With the Superbowl coming up, I decided to look at John 3:16 with senior high students. I projected a picture of Tim Tebow with John 3:16 written in white on his eye black before a game. I gave them a little background on Rollen Stewart, the man in the rainbow wig who made promoting John 3:16 on national television a trend. Then I projected the verse:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.
I didn’t have to ask a single discussion question. The high school students raised and discussed all the questions and concerns I would have: “Why this verse above other verses? Is it good practice to promote one verse out of context of the story? Doesn’t this seem a little transactional? What does it mean to believe in Jesus? And what about the people who don’t believe in Jesus? They perish? I’m not sure I’m comfortable with that.” They were so ramped up they started cutting eat other off, and I was impressed with the rigor and curiosity behind the discussion.
I took all this energy and directed it at the first twenty-one verses in the third chapter of John, when Jesus speaks to Nicodemus. So far in John, Jesus has turned water into wine at the wedding and turned over tables in the temple. So if I am allowed to grossly oversimplify for brevity sake, we know he is about abundance, but not money. He has raised some eyebrows. Then the third chapter. Nicodemus is a high powered Jew who came to see for himself if Jesus was the Messiah. He wanted answers. He sought clarity. Jesus would not be figured out so easily. Like we see him do so often, Jesus does not answer the questions of Nicodemus, but addresses them in a way that hints, “Dude, you don’t get me. You are asking the wrong questions. You are thinking too literally.” The interaction rubs like sandpaper. In John 3, we are left not knowing how Nicodemus feels. He fades away until the cross, when we know he believes.
I see myself in Nicodemus. I catch myself going to God for answers. Instead, God gives me presence. Initially it’s annoying. I want answers. Then I realize presences is better. Not easier, but better.
John is famous for wordplay, and the greek word pneuma is used for wind, breath and spirit. In John 3, Jesus says, “The wind blows where it chooses.” The breath that gives humans life in Genesis is blowing where it chooses, is the Spirit in all of us. This story also used the phrase born again. The phrase can conjure up images of fire and brimstone, but also of baptism and mini, daily resurrection. We can die and rise in Christ daily. We so often think of John 3:16 being about life after death. But what about life before death? How are we perishing right now? How is the wind/breath/spirit offering us a chance to be born again right now? God so loved the world. That includes us. And like Nicodemus, we are left not with clarity but with the gift of the wind/breath/spirit that invites new life here and now. How will we respond?