Jesus said to Nicodemus:
‘The Son of Man must be lifted up
as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert,
so that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.
Yes, God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son,
so that everyone who believes in him may not be lost
but may have eternal life.
For God sent his Son into the world
not to condemn the world,
but so that through him the world might be saved.
No one who believes in him will be condemned;
but whoever refuses to believe is condemned already,
because he has refused to believe in the name of God’s only Son.
On these grounds is sentence pronounced:
that though the light has come into the world
men have shown they prefer darkness to the light
because their deeds were evil.
And indeed, everybody who does wrong
hates the light and avoids it,
for fear his actions should be exposed;
but the man who lives by the truth comes out into the light,
so that it may be plainly seen that what he does is done in God.’
The meeting of Jesus with Nicodemus, a master in Israel, (Jn 3,1-21), allows the narrator to present the first sermon of Jesus in the fourth gospel. It is, in fact, a monologue, starting from Jn 3,11, in which it is difficult to distinguish between the actual words of Jesus and the evangelist’s comment. Although it was Nicodemus who went in search of Jesus and started the conversation (Jn 3, 1.4.9), rather than sharing in the conversation he is merely the pretext for reporting what Jesus said. Very soon he will be forgotten, and, starting from Jn 3, 9, there is the impression that we are listening to a dialogue between the early Christian community and the Jews, rather than a conversation between two individuals.
The scene is set in (Jn 3, 1-2a). Immediately the dialogue with Nicodemus focuses on new birth (Jn 3,2b-10), and specifically on the conditions for seeing the Kingdom (3,2b-3) and entering it (3,4-8). The misinterpretation by Nicodemus (Jn 3,4.9) – “how can that be possible?” – prepares for the revelation of Jesus as the one who reveals the Father (Jn 3, 11-21). The sermon begins with a solemn statement by Jesus (Jn 3,11a) in which he speaks of himself in the third person. From 3,13 on, he stresses the necessity of accepting the testimony of Jesus and believing in him in order to have eternal life (3,12-15), a life which comes from God and is God’s gift to the world (3,16-21).
‘Believe’ is the word that keeps recurring throughout the first half of Jesus’ discourse (Jn 3, 18.104.22.168), whilst the theme of light dominates the second half (Jn 3, 19.20.21). In the first part (Jn 3, 12-18) there is the distinction – from above/from below – to express the divine nature of revelation. Being ‘lifted up’ (Jn 3, 14) is essential for eternal life (Jn 3, 15.16). Eternal life brings with it the action of God who loves, gives and sends (Jn 3, 16-17), three actions in which the Son is given as demonstration and guarantee. The Son who is given and sent (Jn 3, 16.17.18) is the only-begotten Son of God (Jn 3,16.18) who is sent to the world (Jn 3,16.17.19). In the second part (3, 19-21) new terminology is used and a precise statement is made: “sentence is pronounced” (Jn 3,19a). Ideas are presented in pairs: belief and condemnation (Jn 3, 18), light and darkness (Jn 3,19), doing wrong and living by the truth (Jn 3,19-20). They indicate the opposite reactions of man to God’s work. To believe is to accept the love of God made real in the gift of His Son. Not to accept him is to be condemned. Anyone who does not know that he is loved is thereby condemned. Or, to put it another way, not recognizing God’s love is already sufficient reason for condemnation.
II. Meditate: apply what the text says to life
In the dialogue with Nicodemus, a well-intentioned Jew, Jesus explains the meaning of his death and the nature of the life he will give. The necessity of his death is indicated by the image of the serpent that was raised up, and saved the people in the desert from death. However, death is not Jesus’ objective but rather the means by which God reveals, beyond any doubt, the love he has for us. This great love of God, and the gift of his Son, are of little value if they are not received with true faith. The effectiveness of salvation depends on acceptance by the one who is to be saved. But it is not at his discretion: it is the time for decisions from above. It is not enough for Nicodemus to come to Jesus in the night. He must accept Jesus totally in the light of day. Anyone who does not see in the light of Christ is living in darkness. Anyone who does not accept salvation when it is offered, risks losing it.
It is interesting to note that Jesus revealed his reasons to one who wanted to know them and went to seek him, albeit secretly, and found him in the night, one who went to ask because he wanted to know. He did not reveal his secret to those who were not interested and did not bother to ask, and made no effort to get to know more about him. We need to find reasons today to go to Jesus, even if only secretly like Nicodemus, to get to know him, to hear him and see him more closely, to ask him his reasons, his sentiments and plans, to ask him about his life and death. In this way we can give him the opportunity to show his trust in us and to become our friend, to make us sharers in his plans and to give us his life.
