Trinity Sunday 2012

Gospel: John 3:1-17

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.”

First, lets set up the story behind Nicodemus’ visit by night to the man he calls Rabbi: After the Romans destroyed the Jewish temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 C.E., there was a major shift in Judaism away from a religion characterized by temple sacrifice (there was after all, no longer a temple) and toward a religion based more on rabbinic teaching. It is helpful to remember that it was into this world of teaching in the synagogue that the gospel of John was written, not in the world decades earlier in which the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus is described.

So when John was writing his gospel, the Jewish community was in turmoil. It wasn’t yet clear what form the practice of Judaism would take in a post-Temple world. There were those in the community that had chosen to believe that Jesus was the Messiah and others who did not believe that he was the promised one. Nicodemus, in his visit after dark, represents those who were sitting on the fence. He was among the “undecided voters.” You might think of the entire Gospel of John as a campaign financed by a superfund, targeting the undecided, attempting to persuade them of Jesus’ authenticity. John says as much when toward the end of his gospel he writes, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God…”

So Nicodemus grows tired of all the commercials and decides to go, in secret, to talk directly with this rising young teacher that everyone is talking about. Jesus tells him, “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” “Born anew”, it’s sometimes translated, “Born again” as you may know it from the King James Version. But Nicodemus, probably an intelligent, decent man, isn’t much of a theologian. He gets Jesus’ vision of what it takes to realize the Kingdom of God all wrong. He imagines that Jesus is suggesting that in order for him to inherit the kingdom of God he must somehow squeeze his fully-grown body back into his mother’s womb and be born a second time. (An idea about which I suspect Nicodemus’ mother would have a strong opinion). Nicodemus is quick to take what Jesus says to him, simplistically, literally. But Jesus speaks a language that is poetic, imaginative, profound in it’s implication. Nicodemus wants to reduce the words of Jesus to the level of simple slogans, passwords, and creeds. Jesus wants Nicodemus to open his eyes to a new way of looking at the world – to experience what it means to be Born of the Spirit.

Remember how Jesus spoke of the Kingdom of Heaven in Matthew? Jesus said, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field,” “the kingdom of heaven is like a pearl of great price”, or “the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed”. Jesus was constantly asking his followers to open their eyes to imaginative ways of envisioning what it might be like to live as One with the Divine Presence. But incapable of understanding that Jesus was speaking metaphorically, Nicodemus just can’t get past the idea that Jesus is talking about a literal, physical rebirth.

It is curious to me how the lesson of Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus has been so twisted around by religious fundamentalists. Clinging to a literal interpretation of the words of Jesus, Nicodemus was unable to let go of his narrow understanding of what Jesus might mean by “rebirth”. Following Nicodemus’ misguided path, Biblical literalists tend to take a similarly, narrow interpretation of the verses that follow in John, “”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” – using this beautifully poetic description of the depth of God’s love, as a way of dividing, excluding, separating those who are included in the love of God from those who are not. A literalist interpretation reduces the magnificent, the multifaceted, all-encompassing love of God to a simple-minded declaration of belief.

A focus on the importance of mere belief, leads one to ignore the verse that follows, a passage in which John clarifies God’s generous intentions for the world, “”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.”

John’s gospel is the gospel of love. And his description of salvation, of eternal life, is not merely the hope of an afterlife waiting for the few, but a promise of life abundant, now. John describes an opportunity to complete this grand circle of God’s love by entering into a relationship with the Christ. Born again, born from above, born anew…It’s an idea that has found resonance with followers of the Christ for 2000 years and an image that calls on us to use all of our God-given creative imagination to bring to life.

I have a confession to make. You might as well call me Nicodemus. Like many of you, I was raised in a fundamentalist tradition. As a child I heard this story of Nicodemus coming to Jesus by night, many times. And as a young student of the Bible, I shared the perspective of preachers and teachers, who were disdainful or amused at the failure of the religious leader Nicodemus to grasp the actual meaning of what Jesus was telling him. Nicodemus thought Jesus was talking about an actual physical rebirth. In the church of my youth I was told that what Jesus had in mind when he said “born again” was this: “Accept Jesus as your personal savior, walk the aisle, answer the altar call, and be baptized. If you do this, when you die you will go to heaven. If you don’t, you will burn in hell forever.”

And this tidy little formula for salvation was meant to be the primary take-away from a reading of John’s Gospel of Love. My preachers and teachers scoffed at the childish literalism of Nicodemus, but they took John’s richly complex and all-embracing rift on the nature of God’s love as expressed in Christ, and replaced it with a tidy, simpleminded, doctrine of condemnation. It is no wonder that when I turned 18, I ran as far away from the church as I could.

I wonder how many people in Benton County, live in the same darkness of my youth, how many people live in the darkness of Nicodemus, unaware that there is an alternative vision of the way God works in the world, assuming that Christianity and fundamentalism are one and the same thing. We are surrounded by a multitude of churches that place limits on God’s love. But many people stand outside those churches, unable to find full acceptance and inclusion. To those people we offer the good news of John’s gospel.

I challenge you to spread the news that the love of God is not limited to the artificial categories we try to impose on it. This is not our altar. And communion is not limited to those we determine are to be included in the community of saints. The love of God knows no bounds.

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