Did a shiver run up your spine just now when you heard this passage? Those of us who were raised as evangelicals likely associate this text with trying to get people “saved.” “Soul-winning” they called it in Baptist churches I attended growing up. Shiver break! (Shiver) Perhaps if we spend some time with it, we’ll find deeper truth in these verses.
The context of the passage is a mini-lecture Jesus gives to Nicodemus. Nicodemus was a religious leader who had some questions about things Jesus was teaching. Not wanting others to know he had questions, Nicodemus came to Jesus “by night.” (The original “Nick at Night.”)
For the beautifully literate writer of John’s Gospel, that Nicodemus comes—and leaves—in darkness serves as a metaphor. He doesn’t “get” Jesus when he arrives…and though he asks his questions and hears Jesus’ answers, he still doesn’t “get” Jesus when he leaves. Nicodemus arrives in darkness and leaves in darkness. He does not believe.
What is it he doesn’t believe? Belief is the main focus of John’s Gospel. Every scene in the book asks the question: Do you believe? But do you believe what? At the end of the book, the writer says it clearly: “These (signs) have been recorded to help you believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Only Begotten, so that by believing you may have life in Jesus’ name.” (20:31)
Believing, then, is believing that Jesus is the Messiah, the one in whom God dwells. It’s believing that God now resides not only in the Temple, but also in the person of Jesus. Believing means following in the way of Jesus because that is the best means we have of realizing God’s fierce hopes for the world.
(21st century note: Believing in the way of Jesus in no way discounts the ways of other religions. Believing in the way of Jesus means simply that this story, this language, this filter through which we view the world is the way we have chosen to follow. As followers of Jesus, we journey alongside our neighbors who follow other ways–the ways of Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Baha’i… All of us seeking a common goal—to repair the world.)
So, according to the Gospel writer, “everyone who believes in the Chosen One has eternal life. Yes, God so loved the world”–God so wanted to act the world into wellbeing– “that God gave the Only Begotten One, that whoever believes may not die, but have eternal life.”
Do we need another shiver break? 🙂 A big part of the evangelical message is “get saved” while you’re alive so you don’t go to hell when you die. Some parts of the New Testament might be interpreted that way…but none of those parts are in the Gospel of John. The writer of John doesn’t so much see salvation in terms of what happens after we die as something that happens in and affects the here-and-now. If we believe Jesus is the best picture we have of God’s fierce hopes for the world, eternal life–any life–already has begun.
Another word in this passage that sends a shiver up the spine is “judgment.” (Shiver) For the longest time, I didn’t like the word judgment. It always sounded so…judgy, you know? It also evoked images of hellfire and brimstone and all that.
But if John’s writer isn’t working with the idea of eternal damnation—of a place of torment after we die—then to what might judgment refer in the Gospel of John? What role does “judgment” play in the here-and-now?
From John’s perspective, judgment in the here-and-now isn’t about sending people to hell–or giving them hell… Judgment in the here and now is about distinguishing between what is of God and what is not…what acts the world into wellbeing and what subverts the world’s wellbeing…what brings God joy and what makes God weep…
The image the Gospel writer uses to illustrate this point about judgment is that of darkness and light. At the beginning of the book, the writer calls Jesus “the light that has come into the world.” That imagery continues here–whatever is in the light is whatever evidences belief in Jesus, that is, whatever reflects God’s fierce hopes for the world. Whatever remains in darkness militates against God’s hopes for the world. Indeed, people who do wrong hate the light and avoid it, for fear their actions will be exposed; but people who live by the truth come out into the light, so that it may be plainly seen that what they do is done in God.
So, as followers of Jesus, we have one task, one goal, one reason for being—to do whatever we can to bring light into the world. As followers of Jesus—the light of the world—we are midwives to light, doing whatever we can to help bring light into the world.
We’ve all heard birth stories. The brief time I taught school—a young thing, fresh out of college—I was the tiniest bit alarmed at how many lunchtime conversations focused on telling stories of births. Not always the best lunchtime conversation.
If you’ve heard those stories, you know that some labors are short, while others are very, very long. Some babies get born before the midwife has time to arrive. Others require attentive and skillful presence for hours.
In our efforts to assist the birth of light into the world, the same is true. In some places, light comes quickly, without our assistance. In others, though, if new light is to enter the world, we have to wait patiently, attend carefully, and do what we can in every moment to facilitate light’s birth. Sometimes what’s required is nothing more than wiping the mother’s sweaty brow with a cloth. Other times, though, more is required to guide her skillfully through the difficult and painful parts of the birthing process.
The February 14th shooting at Margery Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, was a wake-up call. I’ve been heartened by the large number of folks in this congregation who are eager to take action in reducing gun violence. In a way, we have been attending the birth of light. It’s clear this birth won’t be a quick one. This labor will require our thoughtful, skillful attendance for a very long time. At each moment, we’ll have to discern what our best action might be, what action of ours will facilitate the birth of light into the world.
The past two weeks, we’ve had a couple of brainstorming sessions about what we might do in response to gun violence. The conversations have been wide-ranging. We’ve quickly come to realize that the tentacles of gun violence run deep and wide in our country’s culture. It’s not just changing gun laws, though that’s a part of it. It’s not just increasing the number of security and mental health professionals in schools, though that’s a part of it. It’s not just praying for the transformation of hearts and minds on this issue, though that’s a part of it.
We’ve come to realize that serving as midwives to light in this moment also requires speaking to issues of violence, in general…and confronting the idolatry of firearms in our country. Have you seen the pictures of people getting married with their guns? Of worship services where people are holding their firearms, wearing crowns of ammunition? If that doesn’t say idolatry, I don’t know what does.
Arriving at this birth, no doubt, would fill even the most experienced midwife with dread. How in the world can we assist in the birth of light in this moment? How can we ensure that both mother and child survive…and—if we can dare to hope it—thrive?
How can we facilitate the birth of life in this moment? We’ll do it by taking it step by step…just like you did with birthing the light of marriage equality. Every day, you sent folks to the courthouse. Every day. Every day. Every moment, you attended to what was going on in that moment and responded with actions that facilitated the birth of light. The labor was long and arduous and, I’m sure, at times it felt hopeless…but now…how many of you are married?
I’ve compiled a list of some of the ideas and initiatives we’ve imagined in our conversations the last two weeks. We’ll have another conversation today. We’re pleased to welcome Allyn Maxfield-Steele, Co-Executive Director of the Highlander Center. He’ll talk with us about how Highlander offers support to the leadership and justice initiatives of young people through Highlander’s Seeds of Fire program. Today’s conversation will be the last for a while. Talking is helpful. But a midwife who comes and only talks about birthing a baby isn’t much use to mother or baby, is she? So, after today, we’ll turn more to doing things.
If you see things on the list you’d like to become the point person for, please let me know. If there are actions we need to add to the list, let me know that, too. If you’d like to join the email list, send me an email. If you’d like to join the Organizing for Gun Safety Facebook group, I’m afraid you’ll have to friend me.
The summer I discovered Highlander, I also discovered the powerful work of Pete Seeger. Pete believed, really believed, that the world would change for the better if we could just learn to sing together. I invite us now to sing a 19th century union song Pete put to music. May it become our theme song as we serve as midwives to light.
Step by step the longest march. Can be won can be won.
Many stones can form an arch. Singly none singly none.
And by union what we will. Can be accomplished still.
Drops of water turn a mill. Singly none singly none.
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan ©2018