Sermon Seeds: Mysterious Encounter
Trinity Sunday (First Sunday after Pentecost) Year B
by Kathryn Matthews (Huey)
Anyone who has watched a football game on television has seen a reference to one of the verses in this passage, perhaps the most-quoted verse in the New Testament, John 3:16. Unfortunately, for many, the words, “For God so loved the world,” rather than reassuring us of the depth of God’s love for the world, impose a requirement of intellectual assent (“belief”) in order to “have eternal life,” or, as we might say, to “be saved.” That requirement draws a line between the “saved” and the “unsaved,” as if salvation could be so simple.
We sense that Nicodemus knows that things aren’t so simple. As one of “the power elite,” an educated man in an age when most folks can’t even read, he ought to be coming from a place of strength. He leads a comfortable life materially, so he doesn’t need to be concerned with daily survival. The ones who usually approach Jesus – people in urgent need of healing, or food, or forgiveness – seem more vulnerable and open, perhaps because they are desperate. 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, in his bewildered question, “How can these things be?” What a change in tone from his first, self-confident words about what “we know”!
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. 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 might judge him for it.
Sincere, or argumentative?
It’s hard to know 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 helps Joseph of Arimathea with the burial of Jesus. Is it possible that the later words and actions of Nicodemus indicate a conversion experience that leads him to greater humility and compassion, 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? Do you sense that grace was at work in bringing him to Jesus?
Speaking of being brought to Jesus: this text 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 hears 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 calls being “born again…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.”
What leads us to questioning?
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 the sense “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, but “are led into it”; we’re not required to accept (repeat?) specific statements about God so much as to grow closer and deeper in our relationship with God. Borg emphasizes the quality of our relationship with God, which sounds more like a gift from God (like grace) than a spiritual-health regimen that we initiate and follow. However, Borg acknowledges the need to “take the first step, 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.
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, hoping 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.
A faith rooted in experience
Borg helps us to reclaim the text and being “born again” in an understanding of spiritual growth that emphasizes “a more relational and experiential understanding of faith and the Christian life” (The Heart of Christianity). 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. It also sounds a lot like the themes in Diana Butler Bass’ book, Christianity After Religion, which speaks movingly of “experiential faith,” and sheds light on why so many people today claim to be “spiritual, but not religious.” Bass addresses this reality with respect and openness to what we can learn, but even more importantly, to what God is doing in this Fourth Great Awakening. What a great word for this story about Nicodemus: awakening! Perhaps Nicodemus could be seen as an ancient ancestor of those who question, those who seek answers and understanding deep in the night, those for whom the responses of traditional religion ring insufficient or hollow.
I admire Diana Butler Bass’s attitude toward those who call themselves “spiritual but not religious.” I think it requires humility for the church not to assume that it has all the answers, or is even asking the right questions, when people struggle with the larger questions of the day and the harder questions of their lives (of which we may know especially little). The world is very different today than it was, say, in the sixteenth century, when just about everyone had to belong to a church. The problems are even more complex, the options are many, and the freedom, while exhilarating, doesn’t eliminate those night-time questions and doubts. I also sense that there are many gifts and much wisdom to be received from the questions and the wonderings of those who are not in church, for whatever reason, so I am grateful for every opportunity to be with them and to learn from them, and to share whatever gifts I may have to offer.
Nicodemus, in the reading from the Gospel of John, relies on what he has seen and heard about – the miracles of Jesus – as reason to believe. What do you rely on? In our technological world, have you ever felt that you knew too much, in a way that kept you from hearing truth with your heart instead of your brain? Have you ever felt that you were “born again”? Was this a graceful experience, or a difficult struggle – or both?
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (Huey) serves as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
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A Bible study version of this reflection is at http://www.ucc.org/weekly_seeds.
For further reflection:
Hafiz, 14th century
“I wish I could show you, when you are lonely or in darkness, the astonishing Light of your own Being.”
“It seems to me we can never give up longing and wishing while we are thoroughly alive. There are certain things we feel to be beautiful and good, and we must hunger after them.”
