like dead not breathing dead. Just ruined and missing everything good in this world.
It’s like saying: You’re dead to me. You’re not physically dead, but the loss of personal welfare in your life.
So to summarize, for God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not experience ruin and a loss of personal welfare but have an intense experience of a peaceful, grace-filled life.
Yeah, I know. Crazy. Maybe we should just stick to making fun of small cities and towns that we don’t like. That’s a lot easier, isn’t it? Here are the rules, here are the categories, and it’s simple. Toronto thinks it’s better than Winnipeg, Winnipeg thinks it’s better than Steinbach, Steinbach thinks it’s better than Grunthal. Grunthal thinks it’s better than Kleefeld. Kleefeld thinks it’s better than New Bothwell. New Bothwell thinks it’s better than Randolph. And we all think we’re better than Saskatchewan.
Here are the rules. Here are the categories. It’s simple.
And then Jesus tells Nicodemus – No. You think you have it all figured out, but no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again.
Born again is a metaphor. All language for God is metaphor (this goodie is from Richard Rohr). Jesus uses metaphors ALL the time. He’s always saying “It’s like this, or like that, or here’s a story for you.” Born again is a metaphor.
Nicodemus doesn’t get really get it, as he asks how one can re-enter their mother’s womb.
And then Jesus goes on and uses more metaphors and similes. He talks about the Spirit being like wind… You can experience it, but you can’t see it.
And Nicodemus couldn’t understand. Nicodumus thought he knew the answers. He knew the laws. He knew the rules.
But Jesus invites him to “think differently”.
That’s what I’ve settled on this week as a good understanding of “born again”. Think differently. God is bigger than any of us, and if we remain open to God working in ways that we don’t understand, then I think we’re on the right path.
Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without “thinking differently”. Think differently about money, about power, about control, about success, about surrender, about servanthood. Think differently about enemies, about who’s first and who’s last. Think differently about about the stock market and political parties and our country. Think differently about our own sense of certainty. Think differently about winning and losing.
And I think, when we are able to do this, to open ourselves to God’s infinite possibilities, to God’s upside down kingdom, then I think we’re opening ourselves up to aion zoe – For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not experience ruin and a loss of personal welfare but have an intense experience of peaceful, grace-filled life that transcends time.
Now that’s quite the invitation, isn’t it?