Weekly Seeds: Condemnation

Sunday, March 10, 2024
Fourth Sunday in Lent | Year B

Focus Theme:

Focus Prayer:
Gracious God, we know there is no condemnation in you. Let there be none in us. Amen.

Focus Reading:
John 3:14-21
14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.,
16 “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.
17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Those who believe in him are not condemned, but those who do not believe are condemned already because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

All readings for this Sunday:
Numbers 21:4-9 • Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22 • Ephesians 2:1-10 • John 3:14-21

Focus Questions:
How do you understand condemnation?
Have you experienced condemnation and how did you respond?
Where do you observe condemnation at work in your faith community?
What alternative responses can we cultivate to reduce condemnation and nurture love?

By Cheryl A. Lindsay

John 3:16 is widely known and shared within and beyond Christian communities. It’s embossed on t-shirts and emblazoned on billboards. Athletes place the numbers on uniforms and helmets. Entire theologies have been summarized and reduced to the words of this passage. Perhaps only Psalm 23 surpasses its use and familiarity in the public sphere, and that text is not uniquely Christian. It’s interesting, given the widespread reach of the text, to note that the context of the larger passage is a private conversation.

Jesus speaks with Nicodemus as the chapter opens. The gospel demonstrates Jesus teaching and interacting with both his disciples and with crowds. He also encounters people in need of miraculous intervention or in curious pursuit of answers. Nicodemus seems to fall in the latter category. He meets Jesus primarily under the cover of night. For some reason, he hides his desire to learn from and about Jesus from the world. More than likely, he fears the impact on his reputation, power, and prestige in his community. Identifying as a follower of Jesus, even marginally, may cost him, and Nicodemus is not prepared for that.

Nicodemus, like many humans who live in community, lives by and upholds the norms of his society. As a leader, his commitment is particular and compelling:

Nicodemus is identified as one of the Pharisees, the preeminent Jewish sect mentioned almost incidentally in 1:24. Apparently, Nicodemus represents a more open element among this group, which shows that not all Pharisees were hostile toward Jesus (cf. 12:42; Acts 5:34–39 ). Although John focuses exclusively on the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, disciples of both teachers may have been present as well. Nicodemus is mentioned only in this Gospel (cf. 7:50–52; 19:39–42 ). [9] The name was common in first-century Palestine. The fact that a wealthy philanthropic Jew by the same name was living in Jerusalem around A.D. 70 adds historical plausibility to John’s account.
Andreas J. Kostenberger

Even if this conversation with Nicodemus is representative, in other words, has meaning beyond the individual of Nicodemus, it still is particular. Jesus is not speaking to a crowd; he’s having a conversation with a person. While there is universal truth in his teaching; there is also specificity in his message. While speaking to a person who has placed a limit on his interaction with him, Jesus informs Nicodemus that his ministry is not individualistic. Jesus comes for the world and its salvation.

The current, prevalent theological framing of John 3:16 situates the gospel as the saving of souls. The “perishing” in the text does a lot of lifting. Yet, the repeated word in the verse receives minimal attention: “world.” It’s curious that word is not necessarily taken literally by those who take other aspects of the biblical narrative literally. It is the world as a collective unit of creation that needs saving. It is the earth, with human creatures, skies and seas, hills and valleys, plants and animals that is in peril. The human condition has departed from the Holy One’s intentions and hopes.

Certainly, Creator cares about the circumstances of individuals—mind, body, and soul. Jesus has a broad ministry that attracts large crowds, but many of the most distinctive and memorable moments occur in personal encounters. Jesus recognizes people who others ignore or overlook. Jesus extends compassion to those that others condemn. Jesus meets the needs of those that others have written off as unworthy, problematic, or hopeless.

John 3:17 does not hold the notoriety of the preceding verse. This is unfortunate as the two should be held together. 3:17 asserts that condemnation is incompatible and antithetical to the ministry of Jesus Christ. If love is the reason, condemnation cannot be the intended result or means. Yet, verse 18 adds a layer of confusion with what may be interpreted as a contradictory statement that affirms condemnation as a divine response to human belief. Again, it is important to note that Jesus was speaking to a person with a particular context and relationship.

