7 Marks of a Vital Congregation, A 9-week sermon series on the PCUSA “7 Marks of a Vital Congregation”, preached Sunday July 2, 2023 at the 9:30am worship service
This Summer, we are studying 7 Marks of a Vital Congregation, seven ways a congregation can honor and embody the God we know in Jesus.
Last week, Rev. Cindy Kohlmann taught us about the first mark, Lifelong Spiritual Growth. A vital congregation never stops learning and growing. A vital congregation is like trees. We keep rooting ourselves deeper into God and growing good fruit from God’s living waters. A vital congregation is like light. We tend and care for the fire so it doesn’t go out and isn’t blocked, and we become able to turn on what Jesus would say and do, like a switch. A vital congregation is like salt. We spice everything around us, until all the world is more loving and just. A vital congregation practices lifelong spiritual growth.
The second mark of a vital congregation is Intentional, Authentic Loving. How do we engage others, beyond the church? With intention, and with authentic love.
Have you ever heard a bible story about Nicodemus? We are going to hear that story today. Have you ever seen a poster like this? We are also going to read this verse today. The story of Nicodemus is in John 3.
Christians often pluck John 3:16 out by itself and show it or say it to non-Christians in hopes they will “believe in” Jesus, and come into the congregation with the rest of us. That is very intentional, and some who do it authentically believe they must convince the whole world to believe. But it doesn’t strike me as loving. It feels like more of a threat than love.
Today, we will read how Nicodemus and Jesus and the author of John tell the story around that verse, and we are going to do some Greek, because I find the church isn’t careful enough with John 3:16, or many of the words and phrases around it, for how Christians are meant to engage others around us, beyond the congregation, intentionally, authentically, and with love.
Let’s pray and listen for the word of the Lord from…
Prayer for Illumination
Scripture John 3:1-17
3:1 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with that person.”
3 Jesus answered him, “Amen, Amen, I tell you, one could not perceive the kingdom of God if not born again.”
4 Nicodemus said to him, “Wait what? How is one able to be born again after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into their mother’s womb and be born anew?”
5 Jesus answered, “Amen, amen, I am telling you, one is not able to enter into the kingdom of God if not being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Don’t be astonished that I said to you, ‘You all must be born anew.’ 8 The spirit blows where it chooses, and you all are hearing the sound of it, but you all do not know where it comes from or where it's going. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
9 Nicodemus said to him, “Wait, how are these things possible?”
10 Jesus answered him, “You are the teacher of Israel, and you do not understand these things. 11 Amen, Amen, I am telling you all, we are speaking of what we know and testifying to what we have seen, yet you all are not receiving our testimony. 12 If I told you all about earthly things and you all do not believe, how will you all believe if I tell you about heavenly things?... 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that anyone believing in him may have eternal life.”
16 For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17 Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world but so that the world would be saved through him.
Sermon Intentional Authentic Loving of Others
Would you say Nicodemus is or is not a “believer” in Jesus? Let’s take a poll. Those of you who think Nicodemus “believes in” Jesus, show of hands. And those of you who feel Nicodemus doesn’t “believe in” Jesus, hands please. Anyone wish to abstain because you just aren’t sure?
Yeah, that third category, that’s where I end up falling. At first, Nicodemus senses God is with Jesus. The Greek word there for “with” means Nicodemus senses God is with Jesus, or behind Jesus, or Jesus has somehow been changed by God. And Jesus seems impressed. “Amen, Amen, Nicodemus! A person couldn’t perceive what you just did unless they had been born again.”
Jesus spoke Aramaic. We don’t know what he said. We only have the Greek version. Born again in the Greek could mean all kinds of things. Maybe born again, maybe born from above as in born not from a woman but from heaven, maybe born anew like a second different birth, or maybe even something like born from the beginning, an old original first birth at the beginning of all things long before the fleshy mom human birth. There’s lots of wiggle room in what John says Jesus said, but Nicodemus isn’t sure what to believe. He goes for one assumption. “How can someone old crawl inside mama and come out again?”
