Sunday, March 20
Second Sunday in Lent
God of amazing compassion, lover of our wayward race, you bring to birth a pilgrim people, and call us to be a blessing for ourselves and all the world. We pray for grace to take your generous gift and step with courage on this holy path, confident in the radiant life that is your plan for us, made known and given in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Now 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?
"Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
"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."
All readings for this week
John 3:1-17 or Matthew 17:1-9
1. In our technological world, have you ever felt that "too much" knowledge might keep you from hearing truth with your heart instead of your brain?
2. Nicodemus relies on what he has seen and heard about (the miracles of Jesus) as reason to believe. What do you rely on?
3. Have you ever felt uncomfortable with the way this text is used?
4. What is the purpose of prayer and fasting in Lent?
5. Have you ever felt that you were "born again"? Was this a graceful experience, or a difficult struggle, or both?
by Kate Huey
At most football games, someone holds up a hand-painted sign saying, "John 3:16," surely the most-quoted verse in the New Testament. Unfortunately, for many, the words, "For God so loved the world...", don't describe God's deep love for the world. Instead of speaking about grace, they impose a requirement on us about being "born again," which has been interpreted as "accepting Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior," in order to "have eternal life," or as some might say, to "be saved." But that requirement, in effect, draws a line between the "saved" and the "unsaved," right here on earth, based on what we do, as if salvation could be so simple. Isn't it just a little bit ironic that a text in which Jesus tries to get a religiously righteous person not to take things literally is often interpreted literally? And isn't it interesting that a passage about what God did and is doing (loving and saving the world) turns into being about something WE do?
Nicodemus seems to know that things aren't so simple. He himself appears to be coming from a place of strength: after all, he's one of "the power elite," an educated man in an age when most folks can't even read. A respected leader, he probably lives a life of comfort, at least in material terms. We're used to Jesus being approached by people in tremendous and urgent need of healing, or food, or forgiveness, and their need makes them vulnerable and open. Nicodemus, for all of his power and prestige, comes to Jesus in another kind of need: a need for answers, and for help in understanding the answers he gets. It isn't until the end of his conversation that his vulnerability shows, just a bit, perhaps, in his bewildered question, "How can these things be?" We feel the change in his tone from his first, self-confident words about what "we know." His swagger has turned into uncertainty and confusion.
Nicodemus may not know physical hunger, but his spiritual hunger drives him to Jesus in the dark of night, when many of us wrestle with questions and doubts, and face our deepest needs. Of course, it also helps that his other respected colleagues won't see him if he talks to Jesus under cover of night; they might wonder if his "faith" needs a little fine-tuning, and they might judge him for it.
None of us knows exactly how to read this text, and which tone of voice to use. Is Nicodemus argumentative, or sincerely questioning? Is he in awe of Jesus and drawn to him, or just flattering him in order to find a weakness, somewhere, anywhere, in his teachings? Do the answers from Jesus anger him, or perplex him, or lead him to new life? If we check in with Nicodemus later in the Gospel of John, we find him identified by this encounter both times ("Nicodemus, who had first come to Jesus at night" 19:39). More importantly, he is changed by it: he steps in to temper the judgment of his colleagues in chapter seven, and later helps Joseph of Arimathea to bury Jesus after the crucifixion. Could the later words and actions of Nicodemus indicate a kind of conversion experience, one that leads him to greater humility and compassion, and a more open heart and mind? Or was he there, in the first place, that night, because he struggled with his own limitations and the limits of what we humans, no matter how learned or holy, can understand or accomplish, the beginning itself of a kind of "conversion experience"? Do you sense that grace was at work in bringing him to Jesus in the first place?
What brings us to Jesus?
