Today’s text includes that famous verse that Martin Luther called “the gospel in a nutshell,”; the one that gets flashed up on signs at sporting events: For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. This verse has taken up such a place in our culture that many people don’t always remember the story that surrounds it: Nicodemus coming to visit Jesus by night to try and find out who this Jesus is. So, before we dive in to today’s text, I would like to start by reviewing what John the Gospel writer has told us thus far.
In the first chapter, we get a beautiful prologue that starts with, “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God.” John the Evangelist tells us how Jesus is the Word made flesh, the Word of God now walking among those whom he created. John tells us that Jesus came to bring grace and truth. From there, John the Evangelist tells us about John the Baptist, who testified to those around him about who Jesus was. We then hear about how Andrew, Simon Peter, Philip, and Nathanael came to be followers of Jesus. From these stories of Jesus’ first disciples, we move to the wedding feast at Cana, where Jesus turns water into wine, and finally, last week, we heard about Jesus getting angry and turning over the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple. The Gospel writer describes the act of turning water into wine and the act of turning over tables in the Temple as “signs”—they are signs pointing to who Jesus is and the kind of authority he has.
And so, in chapter 3, we have a Pharisee by the name of Nicodemus coming to check this Jesus out. He comes by night, presumably so that his fellow Pharisees don’t hear that he is visiting Jesus, so we can surmise that there is already opposition building to Jesus within the ranks of the ruling parties. But he comes, not with the spirit of condemning something without a hearing, but rather with the spirit of seeking knowledge and an open heart. Too many interpreters of this passage condemn Nicodemus either for daring to ask Jesus questions or for willfully not understanding what Jesus was saying. But that’s not what’s going on here. Which one of us, when confronted with someone who was doing things that upset the normal pattern of living, would not want to ask that person questions? And let’s try to put ourselves in the shoes of Nicodemus: if someone said that we needed to be “born from above,” wouldn’t we all scratch our heads and say, “Huh? What in the world are you talking about?” Good students ask the teacher questions when they don’t understand something. And when the teacher responds with something that they still don’t understand, the good student will probe with more challenging questions. This scene with Jesus and Nicodemus is simply a scene between a student and a teacher: someone willing to question what he hears and to learn from the response. Nicodemus is a man who is using the intelligence that God gave him to determine who Jesus is.
So, let’s take a look at what Jesus says to Nicodemus. And, there’s a lot in there: being born from above and what that means; being born of water and Spirit and what that means; and the Son of Man being lifted up just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert. But what I want to focus on today is that verse that we all know so well: For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. And the reason that I want to focus on it is this: Many times, we Christians want to use this as a “clobber verse”. And what I mean by a “clobber verse” is this: we use it to hit non-Christians on the head and say that the only way that someone is going to go to heaven is to believe in Jesus. That’s why well-meaning Christians flash it up at sports games, after all: in the vain hope that someone might just read it and be convinced enough to believe in Jesus. But that’s really not the emphasis that we should be using when we tell others about Jesus. I think that what we should be focusing on instead is the first part of the verse: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son.”
I would like us, for a moment, to focus on the Greek word that gets translated as “world”: kosmos. Kosmos means not just “world”, but it implies that the world that God created is beautiful and orderly. It encompasses the natural world and it encompasses every single human being, all interwoven together and intricately bound so that what affects one part of the creation affects another part of the creation. In other words, “all means all.” God loves every human being, every wolf, every blade of grass, every dog, every cat, every snake, every piece of creation—even mosquitoes and cockroaches. God loves it all. And what’s even more miraculous is that God loves each person and each part of creation with exactly the same unfathomable, deep love. We can’t begin to understand how wildly in love with the creation God really is. And the love that God has for the kosmos is so great that God sent the only Son, Jesus, to die a horrible death on the cross for us, so that we might have eternal life. We can’t even begin to understand that kind of love that sacrifices itself so that the beloved might live.
So, what kind of practical implications can we take from this? How do we strive to follow Jesus’ example and love the world so much that we, too, give ourselves away for the kosmos? I would like to share a story from my own life in order to help us with this. My mother has, in recent years, taken up genealogy as a hobby, and about a year or so ago, decided to do the DNA test available on www.ancestry.com to see what ethnicities her DNA would reveal in her. My father also took the DNA test. When their results came back, my father’s turned out pretty much like what we were expecting based on his family’s records: mainly Western and Eastern European, as well as British, with some small traces of other ethnicities. But my mother’s came back as a complete surprise. As far as we can trace her family records back, the only indication that we have is that she is German, with nothing else mixed in. But when her DNA results came back, she discovered that, along with Western European, her ethnicity is actually largely Scandinavian. She was in such disbelief that she thought they must have gotten her sample mixed up with someone else’s, and so she redid the test. Again, it came back Scandinavian. Then I did my DNA test, and, while I’m a good mix of both my father and mother’s DNA, the greatest percentage of my DNA, at 27%, is also Scandinavian. The only thing we can think of is that the Vikings, further back than any written records go, were simply everywhere in Europe and mixing in with the local populations. And it’s fascinating to think that I can claim some of that Viking heritage.
What people are finding when they have their DNA tests done is that they have ethnicities in them that they never thought they had, and even ethnicities that, until that point, they absolutely hated. And I think that is the value of having your ethnicity detected through DNA: not so that you can prove that you are superior to others, but so that you can understand this: there is no such thing as them and us. There is just us, the human race. And if more people understood that, and if more people understood who their ancestors were and where they came from, then they might not be so hostile to other groups of people. We might be able to be kinder to immigrants, to refugees, and to the dreamers in this country, because they are no different than we are. Our ancestors, too, came to these shores—many of them “illegally”—looking for the same things that immigrants and refugees today are looking for. How can we follow in Jesus’ footsteps in showing the kind of love that Jesus showed for each and every human being on this planet, regardless of who they are or where they’ve come from?
Now, here’s the thing about love. The word “love” in English has the connotation of a feeling, a warm fuzzy feeling that we have in our heart. That’s not the connotation that the word “love” has in the Greek. Love is not a feeling; it is an active verb. It’s putting our money where our mouth is, like Jesus did by dying on the cross. We will probably not be called to show our love for the kosmos by dying on a cross. But we may be called to advocate for a more just immigration system than what we have now. Or, we may be called to help a local immigrant who has been living in the country for 40 years, who has contributed to his community, and who is now suddenly facing deportation for no good reason, as in the case of Polish immigrant Lukasz Niec, a doctor in Michigan. The love that God showed the world by giving up God’s Son, Jesus, to death on the cross is a costly love. The love that we are called to show the world and all of the people in it is a costly one as well.
There is no them and us: there is just us. Each one of us is a part of this beautiful, orderly kosmos that God created and that God loves. Each one of us: Mexican, Salvadoran, Polish, Arab, Jewish, Russian, American—we are all human beings, and, if you go back far enough with the DNA, we are all related to one another. And God loves each one of us so much that God gave his only Son, Jesus, to die for us on the cross, so that we might have eternal and abundant life. And that eternal life does not start when we die and go to heaven: it starts right now. While we cannot fully understand this kind of active love that God has for us, we can strive to show that love for one another. Resting secure in the knowledge that God does indeed love us, let us find ways to show that costly love for one another. Amen.