There’s so much I love in this Gospel story about Nicodemus, this man of wealth and status and learning who wondered if he was missing something, who snuck out to visit Jesus by night so as not to compromise his reputation. We have a picture of Nicodemus and Jesus, among our icons, to make space among those passionate saints for those who are almost embarrassed by their belief, their longing to come close to the living God.
But today I’m going to leave our friend Nicodemus to your reflection, and focus instead on one phrase of this Gospel – a snippet of verse 17, which alongside its more famous brother John 3:16 is one of the best-known texts in the Bible. And rightly so; John offers us here a simple, beautiful statement of what he understands as the point of the whole business: For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only Son, so that everyone who trusts in him may not perish, but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but so that through him, the world might be saved.
Saved. The world might be saved. Sothe, in Greek – a conditional future tense – the “maybe someday” tense – of the Greek verb sozo.
The verb, sozo, to save, and its related noun, soterio, salvation, are used throughout the New Testament, and beyond, in a wide range of ways with a common thread of meaning. Sozo can mean to save from a dangerous situation. To heal. To recover from illness or injury. To be restored. To survive an ordeal. To be rescued, to escape, to be freed. To keep, preserve, or protect. In the New Testament, the situations in which sozo is used run the gamut from real-world illness, danger, or bondage, to the metaphorical and spiritual conditions that mirror those outward realities. And the witness of the New Testament is that Sozo is the word for what God does, in us, for us. Sozo: the name for the central thrust and purpose of God’s action in human history and human lives. To free, heal, make well, rescue, deliver. To save.
But. While the Church assures us that God’s saving grace has already seized us, marked us indelibly with love – while we have seen God’s salvation at work in particular lives and situations – While we may catch glimpses of God’s grace in human history, working among us to bend the long arc towards justice – we still feel ourselves to live in that conditional future space, in the “maybe someday” tense of salvation. The world might be saved.
I believe myself to be saved, but I wonder what it looks like in my daily life. I believe the world to be in the grip of God’s saving power, but I wonder how to cooperate, collude, conspire with God in working towards the salvation of everybody and everything.
Salvation isn’t everyday vocabulary for a lot of us; Episcopalians aren’t that kind of Christians, for better or worse. But there’s another word that I am hearing from many of you, and from brothers and sisters in faith, far and wide, these days: Resist. Resist.
Resist is a buzzword, a hashtag, a t-shirt right now, but Christianity has always been about resistance. As my seminary professor Kwok Pui-Lan recently wrote, “We must recover that the Jesus movement was a resistance movement against [the so-called] Pax Romana. Jesus was not a passive religious leader, but took an uncompromising stance against the Roman Empire.”
And while resistance to empire and political oppression is foundational to Christianity, the resistance to which Christ calls us is both broader and deeper. The Gospel of the Temptations of Christ, which we always receive on the first Sunday in Lent, shows us Jesus rejecting the motivations and aspirations of the world: Seek power and esteem, Satan suggests. Seek self-fulfillment. Seek security. Instead, Jesus tells us: Seek the kingdom of God – which is profoundly different from the kingdoms of this world. Jesus’ teachings – like the Jewish faith which formed him – consistently stress that belonging to God means living by a different set of rules, and resisting the zero-sum, us-them, might-makes-right logic of the human world.
The last shall be first. The least shall be honored. Ninety-nine sheep abandoned to seek the one that wanders. The sin-stained and broken treasured above the righteous. The outsider named a member of God’s household. The stories of the first Christians, the stories of the saints, are stories of people called by God to push back against the injustices, divisions, and casual cruelties of their time and place.
Resistance is intrinsic to salvation. Salvation is what God does for us, beyond our power or even our understanding; resistance is how we live as people chosen, named, and called. We are baptized into God’s insistence that the world could be otherwise. It’s right there in our baptismal vows: We renounce – Renounce: synonyms – deny, reject, repudiate, resist – We renounce all spiritual forces of wickedness, and the evil powers of this world that corrupt and destroy God’s creatures; and we promise, with God’s help, to persevere in resisting evil.
Salvation and resistance go together like a horse and carriage. Salvation and resistance are both against oppression and bondage – the obvious and the subtle forms.Salvation and resistance are both about discovering your value and your freedom – and passing on that knowledge to others. Salvation and resistance are both about knowing, deep-down heart knowledge, that the world could be, should be otherwise. That another, better way is possible – for me, for all of us.
Salvation and resistance are closely linked – which makes sense, because I have the same question about both: How do I live this? How can we take salvation, our saved-ness, from something we say in church to something we carry into each day as a fierce and living hope? How can we take resistance from hashtag territory, from Facebook virtue-signaling and ritualized outrage, to a daily way of being in which our habits, acts, and choices lean in to God’s dream for the world?
I read something last week about resistance, about what it means, what it can look like – and then when I looked at today’s Gospel, I thought, It’s the same. The ways we live it, let it shape us and shine out of us – the same. Listen – these words come from activist Brittany Packnett, on Twitter. She writes,
“I’ve been thinking about [all the] social justice buzzwords… Are we examining what they really mean? and if we measure up? We so often use words we don’t mean – or worse yet, say words we aren’t willing to or don’t know how to live. I’ve been thinking a lot about what resistance means. We have an archetype of resistance. Loud. Brash. Confrontational. Those things matter. But resistance is so much more. Resistance requires that we confound the status quo, challenge acceptable norms through our actions.
“Joy is resistance. Oppression doesn’t actually have room for your happiness. You resist it when you find joy anyhow. Love is resistance. Think about the need to protect [transgender] kids. In a world that too often shows them hate, love pushes that status quo… Hope is resistance. If you let it, this fight will destroy the hope you have in our ability to change things. But change is fueled by hope. Rest is resistance. Music is resistance.Culture is resistance…. We have to give words meaning through our actions, not our rhetoric.”
We live in “maybe someday” time – striving to trust that God’s salvation is already accomplished, even as we search the headlines and the landscapes of our lives for glimmers of hope and possibility. In this conditional future space, salvation and resistance overlap, intermingle, flow out of each other. One is God’s work and one is ours, but they’re so deeply intertwined that it’s hard to draw the line.
God didn’t send Jesus into the world to condemn the world, as ugly and painful as it was, as it is. God sent Jesus to redeem, to rescue, to heal, to free. To save. And when we live as people whose lives and hopes are shaped by God’s salvation, it looks like resistance. It looks like… joy. Joy anyhow. It looks like love. Love that stands with, and stands for. It looks like hope. Like persistence and courage. It looks like rest, the radical work of caring for yourself. It looks like music, poetry, art, like creative or constructive work shared, like hard stories heard and honored, like learning even when it hurts, like remembering what’s easier to forget, like simple small kindnesses woven into our days. You’re already doing it. Already saved. Already resisting. And it’s always, always, calling you onward, farther, deeper, into the maybe-someday of God’s dream.
Kwok Pui-Lan’s blog post on theology in the 21st century: