A Reflection on John 3:1-17 by Laura M. Grimes
For God so loved the world…
….that she gave her only-born Son to show us that love, and her Holy Spirit to birth us into fullness of life.
Not quite what you were expecting from that lead, was it? John 3:16 is so often quoted by exponents of a spiritually abusive theology of substitutionary atonement that it can almost impossible to read it with fresh eyes. You know the drill:
God is a loving Father who places his children in an earthly paradise and tests their obedience with one pointless rule. They break it with good motives, and, unlike the parallel story in the Qur’an, this loving Father does not forgive their mistake. Not only are they cast out to a life of misery, they and billions of their descendants, including children who die before they can commit one personal sin, are rightfully doomed to an eternity of torment. Until, that is, the same loving Father sends his innocent Son to suffer cruel torture and an unjust public execution, spilling his blood in a necessary sacrifice for the salvation of the human race—though it doesn’t work for most of them. So you’d better jump through the right hoops to get in that small group, and get as many other people as you can with the program too. Then you can all spend eternity enjoying the presence of your loving Father-- and the horrific and well-deserved agony of those who didn’t listen to you.
With loving Fathers like this, who needs demons?
This is a caricature, to be sure. It is not often preached in such a bald version in mainline churches, and I doubt it would be espoused by many on this listserv or who read this blog. However, the basic theology goes deep in western Christianity and the cultures formed by it, and the fierce commitment to evangelism by those who believe it puts those of us with a more life-giving version of the Gospel to shame. This means that it is perceived as the basic Christian message by countless people—those who reject faith and those who embrace it alike, including many in your pews. And--as they say in all kinds of social justice movements—if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. That is, those of us who have an alternate explanation of God’s love, the cross, and redemption had better proclaim it explicitly, and carefully differentiate it from this misconception, every chance we get. And we’d better be very intentional about what we endorse implicitly, in everything from choices about inclusive language in scripture, preaching, and liturgy to casual statements about Christ dying for us on the cross as proof of God’s love or part of God’s plan.
This week’s Gospel passage from the third chapter of John provides an excellent opportunity to re-vision God’s saving love as we continue our celebration of Lent, preparing to baptize new Christians and to renew our own baptismal vows at Easter. It is a clear and moving picture of God’s fierce and tender mother-love, which has been too often overlooked by theologians, exegetes, and preachers. Listen again to the exchange between Nicodemus and Jesus:
Jesus answered him, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above." Nicodemus said to him, "How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?" Jesus answered, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, "You must be born from above.' The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit."
In these few lines, the word born appears eight times; in five of them, Jesus speaks of birth specifically as the saving work of God. To enter the reign of God is to be born from above, born of water and the Spirit. God, the Holy Spirit who gives us both physical life and spiritual rebirth, is clearly described here as a mother—surprising, mysterious, invisible, and as unmistakable in her effects on our lives as the wind rushing through the trees. This connection is highlighted by Nicodemus’ reference to the mother’s womb: the vessel of sacred waters in which all life begins, just as all life on the planet comes from the vast, beautiful, sometimes terrifying ocean. It would be made clearer still if translators rendered the Greek phrase monogenes huios in verse 16 as God’s “only-born son” rather than “only-begotten son.” This is a legitimate option since gennao is appropriately translated as “born” or “begotten” depending on context—especially since, unlike the Prologue’s reference to Christ as God’s only child, the frequent Johannine term “Father” is here notable by its absence.
To meditate on God as life-giving maternal water gives new meaning to baptism, a major preoccupation of the early chapters of John’s gospel as well as a major theme of Lent. To be baptized is indeed to enter the womb of the Mother and be reborn of her Spirit, and also to enter the tomb of Jesus and be raised to new life with him. This is death not as a propitiatory sacrifice but as the courageous risk--and the inevitable and worthwhile consequence--of birth. I treasure the memory of my best friend’s baptism in college, which wrapped together the intimately linked experiences of life and death and new life. It was done at night, in a swimming pool in which candles and flowers floated. We wrapped her in a white sheet and entrusted her, trembling slightly as she could not swim, to be submerged at the hands of one of our theology professors who was also a Baptist pastor. The assembly remained gathered at the pool’s edge while they got dried and dressed and rejoined us. Then we crowded round to lay on our hands on her in confirmation and celebrated a simple Eucharist, her face beaming as she handed each of us the sacred cup. It was a life-changing moment for her and for each of us who took part in it, leading me to insist on baptism by immersion for each of my children. It also led me to rejoice in the powerful experience of seeing adult baptisms by immersion at the Easter Vigil, and to mourn every time the key moment of someone’s Christian life—and the renewal of the key moment of everyone’s Christian life--is reduced to a couple of drops from a birdbath.
For the word baptize has also suffered an unfortunate fate at the hands of translators—and at the hands of recent liturgical practice in the west. The baptisms performed by John, and by Jesus and his disciples (unique to the Fourth Gospel) were rooted in the Jewish practice of ritual immersion, with added overtones of pagan mystery rites as the practice moved into the Gentile context after Pentecost. Liturgical churches which baptize by pouring or sprinkling have forgotten that the word literally means to immerse, to dunk, to dip—as cloth is steeped in a vat of dye or a newly forged sword is tempered by being plunged into cold water. Except for emergencies, Christians from the early church through the Middle Ages baptized by immersion: either in a large pool or, even better, a natural outdoor water source like that used by Philip to baptize the Ethiopian eunuch. This made vividly clear that baptism was a total transformation, a death to an old way of life and a birth into a new one from the womb of God. Of course God’s Spirit can give us new life through a couple of drops of water, just as Christ can become truly present in a dry, tasteless host (the Jesuit liturgists who trained me used to quip that it took more faith to believe it was bread before the Eucharistic prayer than the body of Christ afterwards). But both are a tragic impoverishment of the ritual experience and the nature of sacraments as life-giving signs, and the Christian people deserve better.
It takes some careful catechesis to help people understand and become accustomed to this, and some thought and planning to baptize by immersion in a church which has not been designed or redesigned for the practice. But it is far from impossible, especially in the case of infants, who can keep a diaper on if it makes people more comfortable, and whose heads do not need to be immersed (and shouldn’t be unless you have been taught how to do so safely, perhaps by a friendly Orthodox clergyperson). My Rachel was baptized in an ornamental steel planter; Nicholas in a blue and white Chinese porcelain vase; and Katie in a shallow custom made pottery bowl gifted by the Lutheran parish which hosted our liturgy to each newly baptized child. (It was not big enough to immerse her, as that was not their custom, so we sat her little naked body in it and my friend Rebecca poured water generously over her from a pitcher). One Easter Sunday I did the music for the baptism of a friend’s child I had helped birth a few months before; it took place in a college chapel, in a large plastic salad bowl from food services. The baby was long and the priest nervous, so he quickly dipped him in and back out to the towel in his mother’s waiting arms, and it was mostly his behind that got wet. The godfather leaned over to me, standing ready with my guitar to start the hymn we would sing while the baby was dried and clothed in his white garment, and murmured “Usually they baptize the other end….”
I have seen adults baptized in Jacuzzi tubs, and even in children’s wading pools, in which at least they can kneel and be thoroughly doused with water. There might be some splashing on the floor—have someone deputed to mop it up for safety--and it might add a few minutes to the liturgy. But the depth of the experience for the whole assembly is well worth the investment. If you haven’t seen this done well, you might find inspiration in the Liturgy Training Publication videos “This is the Night” and “Easter Vigil” (itself the third in a wonderful trio of videos on the Triduum). It isn’t just for Baptists anymore!