I may have mentioned my friend Devin before—a man I team-taught adult Sunday School with for many years. Devin was always full of good, pithy sayings that have stuck with me over the years. One of Devin’s sayings was that “Faith is like a muscle. If you don’t exercise it against resistance, it gets weak and flabby.” Wrestling with difficult passages of Scripture helps us strengthen our faith and increases our understanding of what it means to be faithful disciples of Jesus.
Our passage for today can give our faith-muscles a pretty good work-out. It includes one of the best-known and most beloved verses in Scripture. I’ll bet you know it by heart and can say it with me: “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.”
We say and read that verse so often that it’s easy to forget the setting for it. Jesus is a busy man in the first two chapters of John’s gospel. He goes straight from the Spirit’s descent to gathering his first disciples. He then performs his first sign: turning the water into wine at the wedding in Cana. A few days later, he travels to Jerusalem from Capernaum near the time of the Passover and drives the moneychangers and the cattle merchants out of the temple with the whip he had fashioned himself.
Confusion was the response of many witnesses to these events, but some saw them for what they were—a sign of who Jesus was. The disciples witnessed the wine event, and they believed. Many witnesses of Jesus’ activities in Jerusalem believed. But, there were skeptics as well. The temple authorities demanded to know who had given Jesus permission to create chaos in the temple, and then totally missed the point when Jesus used the temple as a metaphor for his own death and resurrection.
We don’t know if Nicodemus was among those religious leaders. Nicodemus was a Pharisee and, so far, there hadn’t been any real animosity coming from that direction. But, it appears that Nicodemus had heard or seen enough of Jesus to spark his curiosity, and he goes on a fact-finding mission. He comes to Jesus at night when Jesus appears to be by himself. He starts out civilly and reasonably enough: he acknowledges that he and the other Pharisees recognize that Jesus as a teacher sent from God. No one could do the signs Jesus had done if he weren’t.
Jesus responds in a way that must have perplexed Nicodemus right from the start. Nicodemus doesn’t understand Jesus’ talk about being born from above by water and the Spirit any better than the others had understood Jesus’ talk about the temple. He thinks Jesus is talking about a clearly impossible physical rebirth. But, Jesus clearly thinks that this Pharisee—a teacher of Israel—ought to have the knowledge and ability to interpret what Jesus is getting at. And, what Jesus is getting at is no less than who Jesus is and what he’s come to the world to do. Jesus is the Son of God, come from above to offer salvation from above—from God above in heaven and from Christ when he is lifted above and exalted on the cross.
Nicodemus must have been quietly listening by this point, because we hear no more from him as Jesus continues with those familiar and beautiful words: “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. 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.” Those are words you can feel happy about waving on a sign at a football game—at least on the surface.
But if we read a little closer, we find an element of uncertainty. “Everyone who believes may not perish, may have eternal life, might be saved through him.” This is not a done deal. Jesus speaks of what is possible, but what is possible may or may not come to pass. The promise and possibility of eternal life is there, but so is the possibility that some will not experience it. Though God did not send Jesus into the world to condemn it, condemnation is a very real possibility.
This strikes pretty close to home for me, because there are people I love who are not believers. And I know that some of you are in the same boat. We also have neighbors and co-workers we care about who don’t believe in Jesus. Maybe they just aren’t interested, or they’re of a different faith. Sadly, it may be because they’ve been deeply hurt by the Church or have witnessed the hypocrisy of those who claim to be Christians. Maybe they’ve never really heard about Jesus.
They’re good people: they do all the right things, take care of their families and neighbors, are honest and generous. But they’re not believers and, Jesus says, “Those who do not believe are condemned already.” This is a hard thing to hear.
Before we wrestle with what this means for non-believers, it might be good for us to ask ourselves if we are truly believers. There are lots of people who call themselves Christians. They love their neighbors. They serve willingly and share their resources generously. They take care of their families and friends. They work hard; they’re law-abiding and honest. They attend worship and participate in church.
But all these good activities don’t stem from a true surrender of themselves to Christ—a full acceptance of Christ as the Lord of their lives. John Wesley had a term for people like this; he called them “Almost Christians”—people who look like Christians on the outside but haven’t taken the critical step of truly believing in Christ on the inside. That’s the litmus test that determines whether or not we’re Christians and assures our salvation. It’s a pretty sobering thought, that Jesus’ words of condemnation might apply to us.
Jesus speaks these words to Nicodemus because Nicodemus has a choice to make. He can believe or not. He can allow himself to be born from above or not. He can come out of the darkness into the light or not. He can choose eternal life, or he can choose condemnation. Nicodemus, like every person who meets Jesus, has a choice to make.
Jesus uses an appropriate image to explain the situation to Nicodemus. Pharisees were well-versed in Jewish law. Nicodemus is a legal expert, so Jesus uses a word that is associated with the law. Condemnation is a possible outcome in a legal proceeding—whether that trial takes place in an earthly court of law or a divine tribunal. Nicodemus would have understood this.
