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Both Religious and Spiritual The Second Sunday in Lent

What’s your favorite Bible verse? That’s not a question Episcopalians like being asked.

Unlike most Baptists or evangelical Christians, John 3:16 is not where we tend to go in this, our

branch of the Jesus movement. Why is that? Why not pick John 3:16?


For years that word and those numbers have been seen on countless road signs, bumper

stickers and football game signs. “It is shorthand,” says Anna Carter Florence, “for a certain

kind of religious fervor, as people everywhere, Christians and non-Christians alike, can tell you”

(Feasting on the Word, p. 69). What is “fervor”?Dictionaries define “fervor” as a strong

emotion. When people see or hear other people use “John 3:16” to describe an emotional kind

of religion, some folks run right toward them. Others run away, as fast - and as far - as they can.

For some, “Are you born again?” becomes code for “Are you saved?” For others, it’s code for

“Are you crazy?”


Here it is, one more time: “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 everlasting life.” And here it is in a

different version: This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only

Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a

whole and lasting life (Eugene Peterson, The Message).


When I put down any emotional response I may have and look again at this verse of Holy

Scripture, I hear these phrases: “May have everlasting life” and “Can have a whole and lasting

life.” I hear possibilities. I hear it’s possible to have a whole, even an everlasting life when I

follow Jesus. I do not hear punishment for those who don’t believe. I do hear judgment, even

punishment when those words become weaponized.


Lisa Wolfe puts things in context by reminding us that the next verse, John 3:17, says

this: “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world

might be saved through him.” She writes, “The point of this (entire) passage is the salvation of

the world. Though verse 17 states this clearly, verse 16 has…(become) the most (favorite)

Christian triumphalist…text….(It) misleads us….While this passage was being written, the

Roman Empire was pushing Jesus followers (down,) underground and following up with

persecution” (The Christian Century, March 2023).


Our favorite Bible verse can easily become a “proof text.” That’s something we use to

prove our point about God, often out of context. So…here’s a question I like better: Who’s your

favorite Bible character? I could choose Abram, later known as Abraham. We’re given just

four verses of his story, from Genesis chapter 12, in today’s first lesson. What we don’t get today

is any part of Abraham’s story that includes his wife Sarai (later Sarah), who masquerades as his

sister to save her husband’s life.


From today’s cast of characters, my favorite is Nicodemus. His story begins with

seventeen verses in chapter three. It continues in two later parts of John’s Gospel. I think

Nicodemus has a lot to teach us 21st century Christians. Here’s why.

Nicodemus was a Pharisee, which means he was a Jewish leader. He was not a rabbi, but

he had official religious responsibility for the life of his community. Simply put, Nicodemus was

part of the religious establishment. (Think Senior Warden.) So, here he is, coming to Jesus

after the sun goes down, when it’s less public…and more dangerous. Some call him “Nic at


night.” Because he’s part of the establishment and Jesus is not, Nicodemus needs to use

discretion when meeting with Jesus - someone who is, at least, a bit of a nuisance for him.

Actually, Jesus is a challenge, if not a threat.

And yet, Nicodemus admits to Jesus: “No one can do these signs you do apart from the

presence of God” (3:2). “Signs” is the word John uses in his Gospel account for “miracles.” In

chapter two, we see Jesus turn water into wine and cleanse the temple of money-changers with

“zeal” (another word for fervor). Jesus keeps revealing on other spiritual signs of God at work in

their world.


Nicodemus is captured by those signs, and Jesus sees this. Jesus teaches him about

God’s Spirit and what it means to be “born from above” (3:3). Karoline Lewis says that from one

Greek word - anothen - we get all three translations: Born from above. Born anew. Born

again (Feasting on the Word, p. 71). Which one works best for you?


Diana Butler Bass was raised confessing Jesus as Savior. “As much as that meant to

me…I did not really understand…until my daughter was born,” she says. “I was (first) born into

this world. I had been born again at fifteen. And then, I got born again again when giving birth,

two decades later. Jesus, the birthed one, is also the ever-birthing (one), calling new life from

the womb of God into the world. Not once, but many times.”


As a man, the most helpful of the three “borns” for me is “born anew.” It implies

something other than a heavenly descent or a physical birth or re-birth. It’s a re-birth of a

different kind: a renewal of life, a revival of hope. When the Spirit of God is born and reborn in

us, our Prayer Book says, we’re given a life that empowers us to keep growing up, from a

childlike image of God into a more mature likeness of Jesus Christ (p. 852).


In his questions, his curiosity, Nicodemus shows us how to grow up spiritually. After

this nighttime encounter, Nicodemus comes to Jesus’ defense in a conflict with religious

authorities, asking them to listen, to hear Jesus out (7:50-52). Later, he helps with the anointing

of Jesus’s body for burial, which not everyone would do (19:38-42).


Throughout John’s Gospel, faith is like a verb. Call it “faithing.” Nicodemus was

faithing. He kept on growing and learning how to follow Jesus. And he was showing us and

others how to be both religious and spiritual. After being led by the Spirit to speak with Jesus

about the Spirit and the spiritual life, Nicodemus didn’t give up being religious. He began to live

a religious life that was spiritually born anew, born again.


These days, lots of people say, “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” They don’t tend to

worship in church. You and I may wish they did. But Jesus challenges Nicodemus, a religious

man, to be more than just that. Jesus invites him - Jesus invites us - to be both religious AND

spiritual. So…what might a religious and spiritual rebirth mean for you? For All Saints’?

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