There was a funeral on Saturday in Wichita, Kansas. Dr. George Tiller had been shot last Sunday in the foyer of Reformation Lutheran Church as he handed out bulletins before worship. For years, Dr. Tiller and his family had lived in a gated community, he drove a bullet proof car, and he wore a bullet proof vest – he had been shot before, and his office had been bombed. Dr. Tiller was murdered because he performed abortions.
Security was tight at the funeral service, with dozens of uniformed and plainclothes officers mingling among the mourners inside and outside the sanctuary. A few blocks from the church a dozen or so protesters gathered in a holding area, one holding a sign, “God Sent the Shooter.”
Inside the church, near the end of the service, Mrs. Tiller rose and, standing in the chancel, sang “The Lord’s Prayer” in a clear, strong, unwavering voice. I am glad that hundreds stood with her and only a handful with the person outside holding up a sign with a lie.
I carried with me this week a passage from the gospel of John reminding us that God does not send shooters.
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 trough him.—John 3:16-17
Throughout the week I questioned if these words had any strength left in them, if John 3:16 could be anything but a slogan, tattered and worn out by too many bumper stickers, t-shirts, and posters held high during ball games. The words have become a cliché, an empty formula, little more than a password for a tribe – but no matter how ragged and frayed they appear, they are true: God sent the Son, not the shooter.
The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world, and to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.—John 1:9, 12-13
Nicodemus had seen things he didn’t understand, strange and wonderful things, signs whose significance he did not know.
There was a wedding feast, and Jesus was there. When the wine gave out, he told the servants to fill large jars with water; and when the chief steward tasted it, it was the best wine.
One day Jesus went to the temple, and he drove out sheep and cattle, poured out the coins of the money changers, overturned their tables, and said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”
These actions raised a lot of eye brows and questions, but many believed in his name because they saw the signs that we was doing. Nicodemus had seen the signs, but he didn’t know what to make of them, or what to make of Jesus. He had seen what Jesus did, and he thought that God was connected, somehow, but he didn’t know how. He was in the dark.
Nicodemus came to Jesus by night and said, “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.”
We know, he said, like someone who has studied long and hard, taken his time to observe, and carefully drawn his conclusions. We know, he said, speaking for more than himself. Did he represent the Pharisees? Maybe. Did he speak for the religious leadership in general? Possibly. Does he stand at the beginning of a long line of many who are in the dark about Jesus, yet are drawn to his light? Certainly. Nicodemus speaks for all whose souls thirst for the living God, all who long to learn about and live the life of the Spirit, all who are attracted to Jesus, recognizing something extraordinary in him but not yet believing. Nicodemus speaks for all who come to Jesus with our considerable knowledge, our well-established certainties, and our questions.
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.—John 3:2
We have seen the signs, we have drawn our conclusions, and now we come for more. And Jesus responds, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
This is very confusing to Nicodemus who knows his religion and knows it well. He is a learned man, steeped in scholarship—and now Jesus is telling him that in order to know the life of the Spirit in the kingdom of God he must be born anew, a second time. How can this be?
How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?—John 3:4
Brian Williams took a large crew of reporters and videographers to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to document a day inside the Obama White House; some of you may have seen the program. At one point he talked with Vice President Joe Biden about saying things off the cuff that the White House staff had to carefully rephrase or creatively interpret afterwards. And Joe Biden’s reply was basically, “Look, you don’t teach an old dog new tricks. I am who I am, and some things I just can’t change.”
Old age and new beginnings just don’t go together. It’s not like you can just go back and start over and undo who you have become. Nevertheless, Jesus speaks of birth.
Jesus tells Nicodemus, tells you and me that seeing the kingdom, entering the dominion of God is a birth.
Do you know what you did in order to be born?
Nothing. Exactly. You didn’t choose your parents or your birthday. All you did was listen to your mother’s heartbeat and suck your little thumb. And on your birthday, surprised, you submitted to the force that pushed you down the birth canal, you squinted at the light, and you cried until somebody held you close and tight and warm. Your birth was an awesome and exhausting event, but it wasn’t your doing.
“Do not be astonished,” Jesus tells us, “that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The 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.”
Nicodemus comes to Jesus to find out where the man from Galilee fits in the framework of his knowledge and experience, and Jesus talks about two of the most uncontrollable, uncontainable of human experiences, birth and wind. He tells him that the life eternal is a mystery beyond human knowledge and control.
Nicodemus has come no closer to understanding Jesus. He is confused by this talk of wind and spirit, water and birth. He cannot fit Jesus into his knowledge of God and the traditions he has followed for many years. He cannot fit Jesus into his life and who he has become. The thought of birth confuses him because there’s nothing for him to do—no books to read, no papers to write, no exams to take.
The only thing birth requires of you is to relax and rest in the labor of God. To be born again, to be born from above is an adventure in trust.
An adventure in trust, not control. Nicodemus has so many questions and he can’t just give himself to the life Jesus offers. At the end, though, he does not argue with Jesus or depart in protest. He simply throws up his hands, asking somewhat helplessly, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? How can these things be?”
Then after Jesus’ death on the cross, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, and Nicodemus came to prepare Jesus’ body for burial—Nicodemus bringing a hundred pounds of fragrant myrrh and aloes (John 19:38-42).
In the end, Nicodemus didn’t participate in the world’s hatred against Jesus. Instead, his actions reflected neither confusion nor fear, but boldness, generosity, and most of all, love. John doesn’t tell us that Nicodemus had become a believer, but he shows us a man who loves fearlessly and extravagantly.
The 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.—John 3:8
I cannot shake the suspicion that the hands that at the funeral held the sign, “God sent the shooter,” on other occasions have held a sign, “John 3:16.” I am troubled by the air of certitude and knowing that surrounds these signs. I am troubled by views that can see the world solely in black and white, ignoring the colors that love paints between them. I am troubled by the portrait of a God who is an enforcer of texts, rather than the lover of the world.
When I look at the cross, I see a different picture. I see the light that shines in the darkness. I see the face of God who comes not to condemn but to save. And I hear the call I believe Nicodemus heard: to participate in what God is doing, which is to love the world.