Wednesday, 4 March 2015

John 3: 14-21, Light and darkness
in Saint John’s Gospel in Lent

Nicodemus visiting Christ in the dark ... where did the light shine through?

Patrick Comerford

Sunday week [15 March 2015], is the Fourth Sunday in Lent. The readings provided in the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) are: Numbers 21: 4-9; Psalm 107: 1-3, 17-22; Ephesians 2: 1-10; and John 3: 14-21.

A previous typographical error in the Church of Ireland Directory 2012, which gave the Old Testament reading as Numbers 24: 4-9, has been corrected this year, and the correct reading is also given in The Book of Common Prayer (2004) (see p. 36), and on the Church of Ireland website.

However, there are other provisions for Sunday week. The lectionary provisions for Mothering Sunday are: Exodus 2: 10 or I Samuel 1: 20-28; Psalm 34: 11-20 or Psalm 127: 1-4; II Corinthians 1: 3-7 or Colossians 3: 12-17; Luke 2: 33-35 or John 19: 25-27.

I am enough of a realist to realise that many parishes are going to opt for those readings, and some may even use the readings provided for Saint Patrick’s Day (17 March), although it falls two day later: Tobit 13: 1b-7 or Deuteronomy 32: 1-9; Psalm 145: 1-13; II Corinthians 4: 1-12; John 4: 31-38.

But if either of these sets of readings is used, then we miss the opportunity for continuity in our Lenten readings and the opportunity for continuity in Lent itself.

The Fourth Sunday in Lent is also known as Laetare Sunday because of the incipit of the traditional Introit: Laetare Jerusalem, “O be joyful, Jerusalem” (Isaiah 66: 10, Masoretic text).

The full Introit reads:

Laetare Jerusalem: et conventum facite omnes qui diligitis eam: gaudete cum laetitia, qui in tristitia fuistis: ut exsultetis, et satiemini ab uberibus consolationis vestrae.

Psalm: Laetatus sum in his quae dicta sunt mihi: in domum Domini ibimus.

Rejoice, O Jerusalem: and come together all you that love her: rejoice with joy, you that have been in sorrow: that you may exult, and be filled from the breasts of your consolation.

Psalm: I rejoiced when they said to me: “we shall go into God’s House!”

This Sunday is also known as Refreshment Sunday, Mid-Lent Sunday (in French mi-carême), and Rose Sunday. On this Sunday, mediaeval Popes blessed a golden rose to send to Catholic sovereigns.

In many parts of the Anglican Communion and the Roman Catholic Church, rose-coloured vestments are worn on this Sunday instead of the violet or purple colour of Lent.

For our Bible study in our tutorial group this morning, I have prepared notes on the Gospel reading provided for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, John 3: 14-21.

John 3: 14-21

[ἀπεκρίθη Ἰησοῦς καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ,]

14 καὶ καθὼς Μωϋσῆς ὕψωσεν τὸν ὄφιν ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ, οὕτως ὑψωθῆναι δεῖ τὸν υἱὸν τοῦ ἀνθρώπου, 15 ἵνα πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων ἐν αὐτῷ ἔχῃ ζωὴν αἰώνιον.

16 Οὕτως γὰρ ἠγάπησεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν κόσμον, ὥστε τὸν υἱὸν τὸν μονογενῆ ἔδωκεν, ἵνα πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν μὴ ἀπόληται ἀλλ' ἔχῃ ζωὴν αἰώνιον.

17 οὐ γὰρ ἀπέστειλεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν υἱὸν εἰς τὸν κόσμον ἵνα κρίνῃ τὸν κόσμον, ἀλλ' ἵνα σωθῇ ὁ κόσμος δι' αὐτοῦ. 18 ὁ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν οὐ κρίνεται: ὁ δὲ μὴ πιστεύων ἤδη κέκριται, ὅτι μὴ πεπίστευκεν εἰς τὸ ὄνομα τοῦ μονογενοῦς υἱοῦ τοῦ θεοῦ. 19 αὕτη δέ ἐστιν ἡ κρίσις, ὅτι τὸ φῶς ἐλήλυθεν εἰς τὸν κόσμον καὶ ἠγάπησαν οἱ ἄνθρωποι μᾶλλον τὸ σκότος ἢ τὸ φῶς, ἦν γὰρ αὐτῶν πονηρὰ τὰ ἔργα. 20 πᾶς γὰρ ὁ φαῦλα πράσσων μισεῖ τὸ φῶς καὶ οὐκ ἔρχεται πρὸς τὸ φῶς, ἵνα μὴ ἐλεγχθῇ τὰ ἔργα αὐτοῦ: 21 ὁ δὲ ποιῶν τὴν ἀλήθειαν ἔρχεται πρὸς τὸ φῶς, ἵνα φανερωθῇ αὐτοῦ τὰ ἔργα ὅτι ἐν θεῷ ἐστιν εἰργασμένα.

Translation (NRSV):

[Jesus answered him,]

14 ‘[And] Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

16 ‘For 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.

17 ‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Those 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. 19 And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 But 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.’

