Monday, March 13, 2017

The Patron Saint of the Curious Meets a Dangerous Jesus

Sermon Text: John 3:1-17  (RCL Lent 2A)
There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 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.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?...

 ...“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. “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.”

There is a lot to consider in our Gospel lesson from today. Any given piece of that pericope -  the fancy word we were taught to use in seminary to refer to the excerpts of the scripture we were studying -  could be a full day’s lesson in itself. 

                               "Nicodemus Visiting Jesus," Henry Ossawa Tanner

It begins with a secretive night visit from a leader of the Pharisees, Nicodemus. There is an exchange between Jesus and Nicodemus in which Jesus speaks about being born anew, born from above, or, the common translation, born again.

The lesson ends with a rambling theological reflection by the writers of John’s Gospel telling their readers what they believed was G-d’s purpose in sending Jesus to the world and what it was not. The writers tell us that G_d has sent Jesus out of love for the world, not to condemn it but to save it. All that is required for anyone to be saved, they tell us,  is to simply believe in Jesus. Indeed, it’s this focus on beliefs that tell us that it is probably the writers of John’s community of the late 1st CE speaking to us here and not Jesus. For, as we will see, Jesus was asking for a lot more than mere belief.

Let me begin by telling you what I think this lesson is NOT about. The first thing it is not about is being born again as a condition for being a child of G_d.  We Franciscans have long held to an alternative orthodoxy which asserts that everything that exists comes from G_d, that it finds its ground of being in G-d and ultimately returns to G_d. 

That includes us. We come from G-d, we exist in G-d, we return to G-d. 

Although our prayer book refers to us as adopted children of G_d, a statement taken out of context from the writings of St. Paul, every created being is a child of G-d simply by fact of our creation. In truth, G-d really doesn’t need to adopt us. We were all always G_d’s children from the very beginning. And nothing we do or fail to do can ever change that - including the failure to buy into the right set of beliefs about Jesus.

Second, I think the belief that having a once in a lifetime born again experience as a requirement for being a follower of Jesus is problematic on a good day. I am always amused by the joke in which a Baptist pastor is ribbing his Episcopal priest buddy saying “How can you say you’re Christian? You all don’t even have altar calls!” to which the Episcopal priest responds, “Nonsense, we have one every week at the communion rail.”

It has been my personal experience that conversions are not a once in a life-time, one-size-fits-all event. As I see it, conversions happen all the time, often when we least expect them. They happen when we find ourselves suddenly feeling immensely grateful for an unexpected goodness we have experienced in our lives, for the love we have been given despite our worst behaviors, for the beauty which suddenly overwhelms us even as it has been all around us all along.

 Conversions happen when we realize some of our most cherished ideas and understandings about ourselves and the world we live in are no longer tenable and we repent and reconsider our lives. Conversions happen when we bottom out and realize our addictive behaviors are killing us only to discover there is still hope for a new life. In my view, a single emotional experience often a response to extended periods of pressure  from the pulpit and group pressure from the pews - is a poor substitute for a lifetime of ongoing conversion experiences in which the followers of Jesus are born anew over and over again. 

Conversion experiences can also happen when that unexpected person crosses our paths and our lives change forever. Nicodemus knew that experience only too well. He appears three times in our scriptures, all of them in the Gospel of John.

The first of these appearances is recorded in today’s lesson when he comes to Jesus under cover of night to try to make sense of why this Judean prophetic figure of the hundreds of would be Messiahs in 1st CE Judea has turned his life upside down. He will reappear in Chapter 7 when he begs his fellow Pharisees and the chief priests on the Sanhedrin not to simply write Jesus off without considering what he has to say. They will respond smugly, “Can anything good come out of Galilee?” Finally, Nicodemus will accompany Joseph of Arimathea to claim Jesus’ crucified body bearing aloe and myrrh to embalm what is left of their beloved rabbi.

