Extravagant Love

                 March 17, 2024

Link to Service

Our Gospel from John this morning recounts an important conversation that Jesus has with Nicodemus, a religious leader who seeks Jesus out after dark so that he might privately ask some questions that will help him better understand Jesus and what he is trying to do in his ministry.  After inviting Nicodemus to be born anew, in other words, to be open to a new understanding of life,  Jesus tells him  that God so loved the world that God sent his son to restore it.  John often uses poetic and metaphoric language as he tells the story of Jesus in order to communicate subtle ideas about belief and faith.  John is sometimes more challenging to comprehend, inviting us to approach the text with a wider lens to try to understand its deeper meanings. Ultimately, Jesus is speaking here about God’s extravagant love for the world; he is saying that love is where God begins and ends. This love, like grace, is a gift we do not need to earn; it is freely given. It is a gift that is beyond measure and thus we are invited to accept it in the spirit in which it is offered.  Again and again, love is our refrain. Before we act, think, or believe, can love be first for us too? Let us pray, O Holy One, we gather today in a world too often torn apart with pain and hatred.  Help us to better understand the depth of your great love; help us to be that love for others.  May your loving ways guide our world and  bring peace.  Amen.

While this phrase “And God so loved the world,” from John 3:16 is certainly one of  the most recognizable verses in the New Testament, like all verses in scripture, we miss so much without the context around it. We might infer that Nicodemus came to Jesus at night to keep this conversation a secret. Jesus wasn’t exactly popular among Nicodemus’ friends, because he often challenged them to think in new ways about how they understood God and what they had been taught.  Like so many of us who are set in our ways and believe that we have shaped a life guided by certain values, these religious leaders found it hard to reflect upon the contradictions and hypocrisy that too often obscured their true relationships with God.  

We sense that Nicodemus knows that things aren’t so simple. He himself appears to be coming from a place of strength: after all, he’s one of “the power elite” among his own people, at least, an educated man in an age when most folks can’t even read. A respected leader, he probably lives a relatively comfortable life in material terms. We’re used to Jesus being approached by people in urgent need of healing, or food, or forgiveness, and their need makes them vulnerable and open. Nicodemus, for all of his power and prestige, comes to Jesus in another kind of need: a need for answers, and for help in understanding the answers he gets. It isn’t until the end of his conversation that his vulnerability shows, just a bit, perhaps, in his bewildered question, “How can these things be?” We can feel the change in his tone from his first, self-confident words about what “we know.”

Nicodemus may not know physical hunger, but his spiritual hunger drives him to Jesus in the dark of night, when many of us also may wrestle with questions and doubts,  and  perhaps come face to face with our deepest needs. Of course, it also helps that his other colleagues won’t see him if he talks to Jesus under cover of night; they might question his dedication to his life of faith and Nicodemus may fear being judged by those who hold him in high esteem. And yet, it takes courage to ask the hard questions; it takes courage to be open to new ways of thinking and new ways of loving. 

Scripture scholar Marcus Borg  provides some helpful reflections as we try to hear this text (that has, admittedly, troubled some folks over the years) in a new way, especially the term, “born again.” In his  book, The Heart of Christianity, Borg writes about the “notion” of being “born again,” which “is utterly central in early Christianity and the New Testament as a whole. ‘Dying and rising’ and ‘to be born again’ are the same ‘root image’ for the process of personal transformation at the center of Christian life: to be born again involves death and resurrection. It means dying to an old way of being and being born into a new way of being…a way of being and an identity centered in the sacred, in Spirit, in Christ, in God.” It makes sense, then, that “born again” can also be translated “born from above.”

Borg also writes in The God We Never Knew about what it means to “believe.” Rather than strict intellectual assent to propositions and claims, he speaks of belief as trust, as faithfulness, and “in a very general sense…the belief that there’s something to all of this.” Borg says that a faith that “believes in God” is not something we can simply come to on our own, he suggests that in fact: “we are led into it. It grows….It is not a requirement that we are to meet but a quality that grows as our relationship with God deepens.” But we do have to “take the first step,” he says, “and then another (though sometimes we are virtually pushed into this by desperation or lured into it by example or experience).” So there it is, the mystery of grace and our response, however limited, however sincere.

Unfortunately, for many, the words, “For God so loved the world…”, rather than reassuring us of the depth of God’s love for the world (notice that it doesn’t say that “God so loved the church” but “God so loved the world”) – rather than reassuring us, they’ve been interpreted as imposing a requirement that we use our heads and accept certain intellectual propositions (“belief”) in order to “have eternal life,” or, as we might say, to “be saved.” That requirement, in effect, draws a line between the “saved” and the “unsaved,” as if “salvation” could be so simple, as if God were in the business of drawing lines between people. (Isn’t it just a little bit ironic that a text in which Jesus tries to get a religiously righteous person not to take things literally is often interpreted so rigidly?) The why of what God is doing, the gift of Jesus, the gift of new life, it all comes from love.

But love only works in relationship, which, interestingly, brings us back to belief. Marcus Borg says that we’ve lost the original meaning of belief – remember “credo” – “I believe”? According to Borg, “credo” doesn’t mean, “I agree with these intellectual statements,” because its root words really mean, “I give my heart to.” And the word belief, before our modern, scientific age, wasn’t about statements or propositions – it was directed toward a person: to hold dear, to prize, to commit oneself to that person, to be in a relationship with that person whom we trust. Borg says, “Most simply, to believe meant to love. Indeed the English words believe and belove are related. What we believe is what we belove. Faith is about beloving God” (The God We Never Knew).

We can talk about the love of God, but sometimes, it is hard to fully embrace what that might mean.  What does it mean to be loved by the One who created us, to be loved so extravagantly that we have been given the gift of our lives, the gift of this extraordinary planet, the gift of the beauty of creation. 

It might be easier to imagine the extraordinary love that some people live out in their own lives.  There is great love and then there are those who go above and beyond to share their love, their gifts with others.  I have met people like that in my life and I hope you have too.  I have met people who gave up the comfort of their lives to go live and work among the poorest of the poor in Central America.  In organizations such as Doctors without Borders, there are health care workers from around the world  who are risking their very lives today, now in Gaza and Ukraine to heal the wounded and the sick, taking vacation time off to share their extraordinary medical expertise to care for others.  I think of the amazing volunteers with the World Food Program who just pack up and go to places in our country and around the world to serve food and drink in communities hard hit by a natural disaster or war.  That is extravagant love, my friends.  That is love that expands our notions of what it means to know love and believe in love and to share love.

For God so loved the world…yes and God still loves our world, despite all of the frailties and mistakes and terrible, yes sinful, things that human beings can do to one another.  God so loved the world that in sending Jesus, we might learn to love in extravagant, extraordinary ways as well.  


-Rev. Kathryn Matthews Huey, commentary on John, with quotes by Rev. Marcus Borg

— Rev. T. Denise Anderson, Coordinator for Racial and Intercultural Justice with the Presbyterian Mission Agency,                    and former Co-moderator of the 222nd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA)