|back to list|
For a limited time, you can still use our old Sermon Preparation Service. To use the new service, please visit http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word
Your membership information, including your username and password, has been transferred to the new Preaching the Word. If you have problems logging in, please call 202-531-7572 for immediate assistance.
The Law and the Spirit
For God so loved the world that God gave God's only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
This verse, John 3:16, is the first from my church background that I remember learning by heart. And the story of Nicodemus (John 3:1-17) going to visit Jesus has remained central to me.
Nicodemus is generally not a very sympathetic character in this story. He was a Pharisee, a rich aristocrat, a ruler -- not the kind of person with whom most of us would identify. And yet maybe there's more than we can see, and more of ourselves in Nicodemus than we think.
In Nicodemus' time, Pharisees were thought to be the best people in the country. There were never more than 6,000 of them. They were called the chaburah, the brotherhood, which was a large, select community.
Pharisees entered their community by pledging in front of at least three witnesses that they would spend all of their lives observing every detail of the scribal law. And to Jews the law -- the first five books of the Hebrew Testament -- was the most sacred thing in the world. They believed the law was the perfect Word of God, containing everything they needed for living a good life.
Now, at first the law was a number of great principles or themes that one had to work out for oneself. The principles were there, but how they were lived out was something that each one had to decide for themselves. But later an infinite number of rules and regulations, extracted from the principles of the law, emerged to govern every conceivable situation of life. The law of great principles had changed into a legalism of bylaws and regulations.
Probably the best example of this is the elaboration of the Sabbath law. In the Bible we are simply told that we must remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy, and that on that day no work must be done by people or by animals.
But not content with that, the later Jews spent hour after hour and generation after generation defining what "work" is, listing the things that may or may not be done on the Sabbath day. I discovered that in the Mishnah, the first section of the Talmud, the section on the Sabbath extends for no fewer than 24 chapters.
The scribes determined the rules, and the Pharisees dedicated their lives to keeping the law. They believed they were pleasing and serving God. And I have no doubt about the earnestness or sincerity, however misguided, of those who sought to keep every one of the thousands of rules. The Pharisees -- whose name means "the separated ones" -- actually separated themselves from ordinary life in order to keep every detail of the law of the scribes.
It is quite astonishing that Nicodemus, given that he was a Pharisee, should wish to talk to Jesus at all. We have to wonder if Nicodemus was really satisfied with his life. Perhaps he was looking for something that was missing.
NICODEMUS WAS ALSO a ruler of the Jews. He was a member of the Sanhedrin, the 10-member ruling council that had jurisdiction over every Jew in the world. And while limited by Roman occupation, the powers of the Sanhedrin were still quite extensive, including the practice of evaluating and dealing with those who were suspected of being false prophets.
Again, in the light of Nicodemus' ruling status, it is amazing that he came to see Jesus. Here is a Jewish aristocrat from a distinguished family who went to talk about his soul with a homeless prophet who'd been a carpenter in Nazareth.
Of course, Nicodemus came by night. Perhaps he didn't want to commit himself publicly by day out of fear of the consequences. But still he came, despite his position, his history, his prejudices, his religion, his upbringing, his whole view of life.
That Nicodemus came at all was a miracle of grace. Here was a man who seemed to have everything, and yet something must have been lacking in his life. He seemed to have it all together, and yet something must have been coming apart for Nicodemus.
And we see Jesus engaging in a conversation with Nicodemus, as he did with so many other people who went to him for help. Jesus always helped people think things through and decide things for themselves.
Nicodemus says to Jesus, "Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him." It's natural that the miraculous signs would be the first thing Nicodemus notices.
Jesus answers that it is not the signs that are important but the change in a person's life that can only be described as a new birth. But Nicodemus is confused. He misunderstands.
Jesus uses the phrase "born again" to describe what is required for a person to see the kingdom of God. In Greek the word "again" has three meanings: from the beginning, completely, radically; doing something over again, as in a second time; and from above, therefore from God. All three meanings don't fit into one English word, so the translators use the phrase "born again" for what Jesus was trying to say in the original language.
To be born again is to undergo such a radical change that it's like a new birth; to have something happen to one's life that can only be described as being born all over again. And the whole process is not one of human achievement, but comes from the grace and power of God.
Nicodemus interpreted what Jesus said with a kind of crude literalism that must have been his normal way of operating, given who he was. But maybe there was another reason he responded the way that he did. Maybe in Nicodemus' heart, we can begin to see and feel a great unsatisfied longing.
It's as if Nicodemus is saying, "You talk about being born again -- a radical, fundamental change. I know it's necessary, but in my experience it's impossible. There's nothing I would like more, but you might as well ask me -- a full grown man -- to enter into my mother's womb and be born all over again." Maybe it's not the desirability of change Nicodemus was questioning, but the possibility.
NICODEMUS FACES THE ETERNAL problem of those who want to be changed but can't change themselves. Maybe that's the inevitable and frustrating conclusion to which we are led when we simply live by a law.
The idea of rebirth that fills this passage from John also runs throughout the entire New Testament. And closely related to the idea of rebirth is the idea -- found in the scripture here -- of the kingdom of God, which one cannot enter unless one is reborn.