Some Bibles keep translating Jesus as saying “Verily” or “Very truly” but the Greek is Amen Amen, and I hear Jesus chuckling out an encouraging, “Yes, exactly” as in “That’s what I’m saying. A person is not able to perceive the world unless born of the world, and a person is not able to perceive Spirit unless born of Spirit. So don’t be surprised when I say… yall must be born anew, again, of water and spirit.”
Note, it’s a plural Yall, not a singular YOU. Jesus is talking to Nicodemus but not about just him, Nicodemus, an individual, being born again, anew. Jesus is talking about a big plural birth, a communal birth. When Nicodemus sensed God in or with Jesus, the encouragement from Jesus was singular, personal. A singular person would not be able to perceive that, Nicodemus, if not born anew. But here, as Jesus begins unpacking it, he isn’t trying to invite Nicodemus individually to be born again. He’s already imagined Nicodemus wouldn’t have perceived anything Godly about Jesus if he wasn’t already born anew, from above. Here, Jesus is trying to stretch Nicodemus’ imagination to start looking at his whole community, the whole world for traits that are born of water, flesh, earth AND born from above, of Spirit, heaven. So what does Jesus think about Nicodemus. Something about him already believes, always has believed, but something else about him doesn’t believe, doesn’t know what to believe.
Some Christians hear born of the flesh, of water, as a bad thing, and born of spirit as a good thing. Christians sometimes hear or preach this scripture as if the first birth we didn’t choose, of water and flesh, is the sin birth, and the second birth we choose, of spirit, baptism, belief is the saving birth. But be careful. That’s NOT what Jesus is saying. Jesus is saying BOTH are needed! Those born of water only perceive water. Those born of spirit only perceive spirit. Jesus sees in Nicodemus BOTH! And Jesus is trying to get Nicodemus, THE leader of Israel, to see and imagine and lead ALL the people he represents toward seeing both in and for themselves!
Jesus is saying something like this… “What is born of the flesh is only flesh, just flesh, and what is born of Spirit is (only spirit, just) spirit. 7 So Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You all must be born anew.’[d] 8 The spirit is blowing where it chooses, and you all are hearing the sound of it, but you all do not know where it is coming from or where its going. It is (the same) with everyone who is (only) born of the Spirit.”
Are you confused? That’s okay, so was Nicodemus. “Wait, what? How can these things be?” Again, I sense a Jesus chuckle. Any teachers in the house? Can you remember a time a student seemed disinterested. Then they began to show a little interest, and you encouraged them, and they got more interested, and you taught, and they were confused, but kept trying, asking questions, getting a bit frustrated. They couldn’t see it, but you could see for them what they couldn’t see for themselves yet. For them it felt weird and disorienting, but for you, the teacher, you could sense the growth happening, and you felt the excitement! They were frustrated, and you were smiling. That’s where Rabbi Jesus is, I think, excited for Nicodemus.
Jesus ribs him a little… “You are THE leader of the Jews and you don’t get being born of water and spirit. Amen, amen…” The water and spirit parallel is about to shift to earthly and heavenly, material and ethereal. Jesus says, “We’ve been sharing with yall (plural) what we know and have experienced about God’s kingdom from here on earth, but yall aren’t catching what we are throwing. So why should I toss you all something about what I know and have experienced from a heavenly perspective?”
That’s a fair point. Accept the basics or there’s no point in going to the advanced levels. But look what Jesus does. He doesn’t stop and wait for Nicodemus to accept, believe, understand. Jesus keeps going and gives the heavenly perspective to Nicodemus anyway, and not just for Nicodemus, but for ALL those with and behind Nicodemus. Jesus says something like, “No one, no one really knows both sides, the water side and the spirit side, the earth side and the heaven side, both perspectives, except one, the Son of Man, born from above and born here, born in the beginning and then born again in a manger, born of God’s own Spirit and born of the waters of Mary’s womb. And that one will be lifted up like the serpent on a stick in the wilderness so that all those who look toward him might live on.” No one. Only one. No one can understand. Only one can understand.
