Our Gospel reading includes one of the most well known and cherished Bible verses of all time. In 27 words, the message of God’s good news…the entirety of God’s work in Jesus is shared. It usually takes me much more than 27 words to say anything of value. And yet here is the story of God’s action in the world, offered in one verse of the Bible.
It’s only one verse, only 27 words, but there’s so much there to unpack. Never mind Jesus’ words about being born from above through water and the Holy Spirit’s work. That’s even more to unpack. Just a few words, but in those words are a lifetime of meaning and living and dying and once again living.
Whenever I find myself in the deep waters of words that carry doctrine and history and shared memory, I like to turn to Rolf Jacobson for help.
Rolf is a professor at Luther Seminary, contributes to a weekly podcast guiding preachers, and wrote a great book titled Crazy Talk: A Not-So-Stuffy Dictionary of Theological Terms.
For example, born from above is another way of saying “born again” and that phrase carries with it a lot of assumption and sometimes baggage. So I turned to my friend Rolf to see if he could help.
Born Again \BOHRN-uh-GEHN\ verb, adjective
Definition: the process of reuterine expatriation.
Wow…that’s one way to describe it… maybe a little more from his description will help us with this concept.
“To be born again is to come back with a little more love. The most common mistake regarding rebirth is to think that it has something to with our own actions or is the product of our own doing. To be born again is to live in the promise that is given in baptism. It takes the work of the Holy Spirit, and it is done for us.”Crazy Talk, pg.31
Just like Nicodemus and so many who would approach Jesus, the question that would be asked would sound something like, “What do I have to do to enter the kingdom of heaven?”
And Jesus points Nicodemus and seekers in all times and places to the source of work. It’s not us. The source is God’s Spirit. And through baptism we are born into this spirit that blows in mysterious and marvelous ways.
Through God’s Spirit love shows up, and as we read in John 3:16
love changes everything.
That’s another word that has a lot of history, and baggage, and so many, many songs and movies and beach-reading books that use that word. Maybe Rolf Jacobson can help us out by defining this word that we call love.
Love \luhv\ verb
Definition: Not a thing that is blind but the act of actually seeing the needs of others and putting their need higher than yourself or your needs.
Rolf goes on to say
Love is not a sentiment or an emotion. It is not something you feel but action you take on behalf of others. Love stares at the suffering and needs of the neighbor–and even the enemy–hard in the face. And then does something about them. We are only able to love because God loved us.Crazy Talk, pg. 110
What wonderful things may happen when love shows up, and we are wrapped in it and moved by this love. And yet, this love–God in action in our lives..still surprises me…amazing things happen when love shows up.
In the news we’ve been hearing a lot about the coronavirus and the church leadership has talked about ways that we can gather and be community in responsible and safe ways. That’s why we encourage hands-free sharing of the peace and why there is increased hand sanitizers around the church.
But this health crisis reminds me of when I served in a church in Florida when the H1N1 virus also known as swine flu was wreaking havoc and causing a lot of fear. There was particular fear down in Florida because like how Coronavirus had its origins in China, H1N1 had some of its origins in Mexico. And unfortunately as many Asian Americans are finding words of prejudice and hate meet them because of their ethnicity and because of fear, similarly 11 years ago in our neighborhood in Florida many Mexican Americans were also encountering rejection and prejudice because of fear. Fear of illness, but mainly fear of the other.
It was around this time that our church was invited to find out more about a Mexican American community near us. But fear–fear of the other, fear of illness–made us hesitant. This fear brought with it latent racism, lack of compassion and unkindness.
And that’s when love showed up. In a surprising way.
A group of our youth reminded us of something Jesus teaches and asked us a simple question. “Are we being a good neighbor?”
And on the breath of that question, love showed up, and we remembered how to be a neighbor. And because love showed up, a new bond was forged between two communities.
Because love showed up, new ministries began.
New friendships were born.
And we were never the same again.
That’s what happens when love shows up–and invites us to see beyond ourselves.
Love is something that we don’t own that sometimes shows up in the most unexpected places.
I was reminded of this a few days ago when I visited one of our home bound members. It was in a location where few of us would choose to be, and this home bound member suffers from health issues few of us would choose to have. So in the midst of this location where I would not want to be, with health issues I would never want to have, I was somehow surprised when love showed up.
In fact it’s surrounded me.
It just took me a while to have the eyes to see it.
I first noticed this love with something that should have been really obvious to me, but I was so focused on the rainy, dark weather and my own distractions, that I almost missed it. Cards. So many cards she had run out of room to show them. Cards filled with words of encouragement and love. Cards showing the wear of being read and reread over and over again.
The visit began to come to a close and I asked if she would like to receive communion and love showed up again… As I was getting the bread and the wine ready to bless, she touched the shoulder of her roommate and said “Ruth I’m having communion today” and she smiled. And as we began to say the Lord’s prayer together she grabbed her roommate’s hand and they clung to each other with a fierce tenderness. And together they whispered the words that our savior taught us. And so we shared the Lord’s supper in this place that none of us would have chosen to be, but it was in this place where love showed up. And with a smile and a tear, she whispered to her roommate, “Ruth, we got to have communion today.”
Love shows up all the time…for God is love and God is everywhere.
This is the love that God has for this world. This love that is God. This love that was manifested in this world and placed in a manger, this love was lifted up on a cross to take our place in sin, death, and darkness, and this love sprang free from death’s dark gloom.
And like the wind and air we breathe, this love is within and among us.
And we can share it. We can be part of this love story. This story of God. The story where we are moved by the Spirit of love.
Sometimes this love is sacrificial. Talk to someone who has become a caregiver for their family member when illness or pain strikes, and they can speak of this love. This love that awakens you at night when and guides you by their bedside. This love that provides you clarity and strength to be a balm for someone’s need.
Sometimes this love is empowering. Talk to a first responder in Tennessee where love shows up and dwells in their tears and vigils, and then this love strengthens their resolve as they search for survivors in the wake of a tornado.
And this love..this story of God..is always reaching out to the unseen and unheard.
Talk to the volunteers at Lydia’s Closet when love shows up and school children can find clothes that make them feel good and ready to learn.
Talk to our community meal volunteers when love comes in the form of a warm meal in the midst of a cold night.
Pray with our prayer chain ministry and you will discover how love reaches through prayers spoken into the lives of your neighbors and friends.
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. This is the love that the Spirit has placed in, with, and among you. Be part of this story of God–and share the love.