Lent II John 3:1-17            3/12/17 Epiphany, Norfolk

This morning is “Pay Back Day” for Julia. For several weeks she has been giving me “sideways looks” as she’s seen our Gospel Readings. When we agreed that I would preach today, she giggled: “You get Nicodemus.” And indeed, our Gospel Reading is the story of Nicodemus. And it is a tricky reading.
The story of Nicodemus only appears in the Gospel of John, which was probably written in what is now Turkey, perhaps Ephesus, about 120 years after Jesus’ death. That means that it was probably written as a teaching tool, rather than an historical encounter. That’s why it is so full of themes. It’s a story to teach a whole bunch of stuff.
The name Nicodemus is Greek, and was a fairly common name among Greeks, and eventually became popular amongst the Jews, as well. This is the only time the name Nicodemus appears in our scripture; however, if you are poking around, you might run into the Gospel of Nicodemus. It’s a minor, non-canonical Gospel, and has nothing to do with this Nicodemus.
Well, let’s get back to our story. The writer presents Nicodemus as a Pharisee, and a “leader of the Jews.” So he is presented as a pretty important guy. And he comes to Jesus at night, not wanting to be too open about this visit. The other Pharisees probably wouldn’t have liked this, one bit. And Nicodemus begins by saying: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God.” The “we know” indicates that the Pharisees have been discussing Jesus, perhaps pretty extensively. And the writer has them recognizing Jesus’ knowledge and deciding that he acts with the authority of God. And the writer has Jesus responding with a number of themes and teachings.
Now, the theology of this story is very Greek. It’s got the separation of body and spirit, which is totally Greek. Hebrews didn’t understand this. It was Greek thinking. We get the idea of “rebirth”, another Greek theme. We get the idea of “the Spirit” being the “holy wind”, the “breath of God”, that blows where it will. We get the idea of “earthly things” and “heavenly things”, again, very Greek, with their ideas of creation being opposites and dualities. Remember, the Greeks had the idea of “parallel worlds”: earth down here for mortals, and an “upper world” for the Gods. As time goes on, this gets reinterpreted as Heaven and Hell, but it’s not quite there at the time of this writing. But this thinking creeps in here with the idea of “ascending into heaven”, which even comes down to us in our creeds.
All of these themes are Greek. But it’s no surprise that early Christianity is so influenced  by Greek theology and thinking. After Jesus was crucified, Christians got out of the Holy Land. It wasn’t a very nice place to be, in the first place, under Roman occupation. And then the Romans started hunting down Christians and doing horrible things, like feeding them to lions. So they fled.
It was easy to get to places like Ephesus, and from there they could cross the Aegean Sea to Greece, and places like Corinth. So by the time John is written, there were far more Christians in Greece and what is now Turkey, than in occupied Israel. And the impact of Greek thinking on the early Christian Church cannot be understated.
Well, of all the themes in today’s reading, there’s one special one at which I want to look. It’s the closing sentence of today’s reading: “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
I’ve always found that to be a very powerful passage. And for me, it’s sort of the answer to the whole thing. For me it says, first, that Jesus lives in our hearts, and souls, and actions. You and I are the walking bodies of Christ on this earth today. We carry the Spirit of Christ in our souls. And our job is to put to work the power of Christ in this world, to heal and make whole, sometimes just in little ways, but they can add up to be powerful experiences.
Our job is not to use Jesus to beat people up, and make people feel guilty, and condemn, and judge, and make life hard for people. Our job is to support our neighbors, encourage them, make them feel whole, and healthy, and loved, and worthwhile. And we do this by living out our own lives in a way that shows the love of God. The recognition of Jesus in our lives should be a freeing, wonderful sensation, that tells us that we are loved, we are o.k. with God, and we are ok with each other. The recognition of Jesus in our lives empowers us to celebrate life with each other, and recognize that no matter what happens, Christ is on our side, leading us, guiding us, empowering us.
If anyone ever tells you that Jesus is going to punish you, or is angry with you, or doesn’t like you, or is going to harm you, get away from that person. That’s not what the Gospel of Jesus Christ is all about.
It IS about celebrating life, and living our lives in a way that upholds and empowers those around us, makes us feel good about ourselves, and each other. If I can’t feel good about myself, as I feel the love of Christ, I can’t feel very good about you. The two go hand in hand.
In a few minutes, we’ll walk out these doors into a world that is not always friendly, not always supportive, not always caring. We have to bring that to this world. That’s our job, and it’s a holy job, given to us at our baptism. If WE don’t do it, it won’t get done.
So I urge you this morning to look for ways – just little ways – to tell someone else that they are ok, that they are loved by God, and loved by you, too. Help the people around you just lead good and faithful lives. Show them, from within yourself, that there is hope in this world, there is kindness, there is the love of God.
“God did not send the Son into the world
   to condemn the world,
      but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Posted March 14, 2017 by Church of the Epiphany in Epiphany Moments

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