Do you know the story of Moses and the serpent on the stick? Its Numbers 21:7-9 “7 The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you Moses; please ask the Lord to take away the poisonous serpents from us.” So Moses prayed on behalf of the people. 8 And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole, and everyone bitten may look at it and live.” 9 So Moses made a serpent of metal and put it upon a wooden pole, and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent on a pole and live.
“Do you remember that story Nicodemus. The son of man will be lifted up on a wooden pole too, and all who look toward him will not die from the poisons of this world but will live.”
Now, we are to verse 16. Some Bibles assume Jesus is still speaking. If you have a Red Letter bible, 16 may be in red. But lots of scholars believe that’s where Jesus stopped, and the narrator, the author of John picks up, to help us readers understand. How does verse 16 go?
God so loved what? We say the world, but the Greek is ton kosmon. The Cosmos. Not just the people, and not just this world, but all the universe, the whole creation.
16 For God so loved the cosmos that God gave God’s only Son, so that what? We often hear it translated as “whosoever believeth in him…” But the Greek is tricky. It is singular, the one, the one who believes, or the one who is believing… then the preposition changes. When Jesus said it back in verse 15, he said IN him, with the Greek preposition EN. But here, as John unpacks it for us, the preposition changes to EIS, which kind of means in, but means something more like into, or to, toward, near to, in the direction of.
16 For God so loved the cosmos that God gave God’s only Son so that the one who is believing into him, toward him, what? We often hear it “shall not perish” but the Greek verb means more than die or perish. It means destroy. And its oddly in the Middle voice. Active voice would be I destroy. Passive voice would be I am being destroyed. Middle voice is I am destroying myself, I am being destroyed by myself.
16 For God so loved the cosmos that God gave God’s only Son so that the one who is believing toward him, believing into him may not destroy themselves but may what? We often hear it “inherit eternal life.” The Greek verb there is not inherit, but to have, to hold if a possession. If a concept, it means to regard, to consider, to perceive, or it can be used in a relationship, to submit to, join to, bond with… like when in a marriage ceremony we say to have and to hold.
And what is had or held, eternal life? The word can mean eternal, as in without end. But it really means ageless as in without beginning OR end. Water life, flesh life, earth life of course has a beginning and an end. The other life when we perceive it, have and hold it, we realize we were born into it long ago and that life had no beginning and has no end. That’s verse 16. But what about verse 17, right after it, attached to it, seldom put on posters?
17 Indeed, God did not send the Son into the kosmos to judge the cosmos but so that the cosmos, all of creation, might be saved through him.
When a Christian or congregation throws verse 16 at others all by itself, it comes across like, “be like us to go to heaven. Believe like us or go to hell.” That’s not how Jesus and Nicodemus talked about things. That’s not how the author of John interpreted what Jesus was saying.
A vital congregation will intentionally go into the world and meet those who do not believe, or aren’t sure what they believe. Like Jesus, we will see in them what they may not believe or see in themselves. They too are a part of God’s creation, and were imagined and loved by God long before they were born. And we will LOVE them right there, no matter they belief, just like Jesus loved Nicodemus and everyone behind Nicodemus. Anyone who questions and wonders and doubts God, we will engage them like Jesus engaged Nicodemus, with the same encouragement and belief on their behalf. When Nicodemus couldn’t see, wasn’t sure what to believe, and struggled to understand his birth and life in water and spirit, Jesus perceived the water AND spirit in him anyway. That’s what it looks like to be intentional, and authentic, and loving when Christians engage others.
To God be all the glory and honor now and forever more. Amen.
Now blessing, laughter, and loving be yours, and may the love of a great God, who names you and holds you as the earth turns and the flowers grow, be with you, this day, this night, this moment and forever more.