Imagine with me for a moment that we went about living our whole lives trapped in a cave.
Not the opening line you were expecting?
No really, imagine with me for a moment that we live in a cave where we are trapped and all around us shadow puppets are being cast on the walls. They take the shape of all kinds of creatures: birds, dogs, elephants. But having never been outside our cave, nor even knowing where these shadow puppets come from or what is causing them, we have no way of knowing what the shapes they represent are, so we are forced to make up explanations of our own, such as: the shadows are alive.
Kind-of weird, huh? A little hard to imagine? I’ve been watching a bit too much Dr. Who?
Now imagine that one of us escapes from this life and discovers that there are people somewhere above us in the cave casting the shadow puppets. Suddenly, the world looks a little different. We understand how these shapes happen to appear in our world and that they aren’t really alive, they are the fabrications of a group of people who are apparently playing games with us. Then imagine that our escapee discovers the entrance to the cave and finds a whole world where real animals do live. For the first time one of us is seeing actual birds and dogs and elephants. The shapes the shadows took suddenly make more sense.
This whole exercise in imagination is really strange, I know, but it’s the exercise that an ancient philosopher named Plato used to describe how he thought the world worked. He believed that we all lived in a cave of sorts: that we were trapped in a “world” in which we only understood shadows of what reality really holds. Plato believed that there was a higher, somehow more “real” world out there where the ideal forms of all the things we interact with existed and that the world we live in is just trying, and never succeeding, to imitate that world. Plato’s philosophy is something we now call “dualism,” and in some ways it’s a little strange and in others it makes some sense.
Now, I’m telling you about Plato because when we read John’s gospel, it’s helpful to recognize that John has a lot of Platonic philosophy in him. Of the four gospels that we have in our Bibles— Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John— John was probably the last one to be written and it was much more heavily influenced by ancient Greek thought than any of the other gospel writers. John doesn’t just tell stories about what Jesus did or said, he recasts the world into strong dualistic dichotomies: light v. darkness, good v. evil, the sheep v. the goats. So the light and the darkness that show up in our reading from John’s gospel today are harkening back to Plato and his story about the cave.
But John doesn’t just regurgitate his philosophy lessons, he uses them to make points of his own.
In the text we read today those who are in the darkness are not prisoners who need to be enlightened, like the people in Plato’s cave. They already know about the light, and they are hiding from it. The ones John describes as being in the shadows are there by choice. And it’s a really troubling choice that they are making.
In this passage we find one of the most famous verses in scripture: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” That verse, in the midst of a conversation between Jesus and the Jewish Pharisee Nicodemus, describes Jesus as sent to offer healing to God’s people. Jesus goes on to tell us that God does not want to condemn but to save. But as he continues to speak, it becomes clear that this healing isn’t being accepted. The people see the light of salvation that Jesus offers, but instead they are choosing to hide in the shadows. And so in an interesting rhetorical twist, the judgment that Jesus attributes to these people isn’t a judgment handed down from on-high: it’s a self-indictment. And it comes in the form a rejection: this isn’t a guilty person handing themselves in to face up to their crimes. It’s a defiant “yeah, I did it, so what?”
Even though this story comes very early in the gospel of John, we are reading it midway through the season of Lent, as we prepare to dive into Holy Week where we know what awaits Jesus: death on a cross. The rejection that Jesus talks about in this text is pointing to that: God may love the world enough to send his Son, but the world chose to defiantly kill him when he arrived.
This text foreshadows the cross, and in doing so it challenges us to think about what Jesus’ death means, what the cross means. And that’s a topic that can, and does in fact, fill libraries with volumes upon volumes of academic discourse. And so what I’m saying this morning comes with the caveat that there are plenty of theologians who will disagree with me. But that’s ok, because if they were here and were honest, they’d say the same thing.
When I try to wrap my mind around what the cross might mean, I start with the kind of rejection that Jesus describes in his conversation with Nicodemus. God came to the world to offer healing and the light of grace. But the world rejected Jesus, and so he died on a cross. But what makes the story powerful is that God doesn’t let the world’s rejection define this encounter, and even here at the beginning of John’s gospel Jesus is telling us this: Jesus came to be lifted up like the serpent in the wilderness, a serpent put on a pole for all to see like Jesus was to be put on a cross.
