A Sermon preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on March 16, 2014.
The Scripture texts for the 2nd Sunday of Lent, Year A:
Genesis 12:1-4a | Psalm 121 | Romans 4:1-5, 13-17 | John 3:1-17
Today we reacquaint ourselves with Nicodemus, a prominent man in his world, trying to adjust to the new light before him . . . but not without struggle. Nicodemus draws near to Jesus, seemingly without fully knowing why. Later in John, Nicodemus speaks up among his colleagues to make sure that Jesus gets a hearing before being judged . . . for the sake of the law, of course. Maybe like Nicodemus we are sometimes afraid to profess our faith, to profess that we believe that Jesus came to save the world. Maybe we forget what it means to be saved. Does it mean we have to get all the bumper stickers? This would be an appropriate day to hand out 3.16 stickers.
This past year I listened to a recorded sermon given by Steven Charleston, a previous bishop of Alaska and a McMichael speaker a few years ago. His sermon on this text highlights Nicodemus going to Jesus by lamplight, and that image has stuck with me—Nicodemus by lamplight scurrying in darkness and through darkness to find Jesus. Why is a leader of the Jews, one of the ruling authorities, going to Jesus? Maybe Nicodemus didn’t know himself, for ignorance is a type of darkness, too. But he announces to Jesus that he is one of those who knows that Jesus comes from God. Nicodemus has seen the signs – Jesus working miracles. Nicodemus gives the equivalent of an “I-know-something-about-you,” and Jesus responds with, “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
Is Jesus saying, “No, Nicodemus, you don’t really know anything about me”? Or is he replying to a different question? Right before today’s readings in John, it reads that Jesus knew what was in everyone, and then there’s the dramatic pause of a chapter break before we are introduced to Nicodemus by lamplight. We may not know why Nicodemus went to Jesus that night, but Jesus knew what was on Nicodemus’s heart.
Nicodemus focuses on the physical nature of birth, rightly observing that no one is going back to his mother’s womb. Jesus pushes for more, though. It’s not just about a physical, fleshly birth that promises human weakness, frailty, and mortality; it is also about a birth of Spirit. Spirit, in all its mystery and like the wind, chooses where it goes, and announces itself when it wills to be heard. Unless one has had the spiritual birth, one cannot expect to see the kingdom of heaven.
Did Nicodemus want to see the kingdom of heaven? If we mean in the sense that he wanted to lay eyes on God, no. But to “see” in this sense can mean to experience, to encounter, to participate in. It’s not hard to imagine that law-abiding, law-enforcing Nicodemus might want to participate in the kingdom of heaven, which he and the other Jews were trying so hard to bring about through obedience to the law.
Jesus’s focus on the flesh and the Spirit signals for some that this is the point Jesus is trying to make, that Nicodemus is too much in the flesh, too concerned with worldly glory to make it into full participation into the kingdom of heaven. Is this how we read it?
Father Albert Cutié last night at his lecture mentioned that one of the worst things Christians do is to make God a God of the box: insular, biased, and exclusive. He also said that as Episcopalians, we do a good job of being open. We are a both-and church. We have the temporal and the spiritual, the secular and the sacred, none of which are so easily delineated from the other.
Just because Jesus says “What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit,” does not mean that the two should never meet. Nicodemus is, in fact, talking to God incarnate. What is Jesus if not flesh and Spirit? Born of the amniotic waters of human birth and born of Spirit (as Spirit), Jesus embodies the conundrum with which he baffles Nicodemus. “How can these things be?” Nicodemus asks for all of us.
But it’s not about how they can be. It’s that they are and that we believe that they are that matters most. Jesus speaks to Nicodemus, basically outlining what Jesus is here to do, what God is up to. Even though God loves the whole world, the promises are made to those who believe.
