March 08, 2020
We heard in our gospel reading, some language that we do not often hear in our Episcopal setting. You must be born again. It may sound a bit Evangelical, perhaps even Fundamentalist…but low and behold, here it is…in the Bible.
What do we do with it?
It may make us uncomfortable or maybe it assures us…
In our Epistle and our gospel reading today we hear repeated the words faith, works, righteousness, and belief. And in our Old Testament reading, we pretty much see all of these illustrated through Abram - And remember Abram and Abraham are the same person…A change of name is given by God just a few chapters later in Genesis to more accurately reflect that he is the father of many nations. We are also seeing Nicodemus illustrate these key words today – faith, works, righteousness, and belief - but he is moving more slowly and carefully.
It appears that God tells Abram to go and Abram simply does. To a place he knows not.
But in our gospel reading, we are introduced to Nicodemus. He is a pharisee. That tells us, he is educated, and values keeping the law and values making sure the law is practiced by others. He is described as a leader of the Jews. In contemporary terms, he is a respected businessman who is a leader in the community.
Nic, we’ll call him, is a part of the movement that is offended by Jesus. The pharisees value law, exclusivity, and outer appearances that esteem works – things you do. Jesus, in his ministry, is demonstrating inclusivity, mercy and grace. There is tension, and it is growing.
But somehow Nic is stirred, curious…and maybe afraid. If he begins to show interest or follow Jesus, it will cost him everything – his standing as a pharisee and as a leader in the community.
There is a lot at stake.
So, what does Nic do – he sneaks around. Not a very good role model, but perhaps a person who we resonate with.
This is in steep contrast to the activation of Abram to go where he knows not.
Here’s where it gets interesting and maybe comical – Nic’s interaction with Jesus.
Nic, by what he says, shows his hand. He’s convinced God’s presence is with Jesus: “no one,” he says, “can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Notice he’s not asking a question. But Jesus, “answers” him. “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
Now, the meaning of the word for born from above, anothen in the Greek, has meaning in different directions: it can literally mean born again. But it also means born from above or a higher place or born anew.
We know that Nic is smart. His plausibility structure is being challenged. Jesus is not talking about law or works – earning or striving, which is central to Nic, but of receiving what God offers. Jesus is inviting Nic to more.
Nic does what we often do, and our children do it, and even our pets do it. He played dumb: I don’t know. I’m asleep. I didn’t do it. What are you talking about…?
This smart man who is being challenged by Jesus’ invitation, goes super literal. “How can anyone be born again.” And he even gets a little snarky with Jesus: you “cannot enter a 2nd time into” your “mother’s womb and be born?”
Jesus responds and I kind imagine he’s a bit playful as he invites and challenges Nic…they are poking at each other, doing a little dance.
And in v. 15 we hear the simple means of being born again. Anew. From above. Believe. Believe.
No works. No earning. No walking on eggshells in fear…believe.
It is interesting, the explanation of Abraham we hear in Romans also talks about belief and about faith.
Belief and faith are really the same root word in the Greek. It is just that one of them is a noun – faith, and one a verb – believe. Faith is the noun corresponding to the verb believe.
A noun refers to something. A verb shows action.
I can stand here and say I have faith that this chair behind me will hold me up. It requires no action. But to believe is to move. For me to believe the chair will hold me, I must move to it and sit in it.
We see both concepts moving at a quick clip with Abram as he responds to God’s command to go.
We see faith forming with Nic. He’s at a noun place.
Again, same root, different expression. Noun. Verb. Both necessary.
We will see the punch line with Nic later as Easter approaches. He is journeying…forming faith, expressing belief by his actions. And it requires him to risk. Confront his own plausibility structures – what he considers possible. As well as becoming more and more willing to let go of himself – his reputation.
What is needed as we journey?
We need a bit of “Ah ha!”
As we hear from Abraham’s story and see as Nic is thinking about it, the authentic “ah ha” is that works do not work. What we do does not gain us anything with God.
We have a problem that we cannot solve or make better. We cannot earn becoming righteous before God. Our problem fundamentally is sin. That which separates us from God, one another, and even ourselves.
This is simple…but do not miss it. Do not go Nicodemus on me and play dumb. If we do not really know, understand, own the reality of our problem with sin there is no room for the solution. We deny the problem. We conclude that we really do not need any help at all.
But, as we become convinced of this problem, we become willing to open ourselves to the solution that is far beyond us. Maybe it was this kind of desperation that propelled Abram. Maybe it was the lack of this kind of desperation that slowed Nic.
What is great is that we do not see Jesus hurrying Nic to “get there.” God is into journey and process, but God is also into ruthless honesty and willingness to be challenged.
Nic does not show us that here. In this narrative he is not willing to talk to Jesus on the higher plane that Jesus invites him into.
Nic challenges us in this Lenten season. We are reminded in his interaction with Jesus that for all of us to follow Jesus will cost us everything. We may be misunderstood; it may affect our reputation.
We are challenged fundamentally to own our problem with sin that we may receive the solution that is far beyond us.
And we are encouraged as we see Jesus’ character and nature – he is not in a hurry, he is not disappointed, he is present, and perhaps a little playful.
Where are we in our faith and belief? Are we merely noun Christians? Or do we have a belief that moves us to action?
We need both. The noun and the verb. The conviction and the action.
May we discover our faith and express our belief more and more.