Sunday, May 31
First Sunday after Pentecost
Holy God, the earth is full of the glory of your love. May we your children, born of the Spirit, so bear witness to your Son Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, that all the world may believe and have eternal life through the one who saves, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, now and for ever. 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 Sunday
1. How do you think of “faith”? Is it about content, or is it a way of believing, or perhaps a way of being in relationship with God?
2. Why do you think Nicodemus came to see Jesus in the dark of night? What sort of questions arise in the night, that “book learning” can’t answer?
3. Can you relate to the figure of Nicodemus? Have you come to faith slowly, over time, or in a dramatic, sudden experience?
4. What does it mean, to you, to be “born again”?
5. How does our understanding of God’s activity influence the way we act in the world?
Reflection by Kate 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 instead what seems to be a requirement of intellectual assent (“belief”) in order to “have eternal life,” or, as we might say, to “be saved.” That requirement, in effect, 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?
A new understanding of “born again”
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 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 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.
Longing for a new heart
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 someone 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 and being “born again” in an understanding of spiritual growth that emphasizes “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. It also sounds a lot like the themes in Diana Butler Bass’ new 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.
A faith rooted in experience
Speaking of questions, 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 ñ the miracles of Jesus ñ 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 ñ 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).
You’re invited to share your reflections on this text on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
A preaching version of this reflection (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_may_31_2015.
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.”
Friedrich Nietzsche, 19th century
“[The one] who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”
Elie Wiesel, “Night,” 20th century
“He explained to me with great insistence that every question posessed a power that did not lie in the answer.”
“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.”
About Weekly Seeds
Weekly Seeds is a United Church of Christ resource for Bible study based on the readings of the “Lectionary,” a plan for weekly Bible readings in public worship used in Protestant, Anglican and Roman Catholic churches throughout the world. When we pray with and study the Bible using the Lectionary, we are praying and studying with millions of others.
You’re welcome to use this resource in your congregation’s Bible study groups.
Weekly Seeds is a service of Local Church Ministries of the 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. Prayer is from The Revised Common Lectionary ©1992 Consultation on Common Texts. Used by permission.