Palm/Passion Sunday

Henry Ossawa Tanner Jesus and Nicodemus
Jesus delivers a lecture on the nature of the Spiritual community.


That word, “whosoever,” is emphatic: no one is excluded from “whosoever,” it’s unconditional. And I confess, it’s the one forever in my memory of John 3:16, a trace of the King James Version we memorized when I was a little girl: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God sent not His son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.” OK, that’s also John 3:17.

The point is that the old-fashioned – and I might add, precisely translated – language emphasizes something that is part of the tenor of the entire passage, namely, the extraordinarily inclusive invitation to eternal life Jesus seems to be issuing in his lecture in the presence of Nicodemus.

I say “lecture in the presence of Nicodemus” only because it’s difficult to take this exchange seriously as a conversation. Especially if Nicodemus is the scholarly expert on Hebrew Scripture we would expect him to be after having been described as a “person of the Pharisees” and “ruler of the Jews.” Most of us have probably known at least a handful of academics, or teachers, or scholars in our lives; if we think about how those conversations typically go, we’ll notice that Nicodemus has many fewer lines, and shorter, than we would expect him to have in an ordinary conversation. He never presents an argument, or evidence. He never has a paragraph of explanation about some point of tradition or belief. That’s incredible in the annals of scholarly academic symposia.

This feature probably should tip us off that we are not dealing with an ordinary real-life conversation here, but with a specialized form of discourse – something more like a punctuated monologue, in which Nicodemus is playing the “straight man” who sets up Jesus’ important remarks. That’s not a suggestion that there’s anything “untrue” or “incorrect” about this exchange, or about the idea that Jesus made or could have made these statements – instead, it’s a suggestion that when we read a gospel, and particularly a polished literary work like the gospel of John, we are encountering something more like a painting or a play – a kind of artistic presentation that highlights certain elements and draws out the main points with greater emphasis – than something like a photograph or a court transcript, that includes all the extraneous details that intrude in photographs or the ums and ers and distracting remarks that normally occur in everyday ordinary speech.

So while I think of this exchange more as Jesus’ lecture in the presence of Nicodemus, the point is that Jesus outlines a broadly, widely inclusive invitation to eternal life: “whosoever believeth in Him [the only begotten Son of God] should not perish but have eternal life.” And this is linked to salvation in opposition to condemnation: “for God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.” So, we could think of this as a broadly inclusive invitation to salvation, in the form of eternal life. That’s the point.

That point has probably contributed to John 3:16 becoming arguably the most famous and most memorized verse in Scripture, certainly in Christian scripture, maybe only edged out in all of Scripture by “and God said, ‘let there be light!’” Because Christian evangelism also emphasizes this broadly, widely inclusive invitation into salvation in the form of eternal life.

Although ironically, when Christians talk about “salvation,” it is often in the context of a conversation along the lines of “Is X necessary for salvation? Yes or no? Why or why not? Cite texts.” And this lecture in the presence of Nicodemus provides some good fodder for a conversation like that, it seems.

John the gospel writer seems to love irony, of course, just as an aside. Irony runs all the way through the gospel, from the very first miracle in chapter 2 (which Jesus tells his mom he can’t do, it’s not time, and then does anyway) through the ironic exchanges with the woman at the well in chapter 4 to the long exercise in irony in the story about the man born blind in chapter 9 to the bitterly ironic statement of the high priest that “it is better to have one man die for the people” (John 11:49)

With that in mind, and with the theme of baptism forming the context for chapter 3 as it does – what with Jesus having turned water into wine (how sacramental) in chapter 2, and then sending his disciples off to baptize people and then John the Baptist having had a fairly lengthy exchange with his own disciples about baptism winding up with “he must increase and I must decrease,” and with the idea that a first-century churched audience would have read this gospel back in the day, when Nicodemus says “how can a man enter into the womb of the mother and be born again/from above (whatsoever English we want to assign to that ambiguous Greek expression that can mean either of those things)?” I contend that the whole first century congregation is going to laugh and think “why, by being baptized into the mother church, of course!” and then Jesus follows that ironic statement, which is so impossible literally and so totally possible symbolically and spiritually, by saying “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” (John 3:5) Which I say, to a first century audience, or even to a 21st century audience in a sacramental context, sounds just like he’s talking about baptism, the church’s baptism, which is water and the Spirit (again, how sacramental).

Only I should have learned from experience not to say this to my beloved Southern Baptist grandmother – not unless I wanted her to give me an argument and explain that when Jesus says “water” he’s talking about physical birth (you know, women’s water breaks and all that) and then when he says “Spirit” he’s talking about, you know, the Spirit. Because even though she would insist that people need to be baptized, there is a lot of dispute about the boundaries of the true church into which one must be baptized, and certainly my beloved Southern Baptist grandmother was taught from babyhood that the sacramental churches that didn’t teach people that they had to accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior in order to be born again did not necessarily lie inside those boundaries.

So, ironically … this broadly, widely inclusive invitation of Jesus’ to salvation in the form of eternal life occurs in a lecture that contains the seeds of tenacious mutual denominational exclusion, and chewy fodder for those “Is X necessary for salvation? Yes or no? Cite texts” conversations, with X being either “baptism” – possibly, even, “baptism into the _____ church” or “accepting Jesus Christ as your personal savior, ideally through an intentional formal act, such as saying ‘the sinner’s prayer.’”

Ironic, because the main emphasis of Jesus’ lecture, as well as its context, seems to be that the spiritual community that takes shape around the person of the Word of God that has come into the world to enlighten and enliven it and save it with eternal life, seems to be that membership is emphatically not contingent on physical birth or human action, and emphatically is the consequence of unconstrained divine action. (“The wind blows wherever 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.” John 3:8)

If anything, Jesus seems to be trying to shut down one of those “is X necessary for salvation?” conversations, one where the “X” seems to have been “birth into the ethnically Jewish community” or “continuing membership in an observant synagogue.” Exclusion from that route to salvation seems to have been the pressing issue for John’s 1st century audience. From within that context, the main point of Jesus’ lecture is that the spiritual community is big, not small; potentially  open to anyone, not genealogically restricted; the invitation to salvation in the form of eternal life is broadly, widely, inclusive: whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.

So if Jesus were to give an updated lecture, in the presence of some contemporary religious authority or authorities, would we expect him to authorize some form of the “is X necessary for salvation?” conversation? Or would we expect him to foreclose that conversation, as the main point of that lecture in John chapter 3 seems to have been, by emphasizing that whosoever accepts the testimony of the Word of God who has come into the world, presumably in whatever accent, whosoever accepts that light and that life, presumably under whatever rubric or form, is ipso facto born of the Spirit, is already part of the community, and is on the way?

I go with the whosoever.

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