In today’s lesson, Nicodemus, the patron saint of the curious, whose Greek name means “victorious among his people,” comes to Jesus just after Jesus has cleared the Temple. We need to understand the gravity of that action to put this into context. The Temple is the site for both the ritual cult of Judaism with its sacrifices as well as the administrative center of the Roman imperial bureaucracy where taxes are extracted from the conquered Judean people. Shutting down that center of business, both sacred and imperial, would have brought the Judean colony of Rome to an immediate halt.

Consider what would happen if someone came into the New York Stock Exchange tomorrow, set off a small explosive device and then in the resulting confusion infected its computers with a virus shutting down online trading. How would the American empire with its worship of material wealth and the power it brings respond to such an attack on its free market holy of holies? And what would we think of the brash figure who would dare to pull off such a venture?

So perhaps we can empathize a bit with Nicodemus who comes under cover of night because he recognizes this Jesus is dangerous. Jesus draws into question the imperial values of the Roman Empire as well as the legitimacy of the Judean Temple cult. 

It’s important to note here that Nicodemus is a beneficiary of this status quo. He has a lot to lose if it should change. Early 20th CE author Upton Sinclair once remarked that “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!" And yet, like every follower of charismatic leaders historically, Nicodemus knows there is something about this person that is different, something that inspires him to go seeking answers: Who are you, Jesus? What are you up to? And what is it about you that makes you so different?
The key line in the exchange between the two is the following statement by Jesus: “No one can see the kingdom of G-d without being born [again] from above.” Nicodemus tries to deflect Jesus’ challenge with a joke about the impossibility of returning to the womb to be born a second time. But Jesus is having none of it. He comes right back at Nicodemus with a questioning of the depth of his understanding: “Are you a teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?” In other words, Look, Nicodemus, seriously. You know better than this. You’re intelligent and well educated. You know how to think. Dig a little deeper. I know you are capable.
Perhaps Nicodemus does not want to see the picture that Jesus is presenting him. The Kingdom of G-d that Jesus has been preaching and modeling is radical in its implications. In Luke’s Gospel Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God…. But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation….” In Mark’s Gospel Jesus eats with tax collectors and other sinners, a flagrant violation of Judaism’s purity code. Jesus teaches his disciples to give to those who beg, to love one’s enemies and that those without sin are the only ones who get to punish their fellow sinners. What implications might such teachings have for folks like Nicodemus, much less their Roman overlords? 

What implications might such teachings have for us?

You see, Jesus is not asking for Nicodemus to believe in him. He’s asking for something much more. He’s calling Nicodemus to follow him in the Way of Jesus, a way of living that brings life in abundance, a way of living that helps to bring about a Kingdom of G_d on earth as in heaven, as we will pray very shortly. But it is also a way that can lead to a cross.
We need to remember here that Jesus was not a Christian. He was Jewish. Judaism is an ethical tradition that is defined by the way one lives, not what one believes. Indeed, as my friend from college who is now a rabbi in New York is prone to say, “You ask two rabbis a question of faith and you come away with three opinions.”  

Truth be told, it’s fairly easy to buy into a set of ideas especially among a group of people who will readily affirm you for sharing their views or pressure you to share them should you refuse. But, our souls’ return to the G-d who made us at the end of our lives does not depend on getting the right set of beliefs down. And today’s lesson suggests that that is not what Jesus was calling Nicodemus - or us - to do.

We are called to a lifetime of conversions, of openness to Spirit to show us ever more clearly who we are, what we are about and what we are called to do. Jesus calls us to trust G_d with our very lives and with what happens when we die, to focus instead on how we should live, here and now, and then models what that calling looks like for us. 

The Way of Jesus revealed in the Gospels provides us with a pattern to follow in that undertaking. And Jesus promises that the G-d who created us and sent Jesus to us out of love for the world will be with us every step of the way. Following the Way of Jesus will always be a lot more rigorous than simply buying into a set of beliefs. But, like Nicodemus, Jesus calls us to nothing less.  AMEN.

Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d?
 (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)

© Harry Coverston 2017


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