Nicodemus talks with Jesus, and Jesus speaks about the importance of being born from above, or being born anew. Nicodemus asks Jesus, “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” Jesus replies emphasizing the importance of being born of “water and Spirit.” Nicodemus does not understand. He continues to question Jesus. Jesus acknowledges Nicodemus’ unbelief – “I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?” (v. 12). This question leads Jesus to explain to Nicodemus the relationship between heaven and earth and the role of belief. Namely, Jesus turns to his own role as the Son of God sent to earth in human flesh. Here, Jesus emphasizes his role as one who is sent into the world to give life. Like the bronze serpent that Moses placed on the pole (Num 21:9) so anyone bitten could look at it and be restored to life, so too are those who believe in Jesus given eternal life. Jesus repeats twice that those who believe will have eternal life. The second time Jesus says this phrase it is included in the now-famous verse 3:16. Here, Jesus explains that God sent the Son out of love – “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (v.16) – hoping to save those who believe from death, and offering them life eternal – “that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (v. 16). Jesus then summarizes what he has said and offers deeper insight into the person of God – explaining that “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (v. 17).
In this passage, Jesus’ replies to Nicodemus’ questions transition from a tone of questioning Nicodemus’ unbelief to one of explaining the role of belief and teaching Nicodemus about God’s goodness and hope for humankind. Jesus explains to that his role is to bring life to those who face death. He provides the analogy of the bronze serpent, one that Nicodemus would have understood, emphasizing the way that God has saved his people from death in the past. But, as he explains, Jesus offers not only freedom from temporal death but also eternal life. In explaining his own role in salvation history, Jesus also reveals more about the person of God. He offers a picture of God who has a deep love for humanity, who hopes for their welfare, and desires to be in eternal relationship with them. Jesus also clarifies that he was not sent for condemnation but for salvation. We see, in other words, that God incarnate is both sent in love and sent to love and care for humanity. In this way, love and care for humanity is central to the picture of God that emerges from Jesus’ reply to Nicodemus.
This passage and its emphasis on belief invite readers to reflect on their own beliefs. But, it also invites reflection on what it means to believe in a God that has such deep love and concern for humanity. In other words, it invites us to consider both “Who is this God in whom we believe?” and “How are we transformed by belief in a God so filled with love?” John’s Gospel tells us that God sent Jesus out of love and to bring life to the world. Believing in such a God means that we too are sent in love to bring life to the world. This sending forth can take many forms, and whatever the form, it is rooted in love and directed towards restoring others to life. In other words, restoring others to life is the work of God.
Jesus reminds us that “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world.” God is not a God of condemnation, but a God who restores the world to life. But, how often is condemnation what we serve the poor, the vulnerable, the forgotten, or the outcast? With eyes of love, God sees the poor, the vulnerable, the forgotten, the outcast, the queer, the rejected. And God seeks to restore them to life. We are called to participate in the life and the action of God, and so we too are sent in love to restore the world to life.
Today, we can turn our eyes of love to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people, particularly people in African countries. Many face persecution, violence, and discrimination from their governments and fellow citizens. Much of this discrimination and persecution is too often perpetrated in the name of religion. Is this what it means to worship a God who did not come to condemn the world? Is this what it means to be sent in love? Is this what it means to restore others to life? It is not.
In love, we are sent to restore others to life: to be among those who lack dignity, respect, and love; those who thirst for fuller, richer, and deeper lives. How can we responsibly help to restore lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer African people to life? We may not be able to go to Africa or change African laws and experiences single-handedly. But, we are sent in love to restore life. For, if God so loved the world, we must love it too.