Monday, March 28, 2011

Mischievous Mystery, Tenacious Love

Sermon preached at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene on the Second Sunday of Lent: John 3:1-17

Our Gospel reading contains probably the most well known of Scripture citations: John 3:16. It is held upon on signs at football games, spray painted on walls, put on bumper stickers and billboards, and printed on the front of a tract that I occasionally find taped to the front door here when I arrive early Sunday morning.

I suppose the intent is that people will be so curious as to what it is that they will go home and dust off their Bible and look it up and be led to a conversion experience. Actually, if you’re going to intrigue people into looking up bible verses it is not a bad one. It does tell the good news.

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

And if they read on to the next verse, all the better.

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.

But of course most of the folks who hold up those signs have latched onto words of Jesus from earlier in this story, when he says to Nicodemus, “You must be born from above [or “again”]. “Are you born again?” is a question that maybe all of us have been asked, and we got all tongue-tied because we knew that the person asking the question had a particular formulaic answer in mind, and it isn’t one you learned in the Episcopal Church.

Sometimes the question gets asked this way: “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior? Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus?”

Well, in a sense, that is the question I am asking this Lent, although I am not asking it in a confrontational way. I’m asking, “How do you have a relationship with Jesus? What does a relationship with Jesus look and feel like?”

Today we have the first of four major characters from John’s Gospel to take us through Lent. Each of them has a significant encounter with Jesus and it is my suspicion that these encounters will teach us about relationship with Jesus.

Last week I said three things about relating to Jesus:

  • We are already in relationship with him.

  • He wants to be in relationship with us (even as our servant).

  • Jesus is not willing to be our personal magician, miracle-worker or power broker, but he is willing to walk through the wilderness with us as long as it takes.

So let’s see if we can build on these things. Jesus is in Jerusalem for Passover. We are still very early in his ministry. John the Gospel Writer tells us that it is at this time that he drives the money-changers out of the Temple. “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” (2:16).

He is confronted by the religious authorities and asked for some “sign” that gave him authority to do such a thing. He answers cryptically: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” They have a good time with that, because they take him literally. But Jesus, we will learn throughout John’s Gospel, hardly ever speaks literally. In this case, John says, “he was speaking of the temple of his body” (2:19-20).

We are then told that many in Jerusalem came to believe in Jesus because of the signs he was doing, but Jesus himself was wary of them. He knew what was “in everyone” (2:25).

This is the setting for the visit of Nicodemus to Jesus. We are told Nicodemus was a leader and a teacher of the Jews. Later on in John’s Gospel we are told that he is a member of the Sanhedrin, which was sort of like the Supreme Court of the Jewish people.

He comes to Jesus by night, a significant detail. He is obviously attracted to Jesus but is afraid of being seen with him. He is already convinced of Jesus having “come from God.” I think he senses that there is a way to relate to God here, through this man, that is different than anything he knows, and he knows a lot.

Jesus doesn’t give him a chance to ask any questions. He knows what Nicodemus wants.

Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.

The word translated “from above” could also mean “anew” or “again.” One suspects Jesus meant “from above,” but Nicodemus hears, “again” and his puzzlement shows that he also makes the mistake of taking Jesus literally.

How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?

Jesus has patience and tries, for him, to put it more plainly.

Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.

And that is what this is all about: the Spirit. Then Jesus uses a metaphor to try to explain this Spirit. It’s clever, because the word for “wind” and the word for “Spirit” are the same word in Greek.

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.

Nicodemus’ head is spinning by this point. He asks “How can these things be?” And it’s the last we hear from him. Later in John’s Gospel he will defend Jesus in front of several other leaders (7:50) and he will help bury Jesus (19:39).

You may get several different things about relating to Jesus through this story. I get two:

  • To relate to Jesus is to relate to a concrete human being (that is still the case even if his physical presence is not with us), but it is also to relate to mystery. He is not easily pinned down. He speaks in metaphor and story and rarely simply tells you what to do. He must be engaged and struggled with, but we can do so with the absolute confidence that he will never leave us.

I like to think that Jesus relates to us in this way not just to protect the mystery of God and keep us from knowing too much. I think he also does it out of profound respect for us, for our need to use our God-given abilities, including our imagination and our reasoning, to come to terms even with God.

The Bible in many ways would have been a much more helpful book if it was written as a clear set of propositions and commandments. The truth is God has more respect for us than that.

  • Second, it is OK for us to come to Jesus “by night.” Wary or even afraid, doubtful and needing privacy, we can come to Jesus when we are in those places. As the hymn says, “Just as I am.” But we can expect that Jesus will always try to draw us out into the light and challenge us to believe, to participate in God’s own life, which is the life of the Spirit. He will not force us, but he will challenge us.
  • A third thing, you can legitimately answer all those questions that an evangelical might ask you with one word, “Yes.” Are you born again? Yes. Read the baptismal rite. Have you accepted Jesus as your Lord and Savior? Yes. I reserve the right not to use the word “personal” as it is not a word used to modify “Lord and Savior” in the Bible or in the Prayer Book.” On this point you can be more fundamentalist than they are. Do you have a relationship with Jesus Christ? Yes you do, intimately so. You were joined with him in your Baptism and you feed on him in each Eucharist. It does not get any more intimate than that.

Can that relationship be strengthened and deepened? Of course it can. Nobody, and I mean nobody, can say differently this side of heaven (and perhaps even afterward).

Thank God for Nicodemus and his curiosity and his courage. Thank God for Jesus and his mischievous mystery, and also, mostly, for his tenacious love.

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