What is Jesus here to do? To be lifted up – on the cross, out of death, and into heaven. Why? So that we might have eternal life. Not certainly, but optionally, based on our believing. If we believe, we are saved and granted eternal life, not eternal life of flesh – our baptism is not of the Fountain of Youth, but we have eternal life in Spirit, in the kingdom of heaven, in union with God.
There are so many interpretations behind this notion of being saved. As Episcopalians, we can barely talk about it without using air quotes. So many groups lay claim to the “Truth” and ostracize others for not being their kind of “saved.” But that’s not what God was about. “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.”
Many of you may know that I grew up Baptist, attending church with my grandmothers, either in Pea Ridge or in Bentonville. It was at the country church in Pea Ridge that I realized the preacher was all the time talking about being saved, saved from eternal damnation, the pits of hell – not quite like Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” but pretty close. Nine-year-old that I was, I looked up to my 5-foot-tall Cherokee grandmother and whispered, “Are you saved?”
I remember she looked down at me and kind of sushed me, but after the service she snagged the preacher, Brother Jack, and told him, “I think Sara has something to talk to you about.” Maybe there was a wink or a nod in there, surely some coded body language I didn’t understand, but Brother Jack knelt before me and asked if I accepted the Lord Jesus Christ as my personal Savior. I’m sure I furrowed my brow like I do when someone asks a question and I think “What?” as I try to comprehend that they’re saying. Supposing I didn’t understand what he said, he repeated his question, and my grandma encouraged me. It seemed a ridiculous question. Wasn’t Jesus already my savior? “Yes,” I said aloud, and there was much hugging and talking between the two adults. I guess I was “saved.”
I took it for granted when I was young, and I still catch myself now assuming that everyone knows and believes that Christ is God’s way of saving us, not from the fires of hell but from eternal separation from God.
The Episcopal church’s view of salvation seems ambiguous, but our catechism states quite plainly that Jesus, our Messiah, was sent by God to redeem us, to set us free from the power of evil, sin, and death. Our redemption is possible because of grace, “unearned and undeserved” as it may be. It is this grace that infuses our fleshly world that makes it impossible to separate heaven and earth. We are invited to participate in the kingdom of God if we only believe. If we can participate in it, then it has to be here and now. Otherwise, if we don’t believe in Jesus, what is born of the flesh, indeed remains in the flesh. We don’t know how to talk about it otherwise.
When I was in high school, an upperclassman’s sister was killed in a car wreck— one of those crazy situations, like they all are. A group of college kids in a car, leaving a football game. There was a storm, and a tree fell on their car on the roadway. Tragic indeed, but I remember my teacher saying, “They’re not Christian, so what do you say? They don’t believe in anything after death.”
What do we say, Christians? Have we truly nothing to say to those in despair or those who are not “saved”? Is anyone outside of God’s love, God’s grace, even in death? How can we know this side of eternity except by faith? Celebrating Lent as part of our liturgical cycle, we know that God triumphs over death. But the certainty assured by our belief cannot be assumed by others.
On Holy Saturday, we can find Nicodemus again, then at Jesus’ tomb, bringing the myrrh and aloe to help cover the odor of decay. Either Nicodemus greatly honored Jesus by bringing so much aromatics, or he doubted the resurrection. Though Nicodemus might have been one of the secret believers, he never professes his belief aloud. Truly, only Jesus knew his heart.
Whether we know it or not, we really want to be one with our creator, our redeemer, our sustainer. We may not know what is in our hearts, so buried our true nature may be by any number of injustices or evil done by ourselves or by others. But our true nature is of God, and it longs for reunion which is made possible in our redemption, our ultimate healing. Whether or not we have the bumper stickers, our hearts are stirred, and Jesus knows it. If we believe what we will profess in a moment, then we are participating in the kingdom of God here and now, and it doesn’t stop at the doors of the church. We are the instruments God will use to make grace visible and to enlighten the darkness. We glorify God by living into our salvation, by showing God’s love even to strangers. It could have been such new, radical love that brought Nicodemus to Jesus in the first place.