Material for Worship for Second Sunday in Lent, 5th March 2023

Peter writes: Almost everybody in America can quote John 3:16, so I have read. “God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life”.

But does it actually say what they think it says? Today’s reading from the fourth Gospel (John 3: 1-17) is full of theological elephant traps. They look straightforward on the surface but it’s what lies underneath that counts. Nicodemus’ question “Can one enter into a mother’s womb a second time and be born?” is the typical reaction of someone who takes John’s language literally. It doesn’t make sense. But stop, look again and you will find treasure.

This treasure is to be found in the sayings about love/God giving his son/eternal life; being born again; and heaven/earth/spirit. No wonder Nicodemus is in the dark. Both literally – he probably didn’t want his fellow Jewish leaders to know about his visit – and metaphorically. He was looking to Jesus for enlightenment. But first, says Jesus, you must be born … And the next word in Greek has a range of meanings. “Again” is how Nicodemus understands it and to him it doesn’t make sense. Today “born-again Christian” has negative connotations to many people. The word also means “anew”, that is, seeing things differently, making a new start – which fits in with our Lenten theme of repentance. Some versions (including the one we use at St Mary’s) translate it “from above”. That is, in contrast to “from below”, being born into the physical, material world. Being born “from above” indicates a spiritual awakening and an awareness that Jesus is “the Word made flesh … who gives us power to become children of God, born not of the will of man … but of God”.

Which brings us to 3:16, “God gave (or sent) his only son”. He did this, not because Adam and Eve had messed things up and he needed a Plan B but out of love for every person and for the whole of his creation. Note too that he words “whoever believes in him” do not imply some sort of test, with getting into heaven if you pass and going the other way if you fail. Here “believing” is not a matter of going assent to certain theological statements about Jesus but is more akin to falling in love. In fact the word “believe” is connected linguistically with the word “love” and the original meaning of to believe is “to hold dear”.

Believing in Jesus in this way also opens up an awareness of the light that shines in the darkness, of the love that knows no conditions and limits, and of all the gifts of the Spirit. It is summed up in the phrase “eternal life”. Jesus uses the present tense in verses 14 to 17 and so his message to Nicodemus, and to us, is that we can experience eternal life now because everything that comes from the love of God is not affected by corruption or decay. Heaven (that is, eternal life) is not something) we will only experience when we die.

To sum up. The language of the fourth Gospel is like one of those Russian dolls. As you lift one off, there is another underneath. If we take the time to read it slowly and meditatively we shall avoid the elephant traps of a superficial, literal reading which misses the fact that the Gospel is “good news”. Instead we come to see that, in the closing words of John’s Gospel “it is written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name”.



That we may take the time this Lent to learn the habits of reading Scripture more deeply, meditating on the words and letting them reveal to us the Word made flesh;

That, reading in this way, we may avoid the traps of narrowing our faith and using Scripture to judge and condemn.

That the whole Church may pay heed in this way when wrestling with contentious and divisive issues, and that it may hold fast to the faith that Jesus has the words of life.

That the gifts of the Spirit and the values of the kingdom may shape the words and actions of governments, businesses, churches and ourselves, especially for and alongside all in need.

That we should thank God for the times when we have experienced the joy of the Gospel and the hope of eternal life.