Nicodemus’s confusion is typically interpreted as genuine misunderstanding—evidence that, despite his best efforts, this poor Pharisee remains in the darkness (John 1:5, 3:19). Hearers, however, influenced by the schemas and scripts associated with dissembling, may infer that something more obstinate is afoot: Nicodemus rejects Jesus’s message, presumably because he does not understand who Jesus is. As a result, Nicodemus chooses posturing over genuinely coming into the Light. The distinction is slight but important: Nicodemus seems to reject the message more than misunderstanding—at least in this initial encounter. So while Nicodemus does “misunderstand:’ this misunderstanding is aimed at the identity of the Johannine Jesus rather than at his message (3:19-21)….It is no accident that 3:12-21 focuses not on misunderstanding but on the refusal to believe and receive the message. Nicodemus embodies this resistance. At issue therefore, in Johannine parlance, is not cognitive misunderstanding versus cognitive understanding, but rather love of the Light versus love of the darkness, acceptance versus rejection.
Michael R Whitenton

Nicodemus wants to hear from Jesus, wants attention from Jesus, and still refuses to abide with Jesus. The fact that he identifies as a Pharisee is particularly important. Not all Pharisees were hypocrites; some sincerely sought to live a highly pious life as a faithful discipline. There was nothing inherently wrong with being a Pharisee and the gospel does not suggest that. John, after all, was writing to an audience of believers to encourage them to remain true to the faith. He was not seeking to win converts but to keep those in the faith community from being unduly influenced by false teaching that reduced the identity of Jesus by attempting to strip him of his divinity.

Nicodemus then, is representative not only of the initial audience of Jesus’ teaching but also of the church that developed in the name of Jesus, then and now. Nicodemus serves as a cautionary tale about placing boundaries around our faith–and having a distinct private and public faith life. Nicodemus refuses to fully commit to the faith in all aspects of his life, and therefore, he will not participate in the fullness of life that communion with Holy Love promises. As someone who has ostensibly dedicated his life to exemplifying faith and leadership in the faith community, Nicodemus should know better.

After Nicodemus sets forth his final question, “How can these things be?” (V. 9), Jesus points out the irony of his credentials, “Are you a teacher of Israel and you do not understand these things?” (V. 10)….Placed on trial, Nicodemus fails to receive the testimony regarding Christ, and thus his allegiance is shown and his condemnation assured (5:18)—he walks away in the manner he came, in darkness (V. 1).
Keith Vande Vrede

The gospel is public because the ministry is to the world.

Nicodemus wanted a private faith that would allow him to keep his position and that would have left the world intact. Too often, Christian communities travel that same path…wanting a faith that will sustain us in times of trouble and also sustain the status quo that too often causes trouble for siblings in the world. When we benefit from the current constructs of the world, we chafe at the costs associated with changing it. When the systems of empire support our comfort, we choose charity over restitution, incrementalism over abolition, and private faith over public witness.

Jesus refuses to have their ministry reduced to a shadow of the world-changing, system-shattering, kindom-building reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. When we reduce the transformative, redemptive work of Christ and Christ’s church, we condemn the world in the here and now. The earth is groaning now. Entire species of plants and animals are perishing now. Human siblings are crying out from regions engulfed in war, communities ravished by gun violence, and liberty becomes increasingly elusive in all corners of the world. The good news of love whispers while the world suffers. Followers of Jesus barricade themselves in sanctuaries while people are outside their doors waiting and wanting to be seen, heard, and known. This cannot be. Jesus loves the world too much to let this be.

Say no to condemnation.

Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent
The 33rd General Synod adopted a Resolution to Recognize the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024). As part of its implementation, Sermon and Weekly Seeds offers Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent related to the season or overall theme for additional consideration in sermon preparation and for individual and congregational study.
“New statistical and racial identities forged out of raw census data showed that African Americans, as 12 percent of the population, made up 30 percent of the nation’s prison population. Although specially designed race-conscious laws, discriminatory punishments, and new forms of everyday racial surveillance had been institutionalized by the 1890s as a way to suppress black freedom, white social scientists presented the new crime data as objective, color-blind, and incontrovertible.”
― Khalil Gibran Muhammad, The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America

For Further Reflection
“Don’t condemn me, but think of me as a person who sometimes reaches the bursting point!” ― Anne Frank
“Before you condemn someone else for a wrongful act, check your behavior and see if you too, have committed an act similar or even worse than the act that person has done. Then you won’t be in a position to judge.” ― Ellen J. Barrier
“Don’t criticize what you can’t understand.” ― Bob Dylan

A preaching commentary on this text (with works cited) is at //ucc.org/SermonSeeds.

The Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay, Minister for Worship and Theology (lindsayc@ucc.org), also serves a local church pastor, public theologian, and worship scholar-practitioner with a particular interest in the proclamation of the word in gathered communities. You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below this post on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

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Weekly Seeds is a service of Local Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.