Introduction:

The full story that provides the context for this reading, John 3: 1-21, is one that contains two of the most oft-quoted passages in Saint John’s Gospel: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” (or “born again”) (verse 5); and “For 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” (verse 16).

The placing of this story in Saint John’s Gospel is one of the keys to understanding it.

Already, in this Gospel, we have heard about the incarnation and the Word made flesh; John has borne witness to him as the Lamb of God; Christ has begun to gather disciples as witnesses to him as the Messiah; the first sign, at the wedding in Cana, presupposes the transcendence of all the established religion of the day in the self-offering of the Lamb of God, symbolised in the Eucharist; and the cleansing of the Temple shows that the sacrificial system is being replaced by the one true sacrifice in Christ’s death and resurrection.

Now we have an encounter with someone whose immediate concern is with the interpretation and the application of the law, for Nicodemus is both a Pharisee and a member of the ruling Sanhedrin.

Saint John’s Gospel is the only Gospel to tell the story of Nicodemus. He is not mentioned in the Synoptic Gospels, although some commentators have tried to identify him also with the rich young ruler in Saint Mark’s Gospel (see Mark 10: 17 ff) or with other figures in the synoptic Gospels.

The setting:

Verse 1: Nicodemus, ἄρχων τῶν Ἰουδαίων, is a leader of the Jews, in other words a member of the Sanhedrin, the official Jewish court made up of seventy priests, scribes and elders, presided over by the High Priest.

Verse 2: Nicodemus comes to Christ by night. Perhaps, as a leading member of society, a very worldly figure perhaps, he did not want to be seen consulting this newly-arrived rabbi who has already caused a stir in Jerusalem. But remember the poetic and dramatic way in which John draws on contrasting images: heaven and earth, water and wine, seeing and believing, faith and understanding, truth and falseness. Here we have the contrast between darkness and light. The world that is in darkness is being brought into the light of Christ.

Nicodemus opens the conversation by referring to the signs, an important theme and key to understanding the Fourth Gospel. And he confesses a simple faith in Christ as a teacher sent by God. But John the Baptist has already been described as a man sent by God (John 1: 6). So that is not enough – that is simply an understanding of Christ without the crucifixion and the Resurrection. At this point, Nicodemus has seen but he does not believe; he has insight but does not have faith.

Verse 3: The reply from Christ puts the emphasis back on faith rather than understanding, on believing more than seeing. The Kingdom of God is not entered because of moral achievement, but because of transformation brought about by God.

There is a contrast between what Nicodemus sees and what those of faith may see. To “see” the Kingdom of God is not possible literally at that moment in time. For Christ, in this saying, to see is to experience. To experience the world in the light of the insights of the New Testament is so radically different an experience that it is like being born anew, being born once again.

The key word here is ἄνωθεν which as the double meaning of “from above” and “again.” The words translated as “being born from above” in the NRSV (γεννηθῇ ἄνωθεν) could also be translated as “born anew” (RSV). Or it may mean “from the upper country” (physically or geographically) or “from above,” “from heaven.”

A new birth, a second birth, getting a whole new take on life, a new beginning, a fresh, refreshing start … what do you think is meant here? What has been your experience?

Verse 4: As we go on in the story, we see how difficult it was for Nicodemus to understand what Christ was saying.

Verse 5: Entry into the kingdom experience, birth into the new order, is through water, or baptism (see John 1: 33; Ephesians 5: 26), through the Spirit (see Ezekiel 36: 25-27), and through water and the Spirit (Titus 3: 5-7). These are not separate actions – remember how the Spirit descended and remained on Christ at his Baptism by John (see John 1: 32-34).

Verse 6: Like begets like.

Verse 7: You – the Greek pronoun here (ὑμᾶς) is in the plural, or as it might be written in Dublin slang, “yous.”

Verse 8: The wind (πνεῦμα): the Greek word here means both spirit and wind, while the word “sound” can also be translated as “voice.” See Ezekiel 36: 25-27, where it says: “I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleanliness, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances.”

Verse 9: Nicodemus has floundered around, he really fails to grasp what Christ is saying and its implications. His question is phrased “How can this be?” (RSV) or “How can these things be?” (NRSV). Others suggest his question should be translated as: “How can these things happen?” or even more literally: “How is it possible for these things to happen?”

Verse 10: A teacher ought to be aware of the truth. But Nicodemus is behaving like a weak pupil.

Verse 11: In this verse, the first use of the word “you” is singular … “you yourself” as opposed to “yous,” but the second use is plural. Notice how Christ moves from the second person singular to the first personal plural, from you to we, then you (plural) and our. Who is the “we” here, who owns what is “our” testimony?

Verse 12: We have here a contrast between earthly things, such as the parable of the wind (see verse 8), and heavenly things, as in supreme spiritual realities. And Nicodemus is offered choice. Which choice does he make?

Verse 13: Christ descended from heaven to bring eternal life, participation in God’s life. This is the first of John’s three sayings about the Son of Man being lifted up, comparable to three passages in Saint Mark’s Gospel on the Son of Man’s passion (see Mark 8: 31; Mark 9: 31; Mark 10: 33).