Galileo Galilei, 17th century
“You cannot teach a man anything; you can only help him find it within himself.”
Ann Voskamp, 21st century
“But, someone, please give me–who is born again but still so much in need of being born anew–give me the details of how to live in the waiting cocoon before the forever begins?”
Teilhard de Chardin, SJ, 20th century
“I think that the world will not be converted to the heavenly hope of Christianity if first Christianity does not convert itself to the hope of the world.”
In his book on the emergent church, How (Not) to Speak of God, Peter Rollins includes a reflection on what he calls “Heretical Orthodoxy” and invites his readers to consider a third way, somewhere between what he sees as the dual idolatries of absolutism and relativism. In thinking about this divide he invites the possibility of moving from the idea of orthodoxy as “right believing” to seeing orthodoxy as “believing in the right way.” It is a subtle shift to be sure but one that can have powerful implications for understanding that the Christian faith is about a way of believing rather than a means of believing things about the world.
Signs and questions
When we approach the figure of Nicodemus in the gospel today, we see a person who is confronted with what he believes about the world. In fact, he finds the things that Jesus is doing — the “signs” evident in the first part of the Gospel of John — to be oddly intriguing if not utterly disturbing. What he sees raises deep questions for him, the kind that will keep him up at night wondering what it all means. Like Jacob wrestling with the angel (Genesis 32) he will find his nighttime worries lead him to an encounter with one who will change not only what he believes but his very way of life as well.
It is early in the Gospel of John and Jesus has recently taken a whip to the Temple precincts and predicted its destruction (2:14-22). (As is typical for John, the Temple’s destruction has a double meaning that the disciples, after the resurrection, would understand as applying to Jesus as well.) Unlike the other Gospel writers, John uses the cleansing of the temple as the way Jesus begins his ministry and introduces himself to the public. It also set the stage for how skeptically Jesus would approach those who believed because of the signs (2:23-25) and his ability to “look into people’s hearts.” By the end of Chapter 2, the incident in the Temple has set the stage for what is to come, most specifically the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus.
Struggling to understand
It is important to remember that Nicodemus is a type or kind of believer. As imperfect as he is he is a person who, given what he has seen of Jesus, struggles to understand. His questions are not hostile, nor are they dismissive. He comes to Jesus “at night” (3:1) and addresses Jesus consistently as “Rabbi.” Like a good rabbi, Jesus poses questions, riddles almost, to Nicodemus urging him on to deeper understanding. It is Jesus who almost seems like the antagonist — he is, after all skeptical of people’s motives — but Nicodemus stays with the line of questioning like a person hungry for something more.
Yet, as Randall Zachman points out, Nicodemus comes to Jesus because of the signs, thereby raising Jesus’ suspicions. Further, he comes only because he and the other teachers only affirm Jesus as from God because he fits in with their prior understanding and interpretation of the Law of Moses. The result is that Jesus pushes Nicodemus by telling him that he must be born again and born from above. In order to begin to understand who Jesus is, Nicodemus first has to see and experience him from other than his comfortable place and preconceived notions (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 3).
New possibilities not preconceived notions
In his own fumbling way, Nicodemus expresses the kind of confusion we can all feel when we stumble over our own preconceived notions of who God is or how God acts. Who among us would not wonder that because of our age (or perhaps our well-aged notions of God and the world), it is impossible to think about being “born again”? We are not so unlike this “teacher of Israel” that we may not meet the questioning Jesus with a defensive skepticism. This would all be true if the point of the exchange were our ability to change our minds, however, Jesus is offering Nicodemus an even more awesome possibility, that the Spirit can come and blow through our preconceived notions and tightly wound ideas to open us to the possibility of new life.
The word Jesus speaks is that Nicodemus must be born “anothen” — a Greek word that can mean either “from above” or “anew.” We might want to do battle with the word and decide that we prefer one meaning over another, but what would happen if we admitted that the word means both those things? In his commentary on this passage, Henry G. Brinton suggests that we ought to explore the invitation to Nicodemus as speaking about both a time of birth (“anew”) and the place from which the new birth will come (“from above”) (New Proclamation Year B 2009).
