Letting God In
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
Mountain View United, Aurora, Co 5/31/2015
Based on John 3:1-17
A few months ago, someone left a book on my desk titled, Ecumania, and I thought I would like to start this morning’s reflection by citing a couple of stories from its pages.
1) At an ecumenical conference, several ministers were talking informally during the morning coffee break. During a brief lull in the conversation, one of the ministers introduced the hypothetical question: “If Jesus were to visit our town next Sunday, whose church would he attend?”
A Catholic priest said: “Obviously, he would attend our church. Its unbroken apostolic succession makes it his authentic church-therefore, the only one he would attend.
A Pentecostal minister said, “You’re mistaken, my friend. He would attend our church because its spontaneous, enthusiastic expression of Christian faith would genuinely appeal to his warm heart and sincere spirit.”
A Baptist pastor concluded the interchange with the observation: “Of course, he would attend our church. After all these years, why should he change?”
2) During WWII, a Catholic priest and a protestant minister were asked to call on a wounded protestant soldier. The Catholic priest was a rotund, jolly cleric, who was well liked by all. When they visited the boy, he turned to the priest and said, “Father, I appreciate your visit, but I’m a Protestant. I hope you won’t try to change my faith.” The priest smiled at the boy and said, “Son, I don’t want you to change your faith. I want your faith to change you.”
This last story is very poignant to today’s text of the Pharisee Nicodemus and Jesus’ incounter. Nicodemus is like many of us who have been raised in the church, in that we have been taught how to look at scripture from a particular way, and yet find that those teachings somehow fall short in fulfilling a deep hunger within our souls. Nicodemus, knew his bible, he knew all the verses that told him what he needed to do to be “saved”, yet he finds himself coming to Jesus in the night, looking for answers that might fill the hunger.
Nicodemus is a great role model for those of us who do not experience what the Evangelical church calls, “instantaneous conversions” or being “born again.” Many a follower of Jesus has been raised in the arms of the church and have never had an experience that would qualify for the classification of “being born again”; like that hand popping on the side of the head commercial that says, “Gee, I could have had a V-8” type revelation. For those of us who were born of church-going parents, many of us experienced infant baptism, then as young adults went through confirmation, and a life time of church schooling and of attending worship, listening to the pastor clarify the mysteries of the scriptures. Intellectually we are God’s children, but we have not experienced the “emotional” side of being “in” Jesus or what the Pentecostal side of Christianity would say as “Being born of the Spirit.”
Yet in the Gospel of John we read about Nicodemus in three separate instances, each time showing Nicodemus in a deepening commitment to Jesus. The first time was his visit to Jesus by night. In the Gospel of John, this is significant, as darkness to John, symbolizes lack of truth [people walked in darkness; the darkness hid from the light]. Nicodemus, even as a religious leader in his community, seemed to not comprehend the truth that Jesus was trying to share with him [how can a grown man go back into his mother’s womb]. Then a second time, we see how Nicodemus’ belief in Jesus had changed so much that he was one of the few who stood by Jesus at the end; defending Jesus during the trial. Finally, we are told in John 19:39 that Nicodemus helped Joseph of Arimathea with the burial of Jesus. I would suggest that most of us tend to grow in our faith in the same way Nicodemus grew in his, over time, without fan fare or dramatic epiphanies.
Nicodemus, as a Pharisee, had a very developed understanding of the concept of God as defined by the Hebrew religious community, as well as how the coming Messiah would act. Most of us have a specific image of what God looks like when asked. Confirmands are often asked as they enter their confirmation studies, “What is God to you?” The reason for doing this is to get them to start thinking about God in differing ways as an ongoing practice in their Spiritual journeys.
When Jesus told Nicodemus that, “unless someone is born anew, it’s not possible to see God’s kingdom”, Jesus was trying to get Nicodemus out of his comfort zone, of his learned understanding about God, so he could become open enough to “who” Jesus truly was. Many of us have grown up learning doctrine which tells us what is the right way and wrong way to believe, the right way and the wrong way to live. As we grow older, we start trusting in our old experiences and close the doors to new opportunities; opportunities that have the potential to make us feel alive again; sometimes out of fear of the unknown, sometimes because it just takes too much energy.
This morning’s lection reading has one of the most memorized and most grossly mis-understood and mis-used verses found in scripture, John 3:16-17, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life. God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” One reason for the mis-use comes from a mis-understanding of the concepts of “eternal life” and what it means to be “saved” in the Jewish mindset. Last week I shared that Salvation in most Christian circles has come to mean, Eternal life. Yet the root word of salvation is, salvus: meaning “whole,” “sound”, “healed,” “safe,” “well,” or “unharmed”. Modern Christianity has thus intermingled the understanding of Salvation with eternal life as meaning life after this present physical existence, sometimes identified as “heaven.” In his book, Love Wins, Rev Rob Bell points out, “When Jesus used the word ‘heaven’; he was simply referring to God, using the word as a substitute for the name of God. Sometimes when Jesus talked about heaven, he was talking about our present eternal, intense, real experiences of joy, peace, and love in this life, this side of death and the age to come. Eternal life, as used in scripture, is less about a kind of time that starts when we die, and more about a quality and vitality of life lived now in connection to God. Pg 58 Love Wins, by Rob Bell
Bell continues to say: When the gospel is understood primarily in terms of entrance rather than joyous participation, it can actually serve to cut people off from the explosive, liberating experience of the God who is an endless giving circle of joy and creativity. Life has never been about just “getting in.” It’s about thriving in God’s good world. Pg 179, Love Wins, by Rob Bell
If we have grown to understand and to experience Jesus through what we were taught as children and are not having any new experiences, then we like Nicodemus need to be asking the question, “How can I be born anew?” as a way of opening the door and letting God in, so we too can live in the promise of what Christ gives to us; the promise of eternal life, of being sound, healed, whole within Gods Kin-dom – here and now. “For God so loved the world, that through Jesus, none should exist as the living dead, like zombies, but have eternal life!” Life filled with liberating experiences of the God who is an endless giving circle of joy, peace, and love. Amen