The Sunday Gospel reading:

Verse 14: The word “lift up” refers to both Christ being lifted up on the Cross and Christ being lifted up into heaven … the cross is the first step on the ladder of the ascension. For the imagery being drawn on here see the Old Testament reading provided for the same Sunday (Numbers 21: 4-9). The writer of the Book of Wisdom calls the serpent a symbol of salvation (Wisdom 16: 6). But this verse also recalls the earlier remark to Nathanael that he would see the heavens opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man (see John 1: 51).

“God so loved man (humanity)” ... Guizhou Theological Training Centre in Guiyang Province in central China (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Verse 16:

For many, this verse is a summary of the whole Gospel. Martin Luther called this much-quoted verse “the Gospel in miniature.”

This passage is a favourite inscription to place on the outside walls of churches in China. But it is often translated in Chinese as “God so loved man (humanity) …” It is not that God so loved the saved, or even all of humanity, or even the world, but that God so loved the cosmos (κόσμος), the whole created order, that he gave, or rather sent (ἔδωκεν, from δίδωμι) his only-begotten Son.

The statue of Pythagoras by Nikolaos Ikaris (1989) on the harbour front in Pythagóreio on the Greek island of Samos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In Pythagorean thinking – and remember that John was in exile on Patmos, the neighbouring island of Samos, where Pythagoras was born – the cosmos (κόσμος) includes the arrangement of the stars, “the heavenly hosts,” as the ornament of the heavens (see I Peter 3: 3); it is not just the whole world, but the whole universe, the whole created order; it is earth and all that encircles the earth like its skin.

And this love is the beginning of Missio Dei, God’s mission – he sent (ἔδωκεν, from δίδωμι) his only-begotten Son.

To perish and to have eternal life are absolute alternatives.

By now the dialogue has become a monologue.

Verse 17:

The same Greek verb (κρίνω) can mean to separate, to select or to condemn, and to approve and to judge. God’s purpose is not to condemn but to save.

Verses 18-19:

Individuals judge themselves by hiding their evil deeds from the light of Christ’s holiness.

Conclusion:

So what happened to Nicodemus?

This is his first of three appearances in this Gospel. We shall meet him again a second time when he states the law concerning the arrest of Christ during the Feast of Tabernacles (John 7:45-51).

Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea claim the Body of Christ before dark falls

The third time follows the Crucifixion, when he helps Joseph of Arimathea in taking the body of Christ down from the cross before dark, and preparing the body for burial (John 19: 39-42).

So in the story of Nicodemus, we find birth is linked with death, new birth is linked with new life, and before darkness falls Nicodemus really comes to possess the Body of Christ, to hold the Body of Christ in his hands.

Reflection:

Nicodemus comes to Christ in the darkness, and is brought into the light. In this reading we come across, once again, the Johannine theme of the seeing and believing.

What would you miss if you could not see? What would you miss if you were blind?

So often, we take for granted not just our health and well-being but our physical senses too – our sight, speech, hearing, sense of smell and touch.

Many grieving and suffering mothers in our churches on Mothering Sunday may find themselves wondering why their children are suffering and wondering how or whether their suffering and the suffering of their children fit into God’s plans for the fullness of creation.

Indeed, many of us turn aside from the needs of other people in their plight, and how many of us still believe that those in poverty and deprivation simply need to “pull themselves up” or “to see the light”?

Christ’s compassion, caring and non-judgmental stance are in stark contrast with some who would like to claim the ground for conservative evangelicalism today, but who ignore the example of Christ. Recently, in what looks like an interview with himself – the ultimate verbal equivalent of a “selfie” – Professor Don Carson of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School arrogantly argued: “Christians who by their failure to proclaim the Christ of the gospel of the kingdom while they treat AIDS victims in their suffering here and now show themselves not really to believe all that the Bible says about fleeing the wrath to come. In the end, it is a practical atheism and a failure in love.”

Practical Christianity is reduced to practical atheism in this sharp judgment without any reference to the example of Christ in the Gospel.

In this morning’s Gospel reading, Christ reminds Nicodemus that he has come into the world not to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved. He puts this into practice into the way he heals the sick, feeds the hungry, brings sight to the blind, comforts those who mourn, putting into action what he has proclaims in the synagogue in Nazareth immediately after his temptations in the wilderness, as being the heart of the Gospel:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ (Luke 4: 18-19)

He sees their plight, and responds by showing what the Gospel truly means, what the Kingdom of God is truly like.

But so often, we take for granted not just our health and well-being but our physical senses too – our sight, speech, hearing, sense of smell and touch.

Meanwhile, it is worth asking again: What would you miss if you were blind?

Collect:

Lord God
whose blessed Son our Saviour
gave his back to the smiters
and did not hide his face from shame:
Give us grace to endure the sufferings of this present time
with sure confidence in the glory that shall be revealed;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer:

Father,
through your goodness
we are refreshed through your Son
in word and sacrament.
May our faith be so strengthened and guarded
that we may witness to your eternal love
by our words and in our lives.
Grant this for Jesus’ sake, our Lord.

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. These notes were prepared for a Bible Study with MTh students in a tutorial group on 4 March 2015.

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