Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The One Who Was Ashamed: Sermon on John 3:1-17

I don’t think we’re born with it. I think it’s something we have to learn. I think we pick it up any number of ways: Perhaps someone we love and depend on teaches us. Perhaps we are witnesses to someone else’s experience of it. Perhaps we stumble into it, in a sudden rush of awareness. But sooner or later, we all have an experience of it. I’m speaking about shame.

Just to be clear, shame is not about wrongdoing. That would be guilt. And there is nothing wrong with a little healthy guilt, when we have violated certain boundaries of goodness or decency. Guilt can help us to change for the better, because guilt is about what we do. Shame, on the other hand, is about who we are. When we are ashamed, we don’t believe we are capable of doing what is good, we think some part of ourselves is intrinsically bad. So shame can’t help us. Shame can only hurt us.

I think Nicodemus is ashamed. Why else would he come to Jesus in the middle of the night? The gospel of John, which frequently appears in our lectionary cycle during the seasons of Lent and Easter, is a gospel rich with symbolism and imagery. And one of the most potent symbols John uses, again and again, is the contrast between darkness and light. Jesus is described in the opening verses of the gospel as being the bearer of God’s light, coming to give life to God’s people “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” And eventually, in this gospel, Jesus will say explicitly, “I am the light of the world.” And this pretty much tells you all you need to know about the darkness. If Jesus is the light, then the darkness is at odds with him, doing its best to snuff the light out before it can illumine too many people. If Nicodemus is coming to Jesus under cover of darkness, in John’s symbolic world, Nicodemus is of the darkness. At least for now.

And that’s strange, because Nicodemus is a Pharisee, which makes him a member of a very influential Jewish social movement of Jesus’ day. The Pharisees were known as being the upright, law-abiding very religious members of the community. The fact that he is described as a “leader of the Jews” may indicate that he was a member of the Sanhedrin, the local assembly of judges. It’s important for us to break down and resist some of the stereotypes that have emerged as a result of the gospel portrayals of Jesus and the Pharisees, or Jesus and the Sanhedrin, being in opposition to one another. We need to remember that the Pharisees sincerely sought the best way to be obedient to God’s laws, and that the Sanhedrin was charged with enforcing those laws. Some scholars believe that Jesus, himself a devout Jew, may have been a follower of the Pharisees early in his career. Many of Jesus’ teachings echo teachings of some of the most famous Pharisees, Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Gamaliel. And so all conversations and arguments that we witness here are what we should think of as family fights, and not wholesale condemnations or rejections. I truly believe that nothing would have horrified the gospel writers more than the idea that centuries later, Christians could find any excuse for hostility towards Jews in our misinterpretation of these writings.

Nicodemus is unsettled in his own mind, that much is clear. And so he comes to Jesus in the darkness, ashamed… of what? Of being seen with Jesus? Or, perhaps, of feeling divided loyalties, having a sense that he should follow Jesus, but then wondering if he could manage hold on to both pieces of his faith identity, Pharisee and Jesus-follower? He wouldn’t be the first, and is certainly not the last, to feel that kind of divided loyalty. Think of the things we care about, the people we love. Jesus and family. Jesus and job. Jesus and mortgage payments. What happens to us when our loyalties are divided, when they are challenged? Whatever his motivations, these are the first words Nicodemus speaks: “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” [John 3:2]. Now, these are good words, affirmative words, words that tell us he gets it. Nicodemus correctly sees what Jesus has accomplished so far. The first half of the gospel of John is filled with signs that reveal who Jesus is: Nicodemus recognizes the signs.

And then Jesus looks at him and makes a proclamation, the implications of which are still being talked about and debated—actively debated—today: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” [John 3:3]. That phrase, “from above,” translates a Greek word that can mean either, “from above,” or “again,” or “anew.” But its primary meaning is always “from above,” and every other time John uses the word, that’s exactly what it means. For most of the history of Christianity, this phrase was associated with baptism, our understanding of the way in which God claims us in that sacrament—as Jesus indicates in the next verse, by water and the Spirit.

