Genesis 12:1-4a; Psalm 121; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17; John 3:1-17
I hope you’ve had a chance to look at the note in your bulletin about the steps we are taking in reaction to concerns about the Coronavirus. While I am not aware of any indications that the virus has come to Berkshire County, we are pretty well connected to the world, especially to New York City, one of the crossroads of the world, and we should not be surprised if we do see some cases here in the coming weeks. As one friend said on Facebook, we are reacting not out of fear of the virus, but out of compassion for one another.
Therefore we are asking you to help keep us all healthy. The letter includes several ways you can help, but there are two primary ways this will change our regular worship practice. First, at the Peace, we are asking you to find a way to share God’s peace other than a handshake. It could be a nod, a wave, touching a hand to the heart—whatever speaks to you. Second, when you come to take communion, we are asking that only the server dip wafers into the wine. You may choose to drink directly from the cup (there are no documented cases of illness transmitted through the common cup), have the server dip your wafer (if you want to take this option, hold the wafer out to the server and he or she will dip it in the wine and hand it back to you), or choose to take communion only in the form of the bread. We believe that when one receives Communion in one kind (either bread or wine) one is deemed to have fully participated in the sacrament. As the letter says, God’s grace is overflowing, and you will still get what you need.
I anticipate that we will only need to take these precautions for a few weeks; I greatly appreciate your patience, and your help to keep our community well.
Now, I’ve been looking ahead a little bit at our gospel readings for this season of Lent, and realized that, beginning this week, we get four weeks of wonderfully detailed stories from the gospel of John about Jesus’ interactions with some distinct characters. Today it is the rich man Nicodemus; next week it is the Samaritan woman at the well; the following week it is the blind man who washes in the pool of Siloam; and the week after it is Martha and Mary, the sisters of Lazarus. I think it is interesting that we will spend time each week in these varied conversations between Jesus and specific folk whose lives he changed.
I’m not sure exactly why these choices were made, but I have a hunch. I wonder if we are not given this series of encounters in order to better be able to see ourselves in the gospel story. In these weeks to come, maybe you will see yourself reflected in one of these characters. And hopefully that will make it easier for you to take your place at the table on Maundy Thursday, or near the cross on Good Friday, or before the empty tomb at Easter. I invite you to consider these stories carefully, and relate them to your own encounters with the divine.
To dig into today’s gospel lesson, we start by trying to understand just who this man Nicodemus is. The text tells us he is a Pharisee, a man of great standing in the Jewish religious community. He comes to Jesus and speaks with clear respect for the rabbi, acknowledging the legitimacy of his teaching. But the who of Nicodemus is not the only clue to his identity that we are given; the circumstances of his appearance in this story on the scene may tell us as much as his position: Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night.
Remember that one of the primary metaphors at work in John’s Gospel is that of light and darkness. The poetic opening of the Gospel refers to Christ and the way of Christ as light, a light that, “shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:5) This opening deliberately echoes Genesis, which also begins with a contrast of light and darkness.
So we should not presume that it is an accident, or a mere passing detail that we are told Nicodemus comes at night. He can be understood to represent that place of being apart from the message that Christ brings, of being out of the light. While it seems clear that Nicodemus, unlike many other Pharisees represented in the scriptures, is not against Jesus, he is clearly separated from the true light that enlightens everyone. (And here’s a spoiler for next week: Jesus encounters the woman at the well at noon!)
Theologian Deborah Kapp notes that Nicodemus is sympathetic; successful and self-confident; a leader in his community; spiritually open and curious, yet rational. “He is committed and curious enough that he makes an appointment to talk with Jesus face to face. However, Nicodemus is not ready to go public with his interest in Jesus, so he makes the appointment in the middle of the night, when he can keep his faith secret, separated from the rest of his life. His imagination is caught by Jesus, but he wants to compartmentalize whatever faith he has. Nicodemus is not yet ready to declare his faith in the light of day, not prepared to let it change his life.”[i]
Kapp also notes that, “If any character from the Bible can be regarded as representative of twenty-first-century church members, it might be Nicodemus.”[ii] What do you think—is that who we are? Are we folks who, even though we believe in the worth of the way of life to which Christ points, are not ready to really become true disciples? Have we become so moderate, so muffled, so afraid of offending others that we are incapable of embracing the way of Christ—or, to use the nomenclature Jesus uses here, are we incapable of being reborn?
