John 3:1-17

Today’s very well-known passage is powerfully full of hugely provocative imagery. It begins with Nicodemus, a Pharisee and member of the Jewish Ruling Council, who came to Jesus at night asking: ‘How do we get to see ‘the Kingdom of God? What’s the bottom line?’, and Jesus’ enigmatic answer that wasn’t an answer at all but the challenge:  he needed somehow to be ‘born again!’ What could that even mean – to be ‘born again?’ Clearly, what it did not mean was any literal sense, but the need to develop a whole new set of sensibilities, make a new start, a new way of thinking, seeing, being, doing[i].

Today we’re looking at another of these provocative images – the verse that speaks of God as apesteilen (sending or commissioning) Jesus into the world NOT to condemn but to save it. Jesus whose very name means ‘Saviour’. What is Jesus saving us from? And why? Saving us for what? This naming of Jesus as ‘Saviour’ was important enough for the early church to include it within what was probably among the very first of its faith statements, depicted by the sign of the ‘FISH’ – this secret symbol early persecuted Christians would share to declare their faith: ‘Jesus Christ. God’s Son. Saviour’[ii]. And so, with Christ followers down the millennia, we believe that God, in Jesus the Christ, does save us – but I ask again from what exactly? And why? And for what purpose exactly?[iii]

For there to be ‘salvation’ there does need to be some movement that stirs within us as we respond to God in Christ: after some encounter with Jesus and what he is, what he stands for, what he teaches we are moved out from one way of awareness, thinking, living to this other, better way, a more God-reflecting way. We are being ‘saved’ from living the worst of ourselves to embracing the best of ourselves. It may be different for each of us but there it is, there is always this movement, this growth.

I’m grateful for my colleague and friend Janet Gear, and her work the ‘Theological Buffet’. After extensive research among many and different people in this denomination, Janet identifies 5 streams of theological bias we tend to gravitate towards as we live out our faith. They are varied, and all equally valid. While none are necessarily ‘locked in’ to any of these, and may in fact move quite freely between them according to circumstances, it’s helpful to notice where the living out of our salvation currently calls us to be[iv].

There are those described as evangelical, who see the salvation which God brings to creation in Jesus Christ as profoundly ‘Good News’[v]. To that extent I believe that I am profoundly ‘evangelical!’, but let me qualify that. While some ‘evangelicals’ understand the ‘Good News’ of Jesus Christ to be primarily about how he died to settle debt, do a transaction with God, and so to save by faith those who otherwise are lost in their sin and a doomed to hell, I don’t! I’m with those other ‘evangelicals’ who believe that the ‘Good News’ of Jesus Christ is that God loves everyone and everything, and that by faith in whom Jesus reveals God to be we are given to come back to living into our original blessing. We are all much better than we seem – God sees it and, the Good News is that someday so will we!

Then there are those whose understanding of ‘salvation’ is understood to be primarily mystical. What Janet calls spiritual. These tend to fall into at least 4 groups[vi]. As opposed to the materialists who deny anything other than what is concretely in front of them, there are those who see everything as essentially spiritual and tend to have no regard for anything ‘merely’ physical.

Then there are those who, while they recognise both the physical and spiritual nature of reality, see them as being quite distinct and needing priests and ministers to act as intermediaries. Incarnationalists, on the other hand see no such separation and see everything as connected by Christ into one holistic incarnation – all creation as this one God-infused whole.

Those described as ecclesial believe that their living out of their salvation is tied to how deeply they have come to love and to serve God through serving the church.

Others may have the working out of their salvation described as missional and are less interested in serving God by committing to in the inner workings of the church as they are to manifesting Christ’s presence in the world as they work to free it from the abuses of poverty and greed and oppression and sadness, loneliness, guilt: We are saved by Jesus to serve the world, they would say.

Then there are those whose salvation faith may be described as ecumenical – whether or not they would even call it ‘faith’. While they may or may not care for serving the church, they do care very deeply about being and doing whatever is right and just in the world and understand living their salvation to be about partnering with whomever is already doing that goodness – quite regardless of their faith.

We began by my asking that while with Christ followers down the millennia, we believe that God, in Jesus the Christ, saves us, but saves us from what exactly? And why?

For what purpose exactly? 

How about this as a possible description of us as a ‘saved’ people [vii]:

  • It’s as we are given to embrace the very good news of Jesus Christ – how we with all creation are revealed in him as worthy of being deeply loved and filled with holiness despite how damaged or broken we may seem (Evangelical),
  • so we are given also to grow into discovering a spirituality of discovering how God truly is in us, with us, for others through us (Spiritual).
  • It’s as we discover these things that we become the church that Jesus has always intended for us to be…(Ecclesial),
  • and so, we are drawn to join with all other people and communities whose lives are also leaning towards achieving this common good…(Ecumenical).
  • And so, this is us delivering God’s missional purpose to the world – us saved from a life of serving just ourselves to become the physical presence of Christ washing the feet of a world who are just longing to know just who and what they are! (Missional).

How wonderful for that to evolve as the lived model of our salvation experience. I’m left to wonder to what extent that answer would have satisfied Nicodemus questions about the Kingdom of God on that night as he spoke with Jesus? To what extent does it satisfy us?

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[i] Nicodemus wanted to know how we get to see the Kingdom of God. Jesus’ response was to point him to the embracing of a whole new mindset – which if embraced, would have released him to becoming all of what he was intended to be. We’re not told whether he ‘got it’ – only that it was he who later stepped forward with Joseph of Arimathea to care for Jesus body with anointing and burial.(John 19:39)

[ii] ‘FISH’=IXTHUS: (I) Ησοῦς (X) Χρῑστός (TH) Θεοῦ (U) Υἱός (S) Σωτήρ

[iii] This is an essential enough question for theological academia to have entire doctrinal conversations devoted to wrestling with just this: what is named as SOTERIOLOGY: ‘the study of the ‘Doctrine of Salvation!’

[iv] We’ve touched on this before, but it bears repeating.  I do apologise to Janet for any misrepresentation I may be making of her work as I apply it to our living out of our embrace of our God-given-in-Christ salvation.

[v] Which of course is where the word ‘evangelical’ comes from: Euaggelion.

[vi] From the teaching of Richard Rohr ‘Universal Christ’

[vii] This is where I’m risking getting overly creative with my application of Janet’s research – sorry Janet 😊