Who’s In and Who’s Out?
Last week we heard of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. Now for the rest of the Sundays in Lent, until Palm Sunday, we’re in the Gospel of John and we’ll encounter four interactions Jesus has with four different people, all of which teach us something about who Jesus is. This week it’s Nicodemus. Next week it’s the Samaritan woman at the well. Next, it’s a man born blind. And finally it’ll be the raising of Lazarus.
All of these encounters reveal something to us about who Jesus is and what his life and mission are about.
The reading we just heard from John chapter 3 is a conversation between Jesus and a man named Nicodemus. Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus at night, presumably because he was afraid of what his colleagues would think about him meeting with Jesus. And the Gospel writer John reports that they had a conversation about the kingdom of God, rebirth, water and the Spirit.
This passage has been the center of much theological debate over the centuries. With theologians dissecting their conversation for two thousand years. But I find it unfortunate that when many look at this beautiful conversation so full of wisdom and mystery, they seem to ask: well what does it teach us about who’s in and who’s out? They look to John 3 to tell them who is loved and chosen and saved and who is not.
For example, some Christians interpret this as a passage saying people must be born again in order to be saved. They point to the phrase “born from above” as describing a powerful conversion experience. Emphasizing the idea of this born-again conversion moment is what modern American evangelicals are famous for. I’ve had interactions with born again Christians from time to time. But they always seemed to think God was all too eager to send people to hell. Our conversations often left me wondering if they were even talking about the same loving God I know.
Another take on this passage regarding who’s in and who’s out, says that it isn’t a powerful conversion experience that’s necessary to be loved and chosen and saved, but that Baptism is what’s necessary. This is probably the most common take throughout church history. Jesus does seem to reference Baptism saying that this being born from above involves water and the Spirit. And so we get the traditional understanding that you need to be baptized in order to be loved and chosen and saved. But this line of thinking also leads to theological issues. This interpretation was so in tension with the loving God Jesus taught that early on theologians invented the concept of limbo. That is, a place where unbaptized infants would go because it was assumed they couldn’t go to heaven without baptism but what kind of monster would God be if he sent them to hell. And so the theologians of the church invented such concepts to cover the tracks of their poor interpretation.
A final interpretation of who’s in and who’s out is that believers are in, and nonbelievers are out. After all the text does say “everyone who believes in him may not perish” suggesting those who don’t believe may perish. But we have the same issue here, what if somebody’s too young to believe? Or mentally incapable? And how can we know we believe strongly enough? Does this mean honest doubt leads to hell? The thing about the Greek word for believing is that it’s always a verb in John. It’s never something somebody “gets” or possesses or understands. It’s a mystery to be experienced, not a creedal statement to be asserted. Believing here isn’t a matter of who’s in and who’s out; it’s a matter of being loved and cared for by a Divine Mystery we can’t even begin to grasp. And elsewhere scripture affirms that even what we call faith is not our own doing, but a gift of the Holy Spirit active in us. It’s God’s love and grace that saves, and faith is a gift, not something we can convince ourselves to have.
So while there are several interpretations of this passage that suggest those with a born-again conversion are in and others are out, or that those who are baptized are in and others are out, or that those who believe strongly enough are in and others are out—none of those interpretations are faithful to what it says in this text. If we’re honest when we look at John 3, we see it’s clearly not about anybody being left out at all! It’s about the world being loved and chosen and saved. It says it right there—Jesus came not to condemn the world but to save it. It’s so clear. How could we miss that, and think this is wonderful passage is somehow meant to teach us who’s out?
I guess it could be a human need to believe some people are in and others are out. We want somebody to pay for the sorry shape the world is in. So maybe God will reject those who didn’t have a powerful conversion experience like us, or those who weren’t baptized like us, or those who don’t believe like us. All these are theologically lazy interpretations. Ones that divide us into who’s in and who’s out far too easily. I can understand why people want theology to be black and white, plain and simple. It provides comfort and certainty. But what it also does is turn the Good News of Jesus into Bad News! Far too many Christians are content with turning the Good News of Jesus Christ into Bad News for most of the world. So that we can feel like we’re on the inside and others are on the outside. We shouldn’t read this as a way to decipher who’s in and who’s out. Looking at this beautiful passage and thinking “OK let’s see who’s left out” is just not a faithful response. It’s not consistent with what Jesus was teaching Nicodemus. Because nowhere does Jesus say anybody’s out. But if we’re looking for this text to teach us who’s in, it does. The world is in. The world is loved and chosen and saved. And it doesn’t say anybody’s left out. That’s Good News worthy of the name!
And if we back up to the first reading from Genesis 12 we see this same pattern as well. The context of Genesis 12 is that it is God’s first interaction with Abraham and Sarah, the beginning of the lineage of God’s chosen people. Up to this point in Genesis, God has been dealing with the world as a whole. And now in Genesis 12, God begins working to save the world through Abraham and his descendants. The Bible is clear that this chosen-ness is for the sake of the whole world. God chooses to work through Abraham and his family in order to save and redeem the world. The mission of saving the world is always at the forefront. And all through the Old Testament, this “blessed to be a blessing” is at the center of Israel’s self-understanding. And in the New Testament it’s at the center of the church’s self-understanding as well. And it was clearly at the center of Jesus’ self-understanding. Genesis 12 says the whole world will be blessed through the descendants of Abraham. And Christians believe one particular descendant (Jesus Christ) is the culmination of God’s promise to Abraham way back in Genesis. The whole Bible is a story of how this plays out.
And so here in John 3, Jesus says that he has come to save the world. John, in reporting this encounter the way he does, wants us to be reminded of God’s promise to Abraham here. The promise that the whole world would be blessed through his offspring. And here in John 3, Jesus explains to Nicodemus that his mission is doing just that. Saving the world.
Now if you’ve had a born-again conversion experience, great! That’s a gift and sign that you are chosen and loved and saved. And if you’re baptized, great! That’s a gift and a sign that you are chosen and loved and saved. And if you’re a strong believer, great! That’s a gift and a sign that you are chosen and loved and saved. But remember, just because you are chosen and loved and saved, doesn’t mean others aren’t. Because the truly Good News of Jesus Christ is that the whole world is chosen and loved and saved. That’s the point of this passage. That’s the point of the Bible. That’s the point of the saving act of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Pastor Brian, 3/5/23