However, for about the past forty years, there has been a trend among many to use the secondary meaning, “born again, ” and to use it in a very different way. It has been used to indicate whether or not a person subscribed to a particular vision of the Christian life. Whether or not I understand myself to have been “born again” became code for asking the question, “Are you one of us?” Or, to look at it another way, “Are you one of them?” In some circles, unless you can assign a date and time to the moment you knew yourself to be “born again,” you aren’t considered a real Christian. And in other circles, if you can name and describe a moment of conversion, “coming to Christ,” you are considered to be somewhat of a fanatic. It is absolutely tragic that Christians have allowed these words to so divide us, to compartmentalize us, all of us who are simply trying to follow Jesus.

We see immediately that Nicodemus gets very defensive—he protests against the secondary, less common meaning of the word. “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” [John 3:4]. Jesus gets a little stubborn here. Maybe Jesus is teasing Nicodemus. “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit… 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” [John 3:5, 8]. Would it surprise you to hear that there is one word that can be translated both “wind” and “Spirit”? More multiple meanings, more possibilities for misunderstanding.

I think Jesus is joshing with Nicodemus, because Nicodemus has become very concerned about what he hears as an instruction, or perhaps a scolding—as if Jesus were saying to him, “You’d better go and be born again, right now.” Which, of course, is absurd. Ask any woman who has had a baby how easy it is to instruct that child that it is time to be born. Believe me, as a mother of the child whose due date was August 20th, and who showed up on September 9th. If it could have been done, it would have been done. But it can’t. Birth cannot be commanded. Birth cannot be scolded into happening. Birth is a process that occurs, either by the hand of the physician or by the hand of God. In Jesus’ day, it was far more likely to be by the hand of God.

Nicodemus acknowledges the signs Jesus has done. For Jesus to respond with these words about being born from above is for Jesus to remind Nicodemus of a deep truth about God, and also about humanity. God is our parent. God created us. God labors every day to bring us to birth in new life, in faith, in goodness and kindness. To be born of water and the Spirit is not something we can will in ourselves, any more than we can will ourselves to age five years in a month. And this is nothing to be ashamed of. Nicodemus is like every one of us who has ever thought, “When I get out of high school, then I’ll have it made.” Or, “When I get this degree, then I will be all set.” Or even, “When I find the right person to marry,” or “When I have a baby,” or “When I can afford this house.” Nicodemus is a striver, someone who is accustomed to carrying the heavy load of achievement all by himself—even spiritual achievement. And it is never-ending. There is no relief from it. By reminding Nicodemus of the possibility of being born from above, Jesus is offering him a respite from that heavy load. He is saying, “God is laboring to bring you to birth. Only God can accomplish this. Try trusting in God, rather than trusting only in yourself. Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”

Jesus is calling Nicodemus to let go. Let go of the notion that you can control all the outcomes. Let go of the idea that there is some way to be perfect, to obey the law, and interpret the law, perfectly. Let go of shame. Let go of the idea that you can somehow avoid sin on your own, without God’s help. The great protestant Reformer Martin Luther wrote a letter to a young colleague, who was much like Nicodemus. He was concerned with the law, so much so that he was nearly paralyzed—he could not go right, he could not go left. It was almost as if he had forgotten about the grace of God, our loving parent who is laboring on our behalf. Luther wrote,

If you are a preacher of Grace, then preach a true, not a fictitious grace; if grace is true, you must bear a true and not a fictitious sin. God does not save people who are only fictitious sinners. Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly. For he is victorious over sin, death, and the world. As long as we are here we have to sin. This life in not the dwelling place of righteousness but, as Peter says, we look for a new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. . .

Luther is not advocating that his friend take up sinning. He is simply telling him to trust in God. Which is exactly what Jesus is telling Nicodemus. Trust in God. We don’t know how Nicodemus responded on this occasion… he fades out of the passage, he falls silent. But our passage ends with some of the most comforting words in scripture: “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.

I don’t think we’re born with it. I think it’s something we have to learn. I think we pick it up any number of ways: Perhaps someone we love and depend on teaches us. Perhaps we are witnesses to someone else’s experience of it. Perhaps we stumble into it, in a sudden rush of awareness. I’m no longer speaking of shame. Now I’m speaking of trust in God, our loving God, our loving parent, who longs, who labors, who is waiting to bring us to birth and fullness of life. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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