If many of us feel confused with regard to Jesus, if we no longer understand him as we did before, or if we are surprised at times by his way of acting and his teaching, it is precisely because we thought for a long time that we knew him so well that we did not need to ask him anything. Many people today are no longer interested in Jesus and so, in effect, they cease to be believers. Before losing faith in Jesus, they lost interest in him. This kind of thing could happen also to us. Lack of interest in Jesus is the first step towards losing faith in him.
Just because we are unaware of it, does not mean that the danger is not there. If we don’t want to lose him forever, we must not lose interest in the person of Jesus. We should return to Jesus, immediately, and ask him about whatever we do not know or do not understand. Unless we regain interest in the person of Jesus and the things that concern him, we run the risk of losing him and losing faith in him. Like Nicodemus, we need to feel again the necessity of getting to know him better, to know his reasons and understand his ideas. Then we will discover who Jesus is for us – someone who wants to give his life for us, a God who loves us so much that he gives his own Son for us. If we are not interested in Jesus, we will never discover this God who is so wonderful. We pay a huge price for our disinterest, as we walk the path of life, disillusioned with God because we do not know him well enough. And all because we do not ask!
It would be enough just to feel some love for our God and give him a bit more time, be a bit more concerned with the things of God, and forget for a while other things and people. It would be enough if we were to think a bit less about ourselves, stop listening only to our own needs and wishes, and give more time to God. This would be enough for us to become friends of God, and be surprised by the love he has for us. Jesus would tell us, as he told Nicodemus that night, that his death is necessary if we are to have life: “The Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” If we allow him to speak to us, heart to heart, he will surely convince us.
To make himself understood, Jesus referred to what happened to Israel in the desert, when many were at the point of death because they had been bitten by a serpent. Looking at a serpent raised up on a pole saved them from death. In the same way, his death on the cross is the means he offers us to save us from our death. We must be willing to raise our glance to him, and keep our eyes and our hearts fixed on him. Jesus has been lifted up on the cross so that we may make the effort to raise our eyes and our hearts above the reality of our mortal lives, above our anxieties and our problems, and not allow ourselves to be suffocated by the evil within us and around us. Maybe it is because we look at our world more than at Jesus on the cross, and pay more heed to our own suffering than to what Jesus has suffered for us, that we are unable to see our world and our sufferings with calm eyes and a peaceful heart. Is it not because we do not fix our gaze on Jesus, and him crucified, that our own cross seems so heavy and unacceptable, and we draw back from carrying it? We forget to look at Jesus crucified, and we lose sight of the reason we have to be certain that one day we will overcome the evil we do and the evil we suffer.
Losing sight of Christ crucified is an obstacle to our feeling loved by God. ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.’ The one who does not believe is already condemned. Jesus himself, the Son of God, has told us so, for we would never have guessed it ourselves! He should know, because he paid for it with his life. God has preferred us to his own Son. This statement merits belief for it was made by the Son ‘less-loved’, the one ‘not-preferred’, the one who died for us. The supreme love God has for us was revealed in him. Surely a God like this merits more attention, more of our time, much more of our very lives. How can we continue serving him in mere words, with the same lack of interest, as if we were dealing with a stranger, as if he had done nothing for us and we should do nothing to thank him?
Certainly, our habitual indifference, our repeated silence, and the lack of interest that has become the norm of our lives, make the love that God has for us all the more wonderful and surprising. The gift of his Son should make us less self-centred, more conscious of his death, and more grateful for our salvation. Unfortunately, his love leaves most of us indifferent. In reality, when we look at how things are going in our lives, or how we think they are going, we find it hard to believe that God loves us so much. Precisely because his love is so great, we feel unworthy of it. His love is so mysterious we fail to understand it. His love is so divine that we cannot experience it in a human way. And for all these reasons, we do not believe in the love that God has shown for us. We have not enough faith to accept the love that God has for us. This, rather than our other evils, is the cause that leads to damnation. Jesus himself said so when he was asked: “he who does not believe is condemned already.” We can be free of that eternal condemnation by believing with all our hearts in God’s love. All we need to do is to look more often at Christ raised upon the cross for us.