Birth as transformation
This birth, generated by the Spirit, is a God-initiated transformation. In fact we might even see the reference to “water and the Spirit” as an expression of the same idea. Perhaps the “water” reference is an allusion to the baptismal waters in which people were born anew as they awaited the Spirit. (You can see similar patterns in Luke/Acts; see the readings for Ascension Day). Can it be that we, baptized into the church, are also in these days after Pentecost awaiting the coming of Spirit who will recreate us from above? Can our congregations, and the individuals that comprise them, be born again from above by the same God who was with Jesus and is with us now as Spirit, a God who constantly re-creates us by opening our minds to new understanding?
The passage quickly turns from a dialogue with Nicodemus to a monologue by Jesus. The last half of the reading doesn’t involve Nicodemus at all but becomes an articulation of who this Jesus is who has already created a stir by clearing the Temple. He has authority because he came from heaven and will, in the end, return there. He is the one who will be “lifted up” and, like the healing image of the serpent in the desert, he has come so that the world might be saved through him. By borrowing the image from Numbers 21:9, Jesus equates this salvation with the healing of the world, the purpose of his being lifted up — both on the cross and in glory as John’s theology would suggest — is so that we might be made whole and entire.
Coming to faith
As a type of believer, Nicodemus is a powerful figure in the Gospel of John. Although he first comes to Jesus at night — presumably out of fear, but also a symbol in John of his lack of understanding — he returns twice more in increasing daylight, and understanding — as the one who defends Jesus at his trial (7:50-51) and as the one who would prepare Jesus’ body for burial (19:39). In the end his is a story of a person whose faith gradually dawned on him. Far from being the instantaneous conversion (as many who claim a “born again” experience as a singular event might say) he took a while to come to faith and to eventually be the one who would not abandon Jesus near the end of his life. While individual instances of conversion are powerful, what we have in Nicodemus is a person whose life was spent in coming to faith. In our own lives and in the lives of those to whom we preach the same Spirit may also take its time, gradually bringing us from fear to faith and from timid acceptance to bold witness.
In the end Nicodemus was able to “believe in the right way,” and was given the gift of transcending what he thought he knew to being the one known so closely by God that he was redefined in the process. When we open the scriptures this weekend we will be opening the possibility that we will encounter a God who will redefine us and transform our believing as well.
Notes on Trinity Sunday:
Some authors see in this passage early signs of a Trinitarian understanding, even though all of them are clear to remind us that the theology of the Trinity is a later concept. Henry G. Brinton, drawing on Kenneth E. Bailey, sees a strong connection between the threefold response of Jesus, introduced each time in the text by “Very truly, I tell you…” as reflective of the three distinct persons of later Trinitarian theology. The reading, however, is not concerned with how God is in relationship but what God does, how God acts: God Creator, God Sanctifier and God Redeemer (New Proclamation Year B 2009). Walter Brueggemann and others simply note that while none of the texts for the day can be seen as being about the Trinity, each of the texts “is associated with Christian reflection on the Trinity, and also reveals something about human speech in relation to the Trinity” (Texts for Preaching Year B).
While the Gospel reading for the day, and the other texts as well, help describe the activity of God, it would do violence to the scriptures to “proof text” our way into creedal statement. The way we know the God of whom the Bible speaks is by our experience of how God acts on our behalf. Like the writers of the Gospels we speak of a God who comes to us as a Creator, Sanctifier, and Redeemer. Each of these is a rich, and sometimes problematic, relational term that begs for exploration. On Trinity Sunday, it might be helpful to explore the high concept of Trinity from the perspective of how we know and experience God in relationship and how we have known God to act in our lives and in the world. Who is this God who has made us and remade us in love? What does the life of God say to our lives as we seek wisdom and inspiration to live in communities of love and witness? How does our understanding of God’s activity influence the way we act in the world?
The Reverend Mark J. Suriano serves as associate pastor at Rock Spring Congregational UCC in Arlington, Virginia.