We are asked to become children -- daughters and sons of God, part of the family of God. To be a part of God's family, to be a daughter or son of God, you've got to be reborn into the new family. And to have eternal life, to share in the life of God, one has to be reborn. The idea of rebirth links all of these great salvation ideas together.
Conversion takes place through rebirth, and in the New Testament that's central to faith. Salvation always results in obedience to the will of God. But it is quite clear that we are not always able to obey the will of God, or even to know the will of God.
Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be "born of water and the Spirit" in order to enter the kingdom of God. Water is the symbol of cleansing. Our past, the sins we want to forget, are not just forgotten but forgiven.
The Spirit, the other symbol used in the John passage, is always the symbol of power. Not only is our past forgiven, but the Spirit enters our lives to enable us to do and be what we ourselves, by ourselves, could never be. So being born of water and the Spirit includes both cleansing and strengthening.
Then Jesus offers a fundamental principle: "That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit." By ourselves we are just flesh -- limited, easily defeated, and frustrated. In our human experience, we know that too well.
The essence of the Spirit is a power and a life beyond human power and life. And when the Spirit takes possession of our lives, we do what only the Spirit in us can do. To be born again, to experience rebirth, is to know our human sin and failing and weakness and yet to know our need of God. We can be forgiven for the past and empowered by the Spirit of God for the future. Change comes when we allow Jesus to enter our hearts and change our lives. We can enter into the eternal life of God, having found the freedom and the power to accept the will of God.
John says that the Spirit is like the wind. In fact, in the Greek the same word is used for both Spirit and wind. We can't see it, we can't understand it, and we certainly can't control it. But we can see its results.
The heart of Christian faith is not intellectual truth, or theology, or academic and abstract concepts, which can be discussed, understood, and therefore controlled like the law, with which Nicodemus was so familiar. At the heart of Christian faith is a mystery which must be experienced to be known. It is the mystery of redemption.
Jesus then talks of Moses in the wilderness. The point of raising that story is to say again that only God can heal, and now it is Jesus that must be lifted up as the means of salvation. And then he finishes with that most famous verse, the one that is for many the essence of the gospel -- John 3:16.
THIS PASSAGE IN JOHN tells us that the origin and initiative in all salvation lies with God; that God started it all. And God sent Jesus because God loved us. Behind everything is the love of God.
John 3:16 also tells us that the heart of God is love -- not punishment, not condemnation for human sin and folly. There is plenty of sin and folly among us for any just God to want to condemn or punish justly and righteously. But God's intention is not to punish but to love.
God acts not for God's own sake, but for our sake. God acts not to satisfy a desire for power, or a desire for justice, or even to bring the creation to healing, but God acts to satisfy God's love. God doesn't bash and smash human beings into submission. God reaches out to them in love.
And, finally, the verse talks about the breadth of the love of God. It is the world that God loves, not the "good" people, not a particular nation or group, not the religiously righteous or the politically correct. God loves the world -- unlovely, unlovable, unrighteous, those who love God as well as those who never think of God; even those who have spurned the love of God.
Augustine said, "God loves each one of us as if there were only one of us to love." God sent Jesus not to condemn the world, but to save it. It is only through a rejection of God's love that we condemn ourselves. By our reaction to the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ, it is we who stand revealed.
God offers us freedom, and not the law. That's what Jesus was trying to tell Nicodemus. But Nicodemus was so steeped in the law, he just didn't understand.
THESE ISSUES ARE VERY much alive for me, and they have been part of my sabbatical reflections. Seventeen years ago, at the start of everything that Sojourners is about, or is doing, or has become, it really was, for me, gospel. It was good news. It was freedom and joy and excitement and happiness. It wasn't law. It was always a serious call, but it was also a lot of fun.
But somewhere along the way, especially in the last few years, it all began to feel to me more and more like law and not like gospel. The oughts and the shoulds, the obligations and demands, the commitments and structures, the systems and expectations and assumptions, either implicit or explicit -- the rules -- began to intrude. The freedom in response to the love and call of God ever so gradually began to slip away.
The constant temptation of the prophetic vocation is the sectarian tendency to let freedom slip into law. To let courageous witness slip into judgment. To let the holding out of alternative possibilities slip into rigorous requirements of others. To let liberating simplicity slip into a rigid lifestyle. To let grace slip into works. To let joy slip into weariness. And to let lightness of spirit slip into burdens that seem heavier and heavier to carry.
To whatever extent that has happened to me, or to any of us, or to the communities or ministries in which we live and work, there is a reminder here in this familiar scripture; and more than a reminder, there is an invitation to the promise of rebirth. Because, as John reminds us, our God is a God of love and a God of freedom. God's spirit blows where it wills; it doesn't follow the course or pattern that we or any other human wisdom think best or necessary.
God's salvation is the free gift of that love that asks only our response, a response made possible by grace and made finally in freedom. That freedom, I know for myself, must be recovered, and the promise is that it can be. The scripture that I first learned a long time ago holds out the promise that is indeed at the heart of the gospel. Amen.
Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.
The Law and the Spirit. by Jim Wallis. Sojourners Magazine, June 1988
|back to list|
Sojourners . 3333 14th Street NW, Suite 200 . Washington DC 20010
Phone: (202) 328-8842 . Fax: (202) 328-8757
Unless otherwise noted, all material © Sojourners