‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him’
The strap line of the Blood Donor Service is ‘save a life’. It is brilliant: what could be better than to endure just a few moments of discomfort in order to enable someone with a life threatening condition to start again, to have the major surgery they need and the blood transfusion that it requires, in order to overcome debilitating disability or death?
Well, I have tried and failed. Apparently I’ve just got the wrong sort of veins but, after several disastrous attempts at the blood donation centre when not so much as a test tube full was collected, in desperation an auxiliary wiggled the needle and ended up spraying herself with my precious AB specimen. So while everyone else was enjoying their post-donation cup of tea and custard creams, I was marched over to the desk by a formidable and rather burly nurse and told, in no uncertain terms, never to darken their doors again. I was, as she so delightfully put it ‘a slow bleeder’. Never has anyone hung the head in so much shame since Nicodemus was put down with the damning: ‘Are you a teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?’
Nicodemus, of course, speaks of life and salvation and presents us with a comic misunderstanding of birth. Just as an aside, I’m sure you are all mightily relieved that I didn’t decide to begin with an anecdote about childbirth! Nicodemus’ literal, physical understanding of rebirth is absurd. It’s bad enough having a baby weighing ten pounds – so just imagine one which weighs twelve stone!
Although, perhaps, he does get it right in the end and it is significant that the next time we hear of Nicodemus, it is in John 7, where he reminds the Sanhedrin of their legal process: ‘Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?’1 Perhaps he does understand what Jesus tells him, because in today’s passage, Jesus completely subverts the language of the law court: although he has the power to judge, God’s desire, he explains, is not to judge, nor condemn, nor pronounce guilty. Rather it is to grant life and freedom.
Paul, of course, explores this further. We are familiar with his recurrent themes of law and judgement but in Romans2 he also describes God as ‘the one who justifies the ungodly’.
When you give blood, or when you register as an organ donor, you can’t discriminate about who can and cannot benefit from your tissue. There are medical considerations, of course: an operation which requires your blood may not be possible if a person is too frail, or if that person smokes or carries excess weight. Fair enough. However, the organ donor register doesn’t ask for political affiliation or religious belief; whether someone is blessed or cursed, or ungodly. There aren’t Labour livers for Labour voters, or Conservative kidneys for Conservative voters. Nor can you prevent your blood from being used in medical procedures for those who have committed serious crimes. There is no label on the bag which says ‘only to be used for operations on nice people: no murderers or rapists need apply’…
Yet perhaps we would like there to be. Perhaps I would like there to be. When I die, do I really want my corneas benefitting someone who has harmed and may continue to harm others?
However, I can’t make those sorts of judgements or place restrictions on my offering because my corneas and my kidneys, unlike my blood – it seems – will be a free gift: no strings attached. It is a radical counter to the accepted norms and distinctions of the deserving and undeserving, Abraham’s blessed and his cursed.
Even more radical is the renewal and rebirth of baptism and God’s astonishing gift of grace. For in baptism there really is a new beginning, a death and rebirth, an absolution and forgiveness rooted in love and mercy and grace. Sometimes this can be disconcerting: if pushed too far, it might suggest that life lived before baptism is worthless. Of course this cannot be the case: weeks or months or years of life without baptism may be times of great joy and creativity and, for those who go on to be baptised, they are vital in bringing the candidate to a point where baptism is sought. Our relationship with God is reconfigured but does not begin at baptism but when we are ‘knit together in our mothers’ wombs’3 and the gift of baptism is not ‘to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved’.
The hope and, indeed, the absurdity of Jesus’ interaction with Nicodemus is so different from that other salvific model: the Divine Comedy. In Dante’s poem, the curses and the blessings are absolutely based on judgement, on punishments which fit the crime and on a physicality which goes beyond simply the embodiment of souls to a whole system of heaven and hell and purgatory, with a geography and topography which could be mapped out by the Ordnance Survey. Nine circles of hell and nine spheres of heaven, concentric rings of accursedness and beatitude.
Whereas here, in John 3, the reinterpretation of life and birth isn’t just some kind of Gnostic manifesto, although you can see why the Gnostics liked the Nicodemus passage so much, when ‘what is born of the flesh is flesh and what is born of the spirit is spirit’. Instead, it sets a completely different framework: the saving of life is not to be confined to particular people who will go on to live in particular places. Divine grace is offered, Jesus tells us, to the world: in other words, to all humanity.
In the first few centuries of Christianity, the place or location of salvation was much less important than the idea of inherent relationship. Typically, hagiographies and martyrologies, lives of the saints, depict souls arriving in heaven and being greeted, sometimes by an angel, sometimes by Christ himself. So does early Christian art, such as the fresco from the Catacomb of S Domitilla in Rome, which shows the heavenly banquet, with a new entrant being led through a doorway into the feast: greeted, welcomed, included.
Even for Dante, he must be met and greeted by his guide: Virgil in the Inferno and, in Paradise, his beloved Beatrice. So our understanding of our birth and rebirth has to be one of relationship and of gift, of lives saved with no strings attached because in birth, in death and in baptism, we are met and embraced by Christ.
‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him’.
The Revd Dr Rowena Pailing, Director of Pastoral Studies, College of the Resurrection
1 John 7.51
2 Romans 4.5
3 Psalm 139.13