But then Jesus takes things in a different direction, and this is what’s so important for us to understand. Jesus is not a judge, sent to pass sentence on the world, and the condemnation Jesus speaks of is not a verdict that will be handed down at the end of a trial. It isn’t punishment for not believing. It isn’t a threat of eternal hellfire and brimstone. Instead, it’s the condition we take on ourselves when we choose not to believe. It’s our present condition when we choose to stay in the darkness rather than coming to the light.
That courtroom metaphor may have connected with Nicodemus, but there’s a different image that I find more useful, and more hopeful. It’s the image of a condemned building. Buildings are condemned when they become too dangerous to occupy. They don’t start out that way, and they may look just fine on the outside. But they become unsafe over time through choices made by the owners. A leak in the roof isn’t repaired and the dripping water causes wood to rot and the ceilings to collapse. Electrical problems are ignored and pose a fire risk. Trash accumulates, and vermin move in. Mold develops and isn’t cleaned up, asbestos is discovered and isn’t removed, lead paint is allowed to remain and threaten the health and development of little children. The building may look fine on the outside, but inside it’s an unhealthy, unsafe place to be long before an inspector labels it “condemned.”
My husband and I had a new furnace and water heater installed a couple years ago, and the county required that we schedule an inspection. The inspector and I were chatting, and he began telling me about buildings he’d seen that had to be condemned. I learned something very interesting from that inspector. He told me that the decision to condemn a building isn’t usually made by the zoning department or any of the departments that deal with building codes. Instead, the decision usually comes from the Health Department. Buildings are condemned when they aren’t habitable, like when they lack drinkable water or are so filthy that someone can’t live in them without jeopardizing their health.
This is true of the human spirit, too. Our lives may look perfectly lovely on the outside. But, our confidence in God can start to crumble when tragedy or hard times strike. Hurt or resentment can smolder. Small concessions to the world’s expectations build up. The incivility and lack of care and respect for others by those who purport to be our leaders worm their way into our hearts and our heads until our souls are overrun. The grime of our sinfulness makes it impossible to be the persons we were created to be. We lack the Living Water of Christ that we need to live whole and healthy lives. Our souls become unhealthy places.
Until that moment when we believe, we live in a state of condemnation—apart from God and bereft of the power and hope that the believer enjoys. Without the assurance and freedom that come from faith in Christ, we can’t truly live the abundant life Christ offers. Condemnation doesn’t come after we die. Without faith in Christ, we’re condemned already. That’s the bad news.
But there is good news. I learned a something else from my new inspector friend. After explaining what could lead to a building being condemned, he paused for a moment. Then he made an observation. He said, “There are lots of things that can lead to a building being condemned. But you know, there’s practically no building that can’t be salvaged. Foundations can be dug up and rebuilt. Mold and asbestos and lead paint can be removed. Wiring and plumbing can be repaired. It’s just a process—a process of returning the building to what it was intended to be.”
That’s exactly what God offers us through our faith in Christ. Like buildings that can be renovated, we can be restored, no matter how much of a shambles our lives have become. We are created in God’s image, and that divine image is always present in us. It may be covered up by the accumulated filth of our own sinfulness. It may be buried so deeply that we can’t see it in ourselves. It may look distorted, as though we’re seeing it in a broken mirror.
But, no matter how uninhabitable our lives may seem—no matter how long we’ve been living in a state of condemnation—Jesus offers a way to begin the process of restoration. We are created in the image of God, and our souls always desire to be united with God. God’s image is indelibly printed in us, and Christ gives each of us the opportunity for that image to be restored. The process begins when we place our lives in the hands of Jesus and believe in him and the life he offers. No person is beyond redemption.
Of course, if you’ve ever undertaken a building renovation project yourself, you know that things don’t always go smoothly. There are days when the work goes like clockwork, and there are days when we are sure the job will never be completed. There are times when we’re sure we’ve screwed things up so badly that they’re beyond salvaging. The cost can be high, requiring us to give up some things in order to have this new, better thing.
Our spiritual journey from condemnation to restoration can also have its bumps along the way. But our loving God knows our weak places and always welcomes us back. We come to see that the cost we pay is nothing compared to the price Jesus paid or the value of what we gain. Our gracious God sees our mistakes but is willing to continue the process of restoring us and making us whole. This is what we call being perfected in love.
Those who don’t believe are living lives of condemnation, whether they realize it or not. They appear to be living satisfactory lives, but they don’t know what they’re missing. They don’t know what joy and fullness of life they could have.
Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote, “Alas for those that never sing, but die with all their music in them!” How sad it is to think of all those whose lives would be transformed if only they knew about the wholeness that waits for them. If they only knew how to begin the process of spiritual renovation through the acceptance of Christ’s saving gift. Those among us whose lives are no longer condemned have the responsibility and the privilege of introducing others to the Master Builder. As we move from condemnation to restoration ourselves, how can we not want to share this good news with others so that they, too, can claim the wholeness they are meant to have?
Condemned places are often boarded up. The power’s been turned off, and they are dark places. But the good news is that condemned buildings can be rebuilt, and condemned souls can be restored. Jesus is always waiting to throw open the windows and turn the power back on. He is waiting, with love and life in his hands. He is waiting for us, whatever state our souls are in, and his great desire is that we’ll choose to move out of the darkness of condemnation and into his glorious light. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young