Perhaps the current over-use of the word “awesome” has diminished the power we once gave to the word “awe.” We usually say something is “awesome” when we’re impressed or enthusiastically approving of or appreciating it, but are we truly struck speechless, or suddenly and painfully made aware of our inadequacy, our smallness, let alone our brokenness and our sin? Hardly. This text from Isaiah marvelously brings together a portrait of a majestic and truly awesome God, limited as these words may be, and yet it portrays a God seeking assistance, or at least seeking an agent to do God’s will and to carry God’s message, a message that will turn out to be one of judgment.
That’s one way to look at this story: God is sitting on a throne, mighty and adored, attended by fearsome creatures who have to cover themselves and their eyes because they are in the presence of the Holy One. There is sound and size, shaking, smoke, and spectacle, flying seraphs and fiery coals. Now, that’s awesome! And yet this God, unspeakably holy and great, asks a question: “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”
Immanence or transcendence?
This is the story Isaiah the prophet provides to justify his call as a prophet. Prophets need call, or vocation stories, just as we do today. When a person presents himself or herself before a church committee, claiming a call to ordained ministry, for example, they had better be sure to have a clear sense of call. They might acknowledge that they’ve resisted the call, but that’s okay. Isaiah and many other prophets did the same. Still, lay and ordained people alike share a sense of a God beyond their words, beyond their imagining, a God who nevertheless has a task, a word, a path for them. This call seems far less like a command than a question, a wondering, an invitation. Who will go for us?
Isaiah’s answer is immediate and clear, almost eager, despite his woeful recognition of his sin and unworthiness. In what ways have you had glimpses of God’s majesty and power and awesomeness? How does the God of power and might connect with the intimate, close God who speaks to you in your loneliest need and fretful questioning? How eager has your response been to the opportunities God has given you to speak a word beyond yourself? How comfortable is your church with its own “holiness” and goodness? How does this text speak to individuals and communities of faith prone to complacency and simple maintenance of its respectability? Do you think that many churches stress either the immanence or the transcendence of God? What is the foundation-shaking reality behind our words and our actions, the utter holiness beneath our feeble attempts to pray and praise such an awesome God? How do our liturgy and the beauty of our sanctuaries strain even to begin to touch the hem of such a robe, a robe so great that it “filled the temple”?
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke.
And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”
Ascribe to God, O heavenly beings,
ascribe to God glory and strength.
Ascribe to God the glory of God’s name;
worship God in holy splendor.
The voice of God is over the waters;
the God of glory thunders,
God, over mighty waters.
The voice of God is powerful;
the voice of God is full of majesty.
The voice of God breaks the cedars;
God breaks the cedars of Lebanon.
God makes Lebanon skip like a calf,
and Sirion like a young wild ox.
The voice of God flashes forth
in flames of fire.
The voice of God shakes the wilderness;
God shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.
The voice of God causes the oaks to whirl,
and strips the forest bare;
and in God’s temple all say, “Glory!”
God sits enthroned over the flood;
God sits enthroned as ruler forever.
May God give strength to God’s people!
May God bless God’s people with peace!
So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh — for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ — if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.
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.”
Liturgical notes on the Readings
In ecumenical liturgical practice, there are normally three readings and one psalm at each Sunday service, in this order:
First Reading: Hebrew Scripture
Response: Psalm (or Canticle) from the Bible
Second Reading: Epistle (or Acts or Revelation)
Third Reading: Gospel
The first two lessons are normally read by laypeople, the Gospel by a Minister of the Word or a layperson. In Roman Catholic, Anglican and liturgical Protestant churches, it is uncommon for an ordained minister to read all of the lessons.
The psalm is not a reading but a congregational response following the lesson from Hebrew Scripture: it is normally sung with a refrain or recited by the congregation as poetry. Occasionally, a canticle is appointed in place of a psalm; it is sung or recited in the same way. The New Century Hymnal provides a complete liturgical psalter with refrains and music.
A hymn may be sung as an introduction to the proclamation of the Gospel.
During Ordinary Time (seasons after Epiphany and Pentecost) two alternative sets of OT readings with responsorial psalms are provided. The first option is a semi-continuous reading through a book of Hebrew Scripture; the second is thematically related to the other readings.