While scrolling through job vacancies recently, I recognized the name of a contact person. Ten years ago, I had applied for the same job that was vacant again, and she had conducted the interview. Ultimately, this contact person had called me to say that the job was going to another candidate with more experience.
Ten years on, I wonder how I would measure up now for the same position. At the age of forty, I wonder how much I have changed for the better.
Crossing the threshold into my forties has felt like a rebirth. This has a lot to do with the new things I have experienced in the last year, like teaching at a Dutch elementary school, or learning how to drive a stick shift.
But knowing that I am over the halfway mark in my life has also helped me become less apologetic. I am less concerned about what other people think. I feel re-birthed into a better version of myself.
Rebirth is the subject of a famous conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, which stands out in the gospels because their meeting takes place at night. Nicodemus is a member of the Jewish Ruling Council. There are speculations about why this conversation takes place at night; perhaps, because Nicodemus wants to keep this meeting secret. Later, when the Sanhedrin decide over Christ´s crucifixion, Nicodemus stands up for Jesus.
But in their first nocturnal conversation, Nicodemus does not see eye to eye with him. “What?” he says with disbelief. “I have to be born again to be able to see God’s Kingdom? That’s not possible.”
In his answer, Jesus responds with what is probably the most famous verse in the Bible. Even those who are not Christian have seen it. In America, where I am from, this verse is displayed on signs off the highway, on picket signs at public gatherings, or as filler text on abandoned business marquis. You will even find it hidden on the bottom of a paper cup holding your soft drink from a fast food restaurant.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”
This Bible verse is a fundamental part of the Christian education, because it provides a sum of the Christian relationship: it explains what God has already given, what is expected in response, and what glory is promised in return. It is a verse that contains a promise. But can I be honest with you? During my early Christian education, this verse made me feel anxious.
When I learned this Bible verse as a child, it spoke to me of death. Two deaths, in fact. It spoke of the death of Jesus, which brought pain to his father. It spoke of my death, too, as the consequence of not believing in him.
The verse also left me feeling guilty. I was, after all, a part of the world that God loved so much. God loved me so much that he sacrificed his only Son for me. I felt burdened with God’s sacrifice. I saw this verse everywhere, outside of church and in it. I felt confronted with death, debt, and guilt.
The cross, with or without the crucified Christ nailed to it, had the same affect. It confronted me with his suffering. Why did he have to suffer, when he was blameless? Because of me. I learned that in church, too. Jesus did not have sin. I did, and lots of it. Jesus died to wipe my slate of sin clean. How horrible. I was responsible for his death, and the cross was a constant reminder of it.
Is this the message that was supposed to encourage me to follow the way of Jesus, as a child?
Was this message of death, fear, and guilt supposed to persuade me to “drop my net,” leave a worldly life and my loved ones behind, to follow?
Well, I think that for many Christians, this is true. I think that we choose to follow Christ, because he died for us.
His death, in its atonement for my sins, offers me grace. I, the sinner, approach the cross in all humility, deference, and hope for salvation through Jesus.
But should this alone motivate me to follow Christ? Should I do it, because I feel so rotten? Should I follow Jesus, because I feel obligated to set the sacrifice right – because he died for my sins, and I owe it to him?
Growing up Christian, the cross was a symbol of sin and payment. I was taught a theology that focused on my sin, his sacrifice, and my debt.
Yet this emphasis on Christ’s death overshadowed the backstory of the crucifixion. It overshadowed the cross as a symbol of LIFE – namely, the life that Jesus led before he died on it.
The late theologian Marcus Borg reminds us of the socio-historical significance of the crucifixion. It was a form of punishment reserved for a certain type of criminal: someone who defied the Roman imperial authority. Criminals guilty of lesser crimes had less visible executions or labor sentences. But those who had defied the imperial authority, like Christ, who had publicly criticized it, were publicly executed – on high crosses, often placed at a crossroads, for all to see. Woe to those who would dare to do what these traitors had done.
When we view the cross as a symbol of Christ’s anti-authoritarian life, we shift the spotlight to his way of living. John 3 16 tells us: whosoever believes in him, shall have eternal life. Believe in him? What does that mean? What if it means, to believe in the Messiah´s way of living?
- To believe that he was right when he said, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar, and to God what is God’s.”
- To believe that he was right when he emphasized the transience of the material, saying, “Do you see all these great buildings? Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”
- To believe that he turned the idea of the Messiah on its head when he said, “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve.”
Christ’s crucifixion on the cross is essential to Christian theology, because he was executed for challenging the imperial authority and its unjust ways. Christ came to turn the world on its head. He proclaimed good news to the poor. He called for the freedom of prisoners and the recovery of sight for the blind. He came to set the oppressed free.
And he died for that.
At the cross, we are promised that when we believe, we inherit eternal life. This eternal life, translated in the Greek to English, means “the life of the age to come.” Within the theology of John‘s gospel, this refers to a future hoped for, as much as it refers to the present: “thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth now, so as it is in heaven.”
When we adopt the life that Christ led, we experience the rebirth that he spoke of with Nicodemus. We undergo a personal transformation. We experience what Paul speaks of in Romans about dying to the world’s ways and renewing our mind in Christ. We rebirth a new way of life: one life actively committed to social justice, to challenging false authorities and to allying with the marginalized, poor, and oppressed.
A friend of mine in Canada once heard the First Nations leader in the Anglican Diocese of New Westminster speak. This leader said that before the white man arrived, his people had no concept of original sin, or of being cut off from the Creator. His people came to understand this notion of sin and separation as “the white man’s legacy.”
As a child, I inherited this notion of sin and separation. I was led to the foot of the cross, estranged from God before I knew him. I was taught a theology of death, debt, and atonement.
But when we stand before the cross and honor the life that led Christ to the crucifixion, then we choose actively and freely for the resurrection.
We do not agree to a life of faith from a place of guilt, shame, and debt.
We follow Christ, because we believe in his way.
For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn it, but to save it.
This text was preached as a sermon at the Church of St. John & St. Philip on March 12, 2017.