The Rev. Sara Cosca-Warfield
Scripture: John 3:1-17
If I know this community at all, I know that more than a few of us might bristle at this gospel passage. For a lot of reasons. I know my evangelical trauma meter goes off whenever I hear the words “For God so loved the world…” Which is super strange, because I completely believe that God loves the world! But this verse. Whew. I know I had it memorized by the time I was eight years old.
And whenever I learned about John 3:16, the emphasis was alway on the part that say “that whosoever believeth in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” Yes, all of my verses are still memorized in the King James translation. If you do not believe in Jesus in a particular way, I was taught, you will die and go to hell.
And what way was that? Well, that brings us to the other major stumbling block. While the translation we heard today has Jesus saying, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above,” many of us learned it a different way: “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Born again. Eesh. I can’t speak for everyone who came from a similar background, but being born again was the most important thing in the Pentecostal church I was raised in. More important than baptism, even. And there was a formula. It needed to happen on Sunday. Unless there was a revival during the week. Just whenever the church was gathered. You needed to walk to the altar at the front of the church so that everyone could see. And you needed to say to the pastor and God, “I am a sinner, but now I believe in Jesus and that God raised him from the dead. And I want to commit my life to him.”
Which, when I say it, doesn’t sound all that bad. And in theory, it isn’t. At all. But when it came to the actual practice, it felt very strange to me. Being born again was a formula. Go to the altar and say the words, go to heaven. Don’t go to the altar and don’t say the words, go to hell.
There’s a lot that I could unpack here. I could talk about how the formula didn’t really require a person to live differently, to treat their neighbor differently. In fact, the most important behavior change called for was getting more people to the altar to say the words. Getting more people born again.
But what I want to talk about today is the sheer certainty of it all. The certainty that saying specific words in a specific context somehow bestows eternal salvation. And the certainty that those who don’t will suffer eternal damnation.
I wonder, where is there room for faith in such certainty? If we already know, if we’re already sure, what do we need faith for?
My favorite show during the pandemic was definitely Ted Lasso. I’ve watched the whole first season three times, most recently this past week when my parents were staying with us. I love it so much that I made them watch it. It’s a really joyful and smart comedy about an American football coach who is hired to manage a soccer team in England. He knows nothing about soccer, but he loves coaching, he loves his players, and he just seems to really love life. Ted is unapologetically gleeful and uplifting because he genuinely brings love wherever he goes. He’s not naive. In fact, he’s pretty clear-eyed about the world—and he still loves it.
In one scene when a bully is trying to belittle him and his friend, Ted quotes Walt Whitman. “Be curious, not judgmental.” And then he proceeds to mop the floor with the bully in a game of darts.
“Be curious. Not judgmental.”
Judgment always comes out of a sense of certainty. It comes when we are positive that we are right about an issue or a situation or a Bible verse. Certainty doesn’t make room for other experiences, other ways of understanding issues or approaching problems. Clinging to certainty manifests as judgment.
Nicodemus reaches for certainty which, for him, and for a lot of us, is the literal. When Jesus says, “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above,” Nicodemus basically says, Jesus, that’s ridiculous. “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”
You can almost hear Jesus’ enormous sigh. How to explain the full spectrum of color to someone who is certain that only black and white exist?
I’m trying to imagine how Ted Lasso might respond in Nicodemus’s place. I think it would be something like—and I can’t do his accent—“I like what you’re saying, Jesus, but you have lost me. Maybe you can make like Missy Elliot and flip it and reverse it so I can see it from a different angle.”
Because Ted Lasso is really good at something I really struggle with. Something Nicodemus really struggled with. And that’s curiosity, which is 1. Admitting when he doesn’t know something. 2. Asking for what he needs to understand it better. And 3. Being open to the fact that there’s a difference between knowing and understanding. Knowing seeks certainty, but understanding seeks openness. It seeks love. And love is at the heart of curiosity.
When certainty says, “they/them pronouns for an individual person don’t make sense,” curiosity asks, “I wonder what these pronouns means for this person? How can I understand them better?”
When certainty says, “if people would just work harder, they wouldn’t be poor,” curiosity asks, “I wonder what that person’s life has been like?”
When certainty says, “that’s not what a real Christian would do,” curiosity asks, “I wonder how their life and experiences have shaped their beliefs and how they live them?”
I have to return to that last one over and over when I look back on my childhood church.
Today is Trinity Sunday. Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Beloved, Lover, and Love. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And let’s be honest, does the Trinity make any sense to anyone? How can one God be three but still one? Is it like anatomy: the heart, the brain, and the body? Or is it more like grammar: the adjective, the noun, and the verb?
I mean, how does this work really? And why does it even matter?
Well, I think the Trinity matters because it puts us in the same position as Nicodemus was with Jesus. We can either choose to try to explain it intellectually, to break it down into parts that are knowable, that give us a sense of certainty.
Or we can see the Trinity for what it is: A God who creates a universe that is infinite, who comes into our humanity to challenge us to believe beyond anything we can ever really know, and who dances with us through the unknowing. A God who asks us to rest in uncertainty. A God who invites our curiosity.
The Trinity asks us to really step into our faith. Because the opposite of faith isn’t doubt, it’s certainty.