Pastor Ingrid’s sermon from March 12, 2017.
The gospel according to John, the third chapter:
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 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.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4 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?” 5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.’ 8 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.” 9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? 11 “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. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16 “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. 17 “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.
Word of God. Word of life. Thanks be to God.
A couple of years ago, the worship staff agreed to begin offering a welcome during worship each Sunday. We noticed that, on average, we have about a dozen visitors each week, and we wanted to acknowledge their presence in the community. So I proposed that we begin saying something like, “We offer a particularly warm welcome to those of you who may be visiting for the first time. Wherever you are on your journey of faith, this community is glad that you’re here.” I had heard similar words spoken in another faith community when I, myself, was a visitor, and in them I heard a warm invitation into community life.
We’ve been saying those words, or something like them, for about two years now. And many of you have commented that you like that they’re spoken for visitors almost every Sunday. A group of Holy Trinity members asked me not long ago if the same words were also true for members. “Were members also welcomed wherever they were on their journey of faith or was that only for visitors?” the group wondered sincerely.
Their question reminded me of the conversations that happen on a weekly basis in my office often behind closed doors. A member of this community will set up a conversation with me to talk about something related to faith and life. Somewhere along the way, the person sitting across from me will admit that they have questions about Christian belief or that they simply cannot believe something that we publicly confess as a community. The virgin birth doesn’t make sense to them. The resurrection of the body is more than their brain can compute. Eternal life feels like an awfully long time. You get the picture.
When I hear their questions and see the fear and shame that often accompanies them, I regularly cite Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber’s reflections on the Apostles’ Creed. She says that many people in her Denver community don’t know if they can say the creed because in her words, “they’re like, well, I don’t know if I believe this. I cannot say the Creed because I don’t know if I believe every line in the Creed. I’m like, oh, my God. Nobody believes every line of the Creed.” [If you ask people to sit for the lines they can’t quite say with confidence and to stand for those they happily confess, the room would be in constant motion.] “But in a room full of people for each line of the Creed, somebody is standing, somebody believes it. So we’re covered, right?”[i]
Harvard theologian Harvey Cox reminds us that “for roughly the first 300 years, early Christianity was a faith movement. They didn’t have creeds until the early fourth century…There was enormous variety of different expressions of Christianity which we’re now uncovering, with the different scrolls that are found. Then, around the early fourth century, with Emperor Constantine in particular, there was a massive movement toward hierarchy, a clerical elite, and a creed. Now remember that the creed was insisted upon by the emperor. Not by the bishops, not by the pope. Constantine…wanted something that would bring the empire together. Now it didn’t work that well for him,” says Cox. “Nonetheless…the creedal understanding…goes back to that term…which then set the pattern for the next centuries.” Cox claims we’ve now, in the twenty-first century, entered a new phase in which that is no longer the case, a phase he calls “the age of the spirit.”[ii]
And maybe that’s where our modern paths intersect with the ancient path of uncle Nicodemus. We see Nicodemus come to Jesus at night—some say he came with the intentions of entrapping Jesus, of tricking him into saying something that he’d later come to regret. After all, Nicodemus was no religious slouch. One theologian says he is “a religious VIP with a list of credentials as long as your arm. He had advanced theological degrees, honorary doctorates, half-a-column in the Jerusalem edition of Who’s Who. If you were a Jew living anywhere near Jerusalem in those days, you knew who Nicodemus was—you’d recognize his face when passing him on the sidewalk.”[iii] So if this religious professional didn’t come to trick Jesus, then why did he come at all? Why risk his position in the community? Why risk losing all of the credentials he had amassed?
I think he risks it all because he thinks that Jesus has answers that he desires. Born again? Water and the spirit? Back into my mother’s womb? All of these questions are looking for the “right way” to believe. He could have just as easily asked about the virgin birth, the resurrection of the body, about life eternal. To questions seeking right answers, and Jesus says, “There’s no one right way. There’s God’s way, and God’s way is like the wind. Ever-changing. Ever-evolving. Always on the move. Always beyond our control.” Nicodemus came looking for a creedal checklist to fulfill; and Jesus says, “You can trust that the Spirit will guide you on a wild and sometimes risky ride.”
The Reverend John Buchanan, a retired Presbyterian pastor, wrote an article in which he remembered one Sunday service in which he was baptizing a two-year-old boy. After the child had been baptized with water, John Buchanan put his hand on the little boy’s head and addressed him. He said, “You are a child of God, sealed by the Spirit in your baptism, and you belong to Jesus Christ forever.” Unexpectedly, the little boy looked up and responded, “Uh-oh.”
The congregation chuckled, of course, but “it was [also] an appropriate response,” wrote Buchanan, “a stunning theological affirmation” from the mouth of this child. A teacher of mine says that “his” uh-oh” was a recognition that everything had changed. Now he would be called to live out in the world the kind of love and self-giving that [is driven by the Spirit]. He was being called in his baptism to live a different way in the world, God’s way, a way that is sometimes met with rejection and scorn. No wonder he said, “Uh oh.” Life would never be the same.”[iv]
The language geeks among us will think it’s interesting that the word “faith” in the gospel of John is never used as a noun. That means it cannot be purchased like a new sweater or grasped like your favorite coffee cup or possessed like your grandmother’s china. “Faