Don't believe in signs
Week of Sunday June 7 2009
Bible John 3:1-17
John 2: 23 When he was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing. 24But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people 25and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone.
John 3:1 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.'
3Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.' 4Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?' 5Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, "You must be born from above." 8The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.'
9Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?' 10Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
11 ‘Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that 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.
The perennial problems caused by translation and chapter headings in the Bible, is well demonstrated by this week's gospel reading. Bible verses did not exist until the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries after Christ. So they bear no necessary relationship to the intent of the original authors. In an English translation, it appears there is a division in John, between chapter two and chapter three. The first seventeen verses of chapter three are the lectionary gospel for this week. However, the more natural passage begins at John chapter 2:23.
The lectionary should begin like this:
23 When he was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing. 24But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people 25and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone.
3:1 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.'...
The reason for this is hidden by the NRSV translation, which aims to be readable, and not to be gender exclusive. If we go back to my childhood English, in which women were invisible or deprecated, the text reads:
When he was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all men (understood) and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in man.
Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.'
Man and men come from the Greek word anthropos and are meant to be gender inclusive in this situation. Male is andros, not anthropos.
Now we see the connection between the artificially divided chapters two and three. It has to do with "men", with human beings. Jesus did not entrust himself to human beings, because he knew what they were like. Then a human being comes to see him. Interestingly this human being comes "in the dark." Not so much at night for secrecy, but "in the dark" because human beings are in the dark. They don't see. They don't "get it."
Less obvious to us, is another parallel use of a word, also hidden by translation. "Many believed in his name,... but Jesus did not entrust himself to them." This has always seemed a slightly odd comment to me; something I didn't get. I think it's because our translations hide some of the meaning.
A very literal Greek translation might say "Many believed (episteusan ) in his name... but Jesus did not believe (episteusen) in them." The word play is hidden by translation into English. This is like a joke that does not translate; I don't doubt that believe in and entrust to are correct translations, but the translation loses the parallel, the hint about the nature of this story, that is probably much more obvious to the native Greek reader. Bill Loader puts it succinctly:
there are believers ... whose belief Jesus does not believe.
The whole "being born anew" motif of this reading now takes on a new meaning for me. Bill takes a paragraph of 156 words to explain this, while I have taken over 600! He writes better than I, but I am also deliberately labouring the point. We cannot expect to find the riches that are present in Scripture, if we simply read our "received text." Our "received text" is our preferred translation read with the memory of the verses that we bring from the past. We need to take time to dig, to read for ourselves, to read others' perspectives, and to read outside our comfort zone. It is then we make liberating and life changing discoveries in the bible.
People (anthropos) began to believe in Jesus because they saw him work miracles, according to John. This was clearly the case of the person (anthropos) Nicodemus, who came to see Jesus confessing his own belief. This is no polite deference to Jesus by a skeptic, as some have inferred. Nicodemus believed. He truly believed. But he was "in the dark." Jesus dismisses his belief out of hand. He does not even mention it. This belief because of miracles is so naive, so unworthy, so limiting, that it counts for nothing. Nicodemus is so "in the dark" that he needs to be reborn.
This downplaying of signs and miracles is typical of John. There are seven signs in John, but the constant references to healing that are present in the other gospels are missing. Jesus criticise those who believe in the signs: John 6:25ff is a passage where he stress the difference between the signs, and what they point to, and between belief in signs and belief in himself. Interestingly, he comes back to the notion of spirit and flesh of chapter 3: It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless (6:63)
I pointed out to my congregation last week that John seems not to have heard the Pentecost story of Acts Chapter 2, and then wondered if perhaps he had... but left it out as a distraction. Signs and wonders are not the thing, the new life, being born in the Spirit is the important thing.
If the primary evidence of God in Jesus (or anywhere else, for that matter) is miracles, then miracles will form the focus of faith and religious experience. Sometimes it will lead to a theology which finds God only in the extraordinary and does not find God in the ordinary. Bill Loader
The churches who are into signs and wonders have a certain logic about them. It follows that if Jesus acted with signs and wonders, and this is the sign of genuine faith, and the reason to believe, then we should have signs and wonders in a truly faithful church. If we do not, then something is wrong with our faith and belief.
The problem for me, is that even at my most sympathetic to this point of view, it did not work. Even when I was most open to accepting a neo pentecostal approach to faith, I could not deny that what I was seeing was often manipulative, manufactured, and just not happening.
In the end, signs and wonders as the defining thing of the faith we live, are a denial of the crucified God. They are especially a denial of the cry of dereliction in Mark's gospel. They are a denial of the faith and suffering and martyrdom of countless thousands of believers over the centuries, and the faithful lives of good Christians who died less violent deaths.
John says God so loved the world that he gave his only son, not signs and wonders. Signs merely point to Jesus. We would never think that the huge green shiny road signs which point the way to Uluru, have anything to do with the majesty and eerie power of that place. Why would we think the signs that point to Jesus are the defining thing about belief in Jesus? We need to be born again in the way we look at things.
Near the end of chapter three is one of those odd biblical passages which scream at us to dig deeper.
And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. ‘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.
On the one hand we have the beloved verse of 3:16, but we also have the weird verses about the lifting up of snakes. My experience of deeply comforting and familiar verses next to "weird stuff," is that there are discoveries to make.
The serpent story is in the book of Numbers.
Then the LORD sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died 21:6
God told Moses to place a serpent on a pole so that those who looked at this serpent would be healed of the bites. John Petty, whose commentary I often find illuminating, says the following of the serpent reference in John:
Christians generally associate serpents with evil, probably because of primordial fear of snakes and because the serpent beguiled Adam and Eve in Genesis 3. In many cultures, however, the serpent is not a personification of evil, but rather a symbol of immortality or the main concerns of the unconscious. If you're dreaming and a serpent appears with something to say, it is thought to be a message from your unconscious about a concern that needs to be addressed...
The very nemesis of the people, the one that had been afflicting them, is to be "placed" and "looked upon" which, in turn, brings "life."...
I take this to be an encouragement to confront the "dark side." Look at that very thing which causes you pain. Comprehend the "shadow" side of reality. Healing comes when the "shadow" is recognized, acknowledged, and integrated into the whole of one's personality. As Carl Jung put it, "One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making darkness conscious."...
Is it too much to say Jesus, lifted up on the cross, is the shadow side of all our life? In contrast to all our desire for signs and wonders, for glory, for immortality, there is Jesus glorious failure and death . Look at this, and be made whole!
Petty goes on to say
Failure to confront the "shadow" results in a one-dimensional personality that is cut off from its unconscious energy and clueless about its own motivations and desires. Confronting the "shadow" is a difficult psychological manuever, but one that is necessary in order to add depth to the personality and harness the unconscious in the service of healthy development of the ego. This is how engaging the "shadow" serves the cause of healing.
The words "one dimensional," and "clueless about its own motivations and desires," aptly describe my experiences of signs and wonders Christianity. Petty notes about snakes:
They still creep me out though--just so we're clear on that...
which speaks volumes to me. Even where snakes are symbols of healing and the unconscious, I suspect people don't like them much! Living with tribal people, where I spent a lot of time round camp fires, "living on the ground," my inherited fear of snakes was magnified. Embracing my weakness, and the weakness of Jesus, has truly been a walk among the serpents.
Even the comfortable verses of 3:16-17 hold a surprise. Where God so loved the world, John uses the word kosmos. This is the whole creation, not just people, as I first learned. And in verse 17, contrary to much which is implicit in the signs and wonders theology of today, he did not come to condemn the world, but to save it. That's not what you'd think to listen to the dislike, if not hatred, that comes from many "believers." There is some re-birthing which needs to happen for us in our attitudes to creation and other people!
In this reflection I have said little about the Spirit\Wind which blows where it chooses. I can't. I don't understand. To some extent this is fitting; I'm not meant to. As many have said, if we understand, then what we understand is not God!
I'm not sure how I got from the position of Nicodemus to where I am now. I know part of it is the gift of the church which forced me to look at the snakes, that story of Jesus, which is not just signs and wonders and easy victory. That converted me in some way, opening me to the Spirit.
The name Nicodemus means victory of the people. He stood up for Jesus (7:51) and helped bury him at the end. He is one of the victors in the Gospel, one of its heroes. I've seen him characterised as a kind of "patsy," a cardboard figure used in John 3 to show our human ignorance. Perhaps he shows us the path of the hero, who comes to Jesus, discovers how little he knows, and keeps searching.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 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. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!