Tuesday, March 25, 2014

U2charist: Nicodemus, them, and us

From the beginning of Nicodemus' life, it had been about "them and us":  outside and inside of the covenant of God.  

As he got older, the "them" got larger, and "us" got smaller.  Nicodemus was a Pharisee: a rabbi, and a leader of the people. He had come into some power under a mindset that to be born a Jew was to be born into the kingdom of God. Being of that kingdom, there were strict rules of conduct for acting and interacting with other people...and failure to follow the rules moved people to "them" status:  he would have been clear on this.  What was not clear to him was whether or not this new rabbi...this Jesus...was part of "them", or "us".

Alone in his study at night, Nicodemus was supposed to be deep in study: after all, the rabbis had taught that the Torah was best studied at night when it was quiet and the distractions of the day had subsided. ("Late-Night Seminar," Patricia Farris, The Christian Century, 2002.) The distraction of Jesus, however, had became to big to think of anything else.

So Nicodemus went out into the night to find Jesus. Perhaps he had waited until night so that others would not see him. Perhaps he hoped for uninterrupted time with him, or perhaps it was because he simply found himself unable to wait any longer. All I can tell for sure is that this fits very nicely into John’s Gospel, for light and darkness is a repeated theme throughout his text. Hall Harris writes: “Out of the darkness of his life and religiosity, Nicodemus came to the Light of the World.”

Upon arriving, Nicodemus says to Jesus: “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.” Some people see this as the classic buttering up the person you wish to roast.  I choose to believe these to be sincere words more than flattery. Regardless of which they are, Jesus basically ignores them.

Jesus answers “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus hears this and quickly responds in a literal sense. "Born again? How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?"

John’s mystic Jesus shakes his head and goes deeper, to which Nicodemus asks, “How can these things be?”

Anna Carter Florence remarks that the learned Nicodemus asks some rather stupid questions. First he mistakes Jesus’ words to believe one must literally be born again: “reentering the womb.” Then, after Jesus unleashes this incredible metaphor to illuminate mystery: “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 sputters “How can these things be?” (In Feasting On the Word, Year A, Vol. 2, Eds. David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, 2010, p. 73)

Jesus responds “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet do not understand these things?!” We often hear this as a put down, but could this be something else as well? Perhaps Jesus is gently challenging his fellow rabbi to move beyond is initial reaction:  suggesting that Nicodemus is missing the opportunity to ponder the words and explore them for meaning, rather than staying on their surface. After all, the practice of rabbinical studies involves thoughtful consideration of words: taking them deep into one’s mind and heart in order to discern their rich meaning. Nicodemus is not answering in a way that reflects his legitimate role as a teacher devoted to God.

So, imagine that Nicodemus goes home after this exchange: back to his study to ponder Jesus’ words. What did he discover there?

Nicodemus would have believed, by the virtue of his ancestry to Abraham, that he was favored by God so long as he followed the rules. These rules made it clear to him who was righteous and who was a sinner. It was clear who was in and who was out. In his position of power as a Pharisee, Nicodemus was in control.

Jesus’ words challenged this. Jerry Goebel writes: "Imagine studying all your life to be among the elite and powerful only to be told that all of your theories are based upon a completely false premise.” Nicodemus is confronted with the reality that life is really not “all about me”, and that God could care less about what I know and what rules I’ve followed or broken, but instead wants to know who I’ve loved and what I’ve done for others and on behalf of God’s vision for the world.

Alice McKenzie writes that Jesus' comparison of being born from above with the action of the wind was probably a frightening one to Nicodemus because the wind is unpredictable, wafting away items to which we have become attached and blowing in others we would not have chosen. It can be frightening to us as well.  She writes:

"Anything can happen when it comes to wind. The fog might lift from a whole church that thinks their best days are behind them. A whole church could feel the brisk, energizing breeze of hope, and purpose stronger than their pain. If we say yes to the question, "Do you want to be born again or born from above?" the belief in Christ we now recite with our lips could become the blood running through our veins.”

All this centers in belief.  Belief may be the single most misunderstood concept in Christianity.  All those years of pulling John 3:16 out of its context has confused us.  The logic of the Gospel John is NOT: If you believe in Jesus, the “Son of God”, then God will love you and save you. God's salvation is not a reward for belief. Nor does God withhold God's love, forgiveness and salvation until we believe. (David Ewart, www.holytextures.com)

Instead, belief is the invitation into a life-long journey of exploration: a willingness to say yes to where God will take you, an openness to discover new truth, and a gentleness in our encounters with others….wherever the wind may blow.

Where is this wind blowing you?  Where is the Ruach…the very Spirit of God…attempting to blow out old worries and limitations?  What of God’s dreams for your life, once laying dormant in you, are now, suddenly, being rekindled by a bit of concentrated breath? 

Now it's time to let Bono and the band get their chance to preach:

Sing with me:  

There is no them...

There is no them...

There's only us....

There's only us...

There is no them...

There is no them...

There's only you...there's only me...

There is no them...

The spirit moves today…unexpectedly rushing in…desperately pleading for you to open your clenched fists…to let go of what your holding on to so tightly in fear of losing it…and find yourself born again…and again…and again:  a lifetime of encounters with God and this Creation and everyone in it that God promises is ultimately good.  God wants no less than that for each and every one of us. 

There is no them...only us...all of us.  That was Jesus' message to Nicodemus.

(This is, more or less, my sermon from the U2charist at Trinity Cathedral on 3/16/2014.  I wandered a bit off text, so this is my best shot at recreating it.  It is based on an earlier sermon given at All Saints' Littleton, but the ending has been significantly developed.)

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