Now, The New Revised Standard Version of the scriptures translates Jesus saying, “born from above.” But I hear is the translation from the King James Version: “born again.” And I’ve told you before that talk of being born again is really loaded for me. Growing up in Texas, talk of being born again was almost code to indicate just what kind of Christian one was. If someone talked to me about being born again, I was fairly certain that they had a very different understanding of God’s relationship with humanity than mine. I could be pretty sure that their understanding of Christ, and what it means to be Christian, just didn’t work for me.
And because of all that baggage, I gave this term, and this idea of being born again over to my evangelical brothers and sisters. I let them have it, and rarely gave it a second thought. If you had asked me in those days if I was born again, I certainly would have said no. To be born again, in my mind, meant to embrace entirely their view of God and the kingdom of God.
Nicodemus shows his respect for Jesus, and the great teacher responds to a question Nicodemus never asked. I think that I would probably have responded to this odd statement from Jesus in the same way that Nicodemus does—with confusion and disbelief. What Jesus is suggesting is, at least on its surface, absurd. One cannot reenter the womb. Nicodemus is thinking literally, and Jesus is speaking on a different plane.
Perhaps this is my problem too—the metaphor of birth is so distinct, and in biological terms it refers to an occurrence that, for the one being born, is truly a once-in-a-lifetime event. As so often happens in the gospels, Jesus’ words need to be unpacked—we need to delve deeper to look beyond the surface.
I suppose it’s no wonder that Nicodemus is confused. In fact, it seems clear that Jesus can see into the heart of Nicodemus and understands that he is not ready to embrace the path to the kingdom of God. So Jesus adds a clarifying statement: “no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” (John 3:5)
Jesus invites us to become new beings through a new identity as children of Christ. We can be recreated in the water of baptism by the power of the Holy Spirit. Being born of water and Spirit is to fully embrace the claim we made, or that was made on our behalf, in baptism: that each of us is a beloved child of God. At every baptism we are reminded that in the water we are buried with Christ in his death, by it we share in his resurrection, and through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.[iii]
To be reborn in Christ is to understand that our identity is changed by relationship to God. Sadly, that identity is lost or forgotten over and over again through the course of our lives. We know that the planet continually tugs us toward the darkness; as one of the collects for Compline reminds us, we are “wearied by the changes and chances of this life.”[iv] It can be so easy to lose our way.
Perhaps this is the place I separate my understanding of rebirth in Christ from that of many evangelicals I have known: I do not believe that our being born again is one-time occurrence. We are all, by our very nature as humans, flawed beings. We find it hard, or maybe even impossible, to stay on course. But the good news of Jesus Christ is that we are continually offered the opportunity to be reborn into God, to find our identity again God’s eternal changelessness.
And while there are many paths to this rebirth, I believe that one of the simplest, and most fruitful ways to claim and reclaim this new identity is through Christian community. We exist as a church to be a sort of spiritual GPS: To work with one another and for one another to point the way to the light that is new life in Christ.
We do that work as a community not only through receiving the Word and Sacrament, but also through service to one another and to the world around us. In the church we have developed a pattern of moving back and forth between serving and being served. This sort of ping-pong-pattern helps us to see ourselves as both recipients of Christ’s saving grace, and also as people empowered—perhaps I should say re-birthed—to be the instruments of that grace.
If you are coming to church and only receiving, perhaps you aren’t really getting everything that Christ has to offer. We grow and become reflections of Christ’s light only as we see ourselves in both of these capacities. Now if you aren’t sure how you can serve in this community, don’t worry – I’d be glad to explore with you how you might jump into service here.
We must continually be reborn in Christ. We must dare to move out of the cover of darkness and claim the light that is the promised kingdom of God. This metaphor of being born again is surprising, but it is also provocative. “It invites us to open our imaginations and reconsider our relationship with God, which is the central focus of this text, and, indeed, of this Gospel. Jesus invites Nicodemus, as he invites each of us, to come into the light of day and become mature believers, full participants in the abundant life he offers.”[v] Every day, may we respond enthusiastically to Christ’s invitation of new birth, confident in the truth of God’s love illuminated in the gift of his only Son, that we might have eternal life. (John 3:16) Amen.
[i] Kapp, Deborah J., Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 2, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), p. 68
[iii] “Thanksgiving over the Water,” The Book of Common Prayer, 1979, p. 306.
[iv] Compline, The Book of Common Prayer, 1979, p. 133.
[v] Blue, Debbie, quoted by Deborah Kapp, Feasting on the Word, op cit.