Updated: Aug 5, 2021
At this week’s Wednesday Holy Eucharist service, our scriptures included the passage from John which reads, “When a woman is in labor, she has pain, because her hour has come. But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world.” Ha! I labored for 27 hours with my son and while he is an absolute joy to me, I will still happily regale you with some very specific memories of the anguish of labor. So, while we are not sure who wrote the Gospel of John, I’m pretty certain that this particular passage was written by a man.
Still, it captures the length to which one human being will go to protect – to deliver- another. A woman giving birth, with rare exceptions, will bear an extraordinary amount of pain in order to safely deliver her baby into the world. Adoptive parents will go to equivalently traumatic lengths to bring a child or children into their loving arms, and caregivers of all kinds frequently dedicate their lives to protecting their charges. But no human being has or will ever match the sacrificial love for their offspring demonstrated by God, the original parent.
Scripture tells us that humanity was made in God’s image, but for many years and until very recently, most written Christian texts referred to God as a “he.” Many people still do not understand the reasoning for efforts to eliminate gender-specific references to God, arguing that “he” refers to “all people.” Today’s texts, however, demonstrate how limiting that idea is, because in them we hear God clearly being described like the Mother who gives birth to creation. This doesn’t mean that God is a woman. It belittles God to think of her/him/it/them as either male or female. God is both and more than female or male. Both men and women are designed by God to reflect his/her/its/their nature – a nature that is giving, loving, and creative enough to make life itself.
Perhaps that is why Jesus chooses birth as a metaphor to explain to Nicodemus what it means to accept the salvation Jesus offers. Childbirth is strenuous. It is frightening. It hurts. It is also one of the clearest examples we have of the way in which we are made in God’s image. “God” says Deborah Kapp, “works hard for us and our faith. God conceives us as Christians and nurtures us in the wombs of our faith, safe and warm and secret. At some point, like any pregnant woman who is close to full term, God gets impatient with gestation and wants to get on with it; God wants to push that baby through the birth canal into greater maturity, into fullness of life, into a faith lived wholly in the world. That is what Jesus talks about in this text. Jesus thinks it is time Nicodemus came through that spiritual birth canal…God is ready to give us birth by water and the Spirit.” God is ready to save us.
John 3:16 is one of the most quoted passages from the New Testament. You’ve seen it on billboards, t-shirts and written in magic marker on the foreheads of football players: “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.” Or, as the button makers like to put it, “Jesus saves.” This passage is, indeed, the foundation of Christian theology and the reason we practice Holy Baptism – but it is also inadequate, because it doesn’t tell us how Jesus saves- and why it’s not simply a matter of saying that we believe he can.
Certainly professing our belief in the saving love of Jesus the Christ is a significant aspect of what many Christians believe is the key to salvation. In our tradition, Holy Baptism is the mark of membership in the community of Christ. It demonstrates that you (or your parents and godparents on your behalf) have committed to following Jesus and, more importantly have accepted the grace of salvation that is offered by him. It is so significant that it is one of only two sacraments of the Episcopal Church. Even so, baptism is a sign of transformation; it is not the actual change agent. It is only by following the way of Jesus that we are inwardly transformed. Saying we are saved is not enough. Changing our hearts is not a procedure, but a process. Faith is a journey – and, like parenting a child, it is a long journey. It is a sometimes confusing journey. It can be a painful journey.
It is also a journey that we do not take alone. I recently read an article about Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge, who says she wants to “normalize” the idea of what she calls, “mom guilt.” She suggests that all parents – wealthy or poor, working outside or within the home, parenting alone or with help – struggle with feeling not “good enough.” I would propose that such feelings are not only normal for parents, but for every single person who is out there trying to live an ethical, moral life. I know very few people who truly believe that they are good enough. This can be debilitating, especially in a society in which we are taught that we can do anything if we set our mind to it – that we can pull ourselves up by our bootstraps- that there is nothing more impressive than a “self-made man.”
But this is not what scripture says. Scripture says that we cannot save ourselves. Scripture tells us that trying to earn salvation is not only impossible, but it is contrary to God’s plan. “We stand before God incapable of earning God’s grace. [We are] instead worthy of that grace simply by God’s blessed choice.” This is what St. Paul is talking about when he tells the people of Rome that “the promise that he would inherit the law did not come to Abraham…through the law but through the righteousness of faith.” Abraham was not blessed by God because of what he did, but because of what he didn’t do. Abraham did not hold on to his country, his family or his pre-existing ideas of what his life should be like. Rather, he completely relinquished his will to God, allowing God to guide him in all things – and for that he was blessed. Abraham’s story is the counterpoint to last week’s Hebrew scripture, in which we heard about humanity’s tragic decision to separate itself from the Creator. But if Genesis 3 is about how human beings rejected God’s plan for us to live in peaceful and protected relationship with him, then John 3:16 is a clear statement of how far God is willing to go to restore that relationship.
For Donald Olsen, “The notion of embracing newness and relinquishing what has been connects this text with today’s Gospel…To be born from above (or anew or again) may be understood as the embrace of God’s calling…that necessitates taking leave of one’s self-directed course. To leave the comfort of the known for the promise of the unknown realities of God is a form of birth.”
And, unlike the mythological Athena, we do not spring fully formed from our parents’ heads. We come into the world confused, vulnerable, and weak but also receptive, open-minded, and hopeful. In other words, we come into the world with everything we need for the journey, just as we enter Christian community with all we need to accept the free salvation offered by God through Jesus. We just have to learn to believe it. We have to truly believe that God is with us in all things – in war and hatred, in violence and disease, in life and death. We have to believe, as the psalmist tells us, that God watches over us and keeps us safe, God delivers us from all evil, and God blesses us. To put it in the venerable words of Father George Ross, God really, really loves us. AMEN.
1Deborah J. Kapp., (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 2, Lent through Eastertide, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Westminster Knox Press], 72.
Laird J. Stuart, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 2, Lent through Eastertide, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Westminster Knox Press], 66.
Donald P. Olsen., (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 2, Lent through Eastertide, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Westminster Knox Press], 52.