But that’s the preamble: because what comes next is God’s love.
I have come to be lifted up, Jesus says, because God loved the world enough to send me for just that. And so this self-indicting rejection that Jesus knows is coming God has already decided is going to be the vehicle through which God’s love and grace are expressed to us all. The rejection that Jesus faced at the cross is transformed into something else: an embrace. Theologically speaking, we refer to this embrace as the “new covenant,” and we remember it every time we celebrate communion.
In the ancient world, covenants were very often ratified and reaffirmed with sacrifices. Perhaps the most famous such sacrifice is the Passover sacrifice, which reaffirmed the covenant between God and the people of Israel. It’s also the sacrifice that the gospels all connect with Jesus’ death. The Last Supper on which we model Communion was a Passover meal, and John’s gospel goes so far as to say that Jesus went to the cross at the same time that the Passover lambs were being brought into the Temple. So when we speak of Jesus’ death as a sacrifice, I think it’s meant to be the kind of sacrifice that affirms a covenant between God and humanity. The people may not have been making such a covenant with God, but God was making it with them, transforming their rejection into the very moment in which God promises to love us and welcome us home.
Jesus was met with rejection, but turned that rejection into the embrace of God’s love.
Now, that kind of an embrace, it’s hard to even wrap our minds around it. One of my professors in seminary was a theologian named Miroslav Volf. Professor Volf is a native of Croatia, and if you know anything about the history of Croatia you know that in the early 90’s there was a terrible war there in which an attempted genocide was carried out against Professor Volf’s people. At the time he was already a professor of theology in Germany, and he went to a conference to give a lecture. In that lecture he mentioned one of the places that Jesus commands us to love our enemies. And another theologian there, someone who knew him personally, asked “Miroslav, can you love the soldiers who are killing your people right now?” And that question stuck him so deeply that it became the basis for a book called Exclusion and Embrace in which he says that the kind of embrace that Jesus performs on the cross, an embrace which returns love for rejection, is what we have to do to avoid a vicious cycle of continual violence and score-settling. To break that cycle, someone has to say “Even though you reject me, this time I won’t reject you.” And that’s incredibly hard to do in the midst of the pain that we so often feel when we are faced with hurt or rejection. But this is what I think the heart of the gospel is about: breaking down the barriers that separate us by meeting defiant rejection with an embrace of love and grace.
Hidden in this story of Jesus and Nicodemus, I think, is a beautiful illustration of this.
Aside form John’s fascination with Greek philosophy, another thing that makes John’s gospel very difficult for us to understand today is that by the time John was writing, the early Christian community and the Jewish community from which it had been born had parted ways. And that was not an amicable parting, their was a lot of animosity between these two communities. And so whereas in the other gospels Jesus spars with the Pharisees or the Sadducees, very particular sets of people within the Jewish community, in John his adversary is much more generic: simply “the Jews.” And to our post-holocaust ears, and especially in a community with strong Christian-Jewish ties, that’s a little jarring, and it should be.
When Nicodemus comes to Jesus, part of the role of the conversation is to illustrate this tension between the communities. Earlier in their conversation, before our reading, Jesus gets a little snippy with Nicodemus and we can sense that Nicodemus is getting a bit frustrated with Jesus. So their encounter serves as a kind of archetype of the conflict that will recur over and over throughout John’s gospel. But that isn’t the end of the story. We meet Nicodemus again in John’s gospel: at the foot of the cross. Nicodemus suddenly reappears with the disciples to help them bury Jesus after his death. And so, even in the midst of a tense conflict between the early Christians and their Jewish brothers and sisters, I think the gospel writer is trying to give us a subtle and beautiful hint: that the embrace of the cross is even for those who might seem like our enemies, that we are not confined to live in hostility.
We are not Plato’s cave-dwellers, we have seen that God can turn the rejection that met Jesus into the very symbol of God’s embrace for us so that we may likewise transform those things that divide us into things that unite us, and transform rejection into embrace. Amen.