Speaking of being brought to Jesus: this text, again, has been interpreted at times as meaning that we must "come to Jesus," to simply accept him as our Lord and Savior, and be saved. So the question of what it means to be "saved" is an important one. Marcus Borg is especially helpful as we try to hear this text (that has, admittedly, troubled some over the years) in a new way, especially the term, "born again." In his beautiful book, The Heart of Christianity, Borg writes extensively about the "notion" of being "born again," which "is utterly central in early Christianity and the New Testament as a whole.'Dying and rising' and 'to be born again' are the same 'root image' for the process of personal transformation at the center of Christian life: to be born again involves death and resurrection. It means dying to an old way of being and being born into a new way of being...a way of being and an identity centered in the sacred, in Spirit, in Christ, in God." It makes sense, then, that "born again" can also be translated "born from above."
Borg also writes in The God We Never Knew about what it means to "believe." Rather than strict intellectual assent to propositions and claims, he speaks of belief as trust, as faithfulness, and, "in a very general sense...the belief that there's something to all of this." Borg says that faith that "believes God" is not something we can simply will, on our own: "we are led into it. It grows...It is not a requirement that we are to meet but a quality that grows as our relationship with God deepens." But we do need to "take the first step," he says, "and then another (though sometimes we are virtually pushed into this by desperation or lured into it by example or experience)." So there it is, the mystery of grace and our response, however limited, however sincere.
A new heart within us
This way of expressing what John's Gospel is saying brings the text home, to our hearts and our experience, more effectively and more meaningfully, perhaps, than some of the more rigid interpretations we've heard. Borg titles his chapter, "Born Again: A New Heart" (in The Heart of Christianity), and who among us doesn't long at times for a new heart within us? Who among us doesn't question God in the darkest night of fear and doubt, and hope for answers and reassurance? Most of all, who among us hasn't yearned to know that "all of this"--our lives, our world, with both our struggles and our hopes--springs from love? The same verse that has been used by some to judge us is actually reassuring us about where "all of this" comes from: a God who loves the world (not the church, as one person has reminded us, but the world) so much that only God's own Beloved Son was a good enough gift for us.
Borg helps us to reclaim both the text and being "born again" by seeing spiritual growth as "a more relational and experiential understanding of faith and the Christian life." As always, he speaks of a new life marked by "freedom, joy, peace, and love," just as Paul does. This sounds like grace more than judgment and requirements do. We can't save ourselves, in fact, Fred Craddock calls this new life "a gift from above [that] is not attained by achievement, claim, or proof. Nothing could be more appropriate for Lent than a reminder that prayer and fasting do not earn anything." That doesn't mean that prayer and fasting don't serve a purpose; it's just that they don't "earn us anything."
Love is the bottom line
Scott Black Johnston offers an interesting perspective on the question of how we could ever be required to make the decision to be born again: "It is ironic that many Christians treat the question, 'Are you born again?' as if it involves making a decision for God. Yet babies do not decide to be born...Instead, God is the primary player in this passage." And, he says, "The impetus behind God's desire to see us born of the Spirit is love." This text, so "bottom-line" for many, has love as its own bottom line.
A preaching version of this commentary is at www.ucc.org/worship/samuel
For further reflection:
Margaret Ebner, 14th century mystic
On Friday after St. James' Day I went into choir and began my Pater Noster. Then the greatest grace overcame me and I knew not how it would end, except that I perceived the grace was so great that I could not finish the Pater Noster. My heart was surrounded by such sweet grace and felt so light that I was no longer able to pray. I held the Name Jesus Christus within me with sweet loving power and from it I perceived wonderful, sweet fragrances rising up within me. (See The Feminine Mystic from our own Pilgrim Press for more readings from ancient Christian tradition.)
Leighton Ford, 20th century
I am advocating that we see the gospel as story, and that we understand evangelism as living and telling the Story of the One who has entered and changed our story and will do so with theirs who also encounter his story.
Paul Gauguin, 19th century
I shut my eyes in order to see.
C.S. Lewis, 20th century
The salvation of a single soul is more important than the production or preservation of all the epics and tragedies in the world.
Plato, 4th century b.c.e.
Courage is a kind of salvation.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 20th century
Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted.
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Weekly Seeds is a service of the Congregational Vitality and Discipleship Ministry Team, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The Revised Common Lectionary is © 1992 Consultation on Common Texts. Used by permission.