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Note: this blog is an excerpt of a sermon that I recently preached at my alma mater, Roberts Wesleyan College, Rochester, NY as part of a conference on Transforming Conflict from the Inside Out. The text was John 3:1-17.
When I was eleven and twelve years old, my favorite time of the year was summer, (even though I really did like school). And my favorite time in the summer was after dark when my friends and I would play kick-the-can, hide-and-go-seek, or ghost-in-the graveyard. We had the run of the neighborhood: the school playground, two church yards, one of which had a old cemetery in it, trees to climb, fences to flip, and backyards to creep through. Our younger siblings were in bed, and our parents were watching television after a long day’s work or cleaning the house after a long day’s work. The world was ours.
During one of those summers, on one of those nights of escaping friends trying to catch me, I stopped to notice the Baptist church. I had walked past this church many times, never really paying attention to it. But this particular night, I was trying to hide in the bushes, but the light on the front of the church was too bright; it potentially revealed my presence. But I crouched down anyway and read the church sign: Vacation Bible School next week. Through a series of random events, I ended up going to that VBS. Having grown up Roman Catholic, it was an entirely new experience for me—acting out Bible stories, memorizing Bible verses, competing in Sword Drills (do they still do those?).
I’m sure that one of those Sword Drill verses was John 3:16, because it was the first Bible verse that I ever memorized. “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.” At the end of the VBS week, the youth leaders reiterated that scripture verse and invited us to profess publicly our belief in Jesus, to say a prayer in which we confessed our sins and asked Jesus to come into our hearts. It was a no-brainer for me; no question about it; I had always believed in God and in his son Jesus.
Well-meaning pastors and church leaders taught me that John 3:16 is the answer to the world’s problems. It’s such a simple, clear-cut, straightforward, and tidy formula for salvation—a formula that we can plaster on billboards and posters at sporting events. We can tattoo it on our arms, advertising it to the world. “Hey everybody—John 3:16. Believe in Jesus.” There’s probably no verse more known in American culture than this one, so why even explain?!
Such an approach would not have helped Nicodemus much, however. Nicodemus came to Jesus in the dark of the night. He came to Jesus in the midst of the darkness and conflict in his own soul. Nicodemus was torn between his religious convictions, once tested and tried in the fires of rigorous study (everything he had been taught about following God), on the one hand, and the teachings and healings of Jesus, on the other hand. He was torn between his desire to accompany his colleagues and his desire to learn from this Nazarene.
Jesus did not, however, ease the conflict for Nicodemus. He didn’t give Nicodemus a simple answer or quick formula for salvation. Instead, Jesus heightened Nicodemus’ perplexity, instigated an internal struggle for him, spoke a mystery, and simply astonished him. Jesus inverted the natural meaning of words, defining them from above rather than below, from the life of the spirit rather than the flesh. In so doing, Jesus actually invited Nicodemus into the heart of his own conflict, for this is the place where Nicodemus would potentially encounter the transforming work of the Spirit.
The word “transformation” has been so overused that its spiritual meaning is frequently lost on many of us. To be transformed is to be birthed into new life—new understandings of God, self, and others and new patterns of relating that reflect the peace, joy, love, and beauty of God’s kingdom. We receive transformation; for first and foremost, it is God’s work on us, in us, for us, and even in spite of us. Transformation can be painful, full of crisis, unanswered questions, and unexpected occurrences that are beyond our control. It almost always entails conflict of some sort.
Conflict comes to us in many forms. We may have a nagging question that we can’t get rid of—the kind that plunges us into internal strife and threatens us with meaninglessness. Maybe we’ve made choices that we regret, and we can’t really trust that God forgives us, loves us, accepts us; maybe we can’t forgive, love, or accept ourselves. Maybe we have lost a parent. Alongside unbearable grief comes a crisis of faith—how could God have let this happen? How could God abandon me in this way? Or maybe a friendship (or even our whole church) is torn asunder by staunchly held, differing opinions about what it means to follow Christ faithfully in the world today. No matter what we do, it all comes apart at the seams.
Whether conflict is intrapersonal, interpersonal, or communal; whether it emerges from our own pain or that inflicted on us; or, whether it comes from failure or radical change in our relationships, it bears the potential for new life. The seeds of transformation lie buried in conflict. Yet so often we try to deny, fix, and alleviate conflict, because it feels disorienting, anxiety producing, and painful. We latch onto easy answers that we don’t truly believe. We avoid our grief (and each other) through excessive work or exercise or substance abuse. We break off friendships and church connections in disgust and despair.
God invites us into our most poignant and perplexing conflicts. In the dark places of our lives, Jesus waits to encounter us, not to give us easy answers or quick fixes but rather to shine the light of mercy and truth on us. Whether our hearts are broken, our relationships are broken, or both, the Spirit encourages us to be real with ourselves, God, and others. We’re not asked to give superficial Christian answers about our losses. We’re not asked to put on the happy mask or the happy dance or sing a happy praise tune. We can come to Jesus in our darkness. And we don’t have to go away with everything resolved. Nicodemus didn’t pray the sinner’s prayer at the end of his encounter with Jesus. In fact, Nicodemus’ last words to Jesus are “How can these things be?” (3:9). “In his conversation with Jesus he does not make much progress” (Karoline Lewis, workingpreacher.org). But Nicodemus did keep coming back to Jesus. In John 7, he gave a defense (lukewarm but nevertheless a real defense) of Jesus before other religious leaders. And then he came and helped to give Jesus a proper burial.
Jesus doesn’t offer clear, simple answers to Nicodemus (or to us), because faith cannot be reduced to ideas or intellectual agreement about something. Faith is a disposition of the heart that flows from the Spirit’s work of birthing. When we are born of the Spirit (i.e., transformed), we know the world and ourselves as beloved of God. Awakened to trust in Christ’s reconciling work, which unites us together in love, we can indwell our most pressing conflicts rather than denying, avoiding, or superficially fixing them. We can sit in our own darkness (and with others in theirs) and prayerfully wait for the coming fullness of God’s reign of wisdom, healing, reconciliation, and peace.
I’m glad that I accepted those words from John 3:16 as a simple formula for faith when I was eleven or twelve years old, because I didn’t yet have the capacity to name the real darkness around me. Nor did I have the capacity to imagine what conflicts might arise throughout my life. Thankfully, Jesus invites all of us into the midst of our reality—our conflicts whatever they may be—so that there we might find ourselves miraculously believing in and with our unbelief; trusting in the promises of God in the midst of unbearable sorrow; and being upheld by the knowledge that in Jesus Christ all things hold together (even when it looks like they’ve come apart).