Once while driving from Texas to the East Coast, I drove past a large billboard with a black background and big, bold white letters that read, “‘For God so loved the world.’ – John 3:16” and then in an ominous red font below it read, “Believe or Else.” In driving throughout the country I’ve seen worse billboards, but this one might be the one that misses the mark in the most dramatic way. John 3:16 is, of course, one of the most well-known verses in the New Testament, which means it almost always appears without the context with which Jesus said it.
So much so that when Deacon Kellie read the gospel text, your ear might have missed this iconic verse nestled in this conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, a prominent Jewish leader, who comes to Jesus in the cloak of the night. Nicodemus brings with him earnest questions about who Jesus is and all that he says. And perhaps because of billboards like the one I mentioned and other narratives around John 3:16, I tend to hear Jesus with a bit of a dismissive tone, telling Nicodemus that he must be born again before he can understand what his teachings mean.
Like most folks, I bring to our holy scriptures a lot of previous experience, and much of it is not good. But when it comes to reading scripture, I do my best to pay attention to the texture of my reaction: sometimes I can hear a passage and rather than responding to the truth of it, I respond to all the billboards, literal or metaphorical, that have peppered my life. This exchange that we hear between Jesus and Nicodemus is one that requires that we get inquisitive about what is actually happening.
Nicodemus comes in the darkness of the night to ask Jesus an innocent question after affirming that he knows that Jesus is a teacher sent from God. Now, we don’t actually know very much about Nicodemus. This exchange between Nicodemus and Jesus appears only in John’s gospel, so we don’t even have another perspective on this conversation. And I doubt that the intent for this conversation was so that 21st Century Christians could have a single proof text to shame others into faith.
In fact, in this back and forth, I don’t hear Jesus shutting Nicodemus down by saying those iconic words, “For God so loved the world…” but rather, I hear some deep truths about faith in this conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus. In this exchange, I hear that we cannot intellectualize our way into faith, because faith takes time—it requires our conversion. This conversion asks us to be born anew in water and Spirit, because it is in baptism that we are transformed. Or rather, baptism is the beginning of the transformation; it is the beginning of a life transformed by the deep love that God has for the world.
When we hear this exchange between Jesus and Nicodemus, it’s vital to remember the context. This account is found in the gospel according to John, and in John’s gospel, love is the ultimate. As our Presiding Bishop says, “If it’s not about love, it’s not about God.” The entirety of the Christian life points us to love and transformation that is brought about by love.
We meet Nicodemus in this narrative from John on his way to a life of faith. Nicodemus comes to Christ with a question in the dark of the night, hoping for an answer and he finds not an intellectual answer but rather a new way to live life. Nicodemus is not a person that had an interaction with Christ and was immediately changed; the gospels are full of stories of those folks, but that is not his story, his is a slow development. The conversion of Nicodemus happens not through a download of information and intellectual adjustment, but rather through a life transformed by love and the movement of the Spirit.
We know this because Nicodemus’ story isn’t done in this third chapter of John with this conversation with Jesus. Nicodemus appears twice more in John’s gospel; he reappears to advocate for Jesus’ right for a fair trail, defending Jesus before the Sanhedrin in chapter 7 and publicly confesses his faith as he cares for Christ’s body, assisting in giving a proper burial in chapter 19. All of this happens because after coming to Jesus in the night with a simple question, Nicodemus’ life is transformed in unexpected and brilliant ways. I doubt that Nicodemus would have expected his life, his stable, prestigious life as a leader in the community, to be spent speaking for someone who couldn’t speak for themselves and a powerful act of love for one so despised and condemned to such a shameful death, but this is the power of a life transformed by love.
What’s compelling about the text for today, the persuasion of this exchange is not merely John 3:16, but rather, how Nicodemus’ life was changed after he came to know and believe in God’s deep and abiding love. The beginning of Nicodemus’ transformation is a good word for us to hear, I believe, because it’s not instantaneous, but rather a life-long transformation.
We come to God, we come with our questions and our hopes to seek the truth, but maybe the truth can’t be intellectually gained; maybe it is an experience of being loved and showing love that provides conversion. This conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus makes us ask ourselves, then, where do we need to be converted to a life of love? What parts of our lives need not the instant knowledge to make change, but the slow and continual conversion of love. Perhaps it is overcoming the frustration with the coworker or embracing a difficult conversation with a family member. Maybe the conversion to love is to fully embrace the courage to stand up for those whose voices are being silenced and the oppressed or to care for the despised.
By now, y’all know that I love Lent. It’s just such a gift of a season to reflect on the questions we bring to our sacred texts, to our faith, and to how we have or have not lived into the conversion of love. Lent offers us time to reflect on where the Spirit might be calling us to live a new life, to be born again. And it offers us time to see how our life of faith ought to be so imbued with love that we cannot help but become something new, to have a conversion of love, like Nicodemus. And to lean into the truth that we are changed simply by the very act of being loved and loving others, as God so loved the world.
 John 7:50-51
 John 19:39-40
A sermon delivered to the people of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, KY for Lent 3A – March 5, 2023