Sunday, March 12
Second Sunday in Lent
Glimpses of Grace
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?
Reflection by Kate Matthews
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, a condition, 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," which is also generally understood as "going to heaven after we die."
That requirement, in effect, draws a line between the "saved" and the "unsaved," right here on earth, based on what we do (believe in a certain way), 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?
He had questions nevertheless
We sense that Nicodemus knows 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" among his own people, at least, an educated man in an age when most folks can't even read. A respected leader, he probably lives a relatively comfortable life in material terms. We're used to Jesus being approached by people in 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, and perhaps a different kind of vulnerability: 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, almost wistful question, "How can these things be?" We can feel the change in his tone from his first, self-confident words about what "we know." His swagger, or at least his self-assurance, 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.
Seeking answers or an argument?
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 ("Nicodemus, who had first come to Jesus at night" 19:39), and, more importantly, changed by it: he steps in to temper the judgment of his colleagues in chapter seven, and later, after the crucifixion, he helps Joseph of Arimathea with putting Jesus' body in the tomb.
Perhaps 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 perhaps he was 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. Do you sense that grace was at work in bringing him to Jesus?
What brings us to Jesus?
Speaking of being brought to Jesus: this text, again, has been interpreted at times as meaning that we ourselves must "come to Jesus," to simply accept him as our Lord and Savior, in order to 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 folks 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 beingÖa 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 senseÖthe 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 growsÖ.It is not a requirement that we are to meet but a quality that grows as our relationship with God deepens." But we do have 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 the text by reframing the idea of being "born again" in an understanding of spiritual growth that emphasizes relationship and experience rather than doctrine and dogma. As always, he speaks of a new life marked by "freedom, joy, peace, and love," just as Paul does. This sounds a lot more like grace than judgment and requirements do. We can't save ourselves, in fact, Fred Craddock reminds us that this new life, this free gift is one we cannot earn, even with our most earnest Lenten sacrifices. That doesn't mean that prayer and fasting don't serve a purpose, but saving ourselves is not what they're about, although they perhaps open us up to what God is doing in our lives and in the life of the world.
Love is the bottom line
This text is so exceedingly rich that we can hardly begin to do justice to the work of scholars to illuminate it: Charles Cousar, for example, observes that for all of Nicodemus' learning, he still can't seem to "grasp the strange ways of God, who persists in making all things new." Richard Eslinger reminds us that Jesus is not impressed or pleased with Nicodemus' opening line: "That many were believing because of the signs he was doing was not regarded by Jesus as a glorious movement of faith," Eslinger says. Like many other commentators, he notes that Nicodemus is into literal interpretation of religious truth (mystery), and he also points out that the private conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus transitions into a sermon to John's later community and ours as well today.
Scott Black Johnston offers an interesting perspective on how we can 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 bornÖ.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 the true bottom line.
What do you need in order to believe?
Nicodemus puts stock in what he has seen and heard about--the miracles of Jesus--as reason to believe. What do you rely on in order to believe? In our technological world, have you ever felt that you knew too much, in a way that kept you from hearing what is really, really true with your heart instead of with your brain? In a recent essay for the Stillspeaking Weekly, "Questioning the Questions," the Rev. Dr. Kristina Lizardy-Hajbi, director of the United Church of Christ's Center for Analytics, Research and Data, describes where a young child's "why?" questions go, as "younger individuals yearn to understand cause and effect; as we age, that desire dissipates. Oftentimes, we assume that we already understand the cause and effect of a situation, and therefore brush past this 'simple' question in order to pursue higher-order inquiries involving 'how' and 'which.'" An interesting lens through which to read this story about Nicodemus, who was stuck on "how," while Jesus seemed to focus on the "why": God's love. Simpler? Perhaps, but more to the heart of the matter.
A preaching version of this commentary (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.
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For further reflection
N.T. Wright, 21st century
"The work of salvation, in its full sense, is (1) about whole human beings, not merely souls; (2) about the present, not simply the future; and (3) about what God does through us, not merely what God does in and for us."
William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying, 20th century
"People to whom sin is just a matter of words, to them salvation is just words too."
William Nicholson, Shadowlands: A Play
"Self-sufficiency is the enemy of salvation. If you are self-sufficient, you have no need of God. If you have no need of God, you do not seek [God]. If you do not seek [God], you will not find [God]."
Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel, 21st century
"One of the the loveliest lines I have ever read comes from Brother Roger, the Prior of the Protestant monks of Taize, France: 'Assured of your salvation by the unique grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.' It is still difficult for me to read these words without tears filling my eyes. It is wonderful."
Don DeLillo, 20th century
"What we are reluctant to touch often seems the very fabric of our salvation."
Anna White, Mended: Thoughts on Life, Love, and Leaps of Faith, 21st century
"I grew up believing Christians didn't just believe in Jesus. To be saved, people had to look and speak a certain way. They followed a long list of nots to ensure their holiness. They fit the mold. They followed the rules."
Christine de Pizan, DitiÈ de Jehanne d'Arc
"[A] person whose head is bowed and whose eyes are heavy cannot look at the light."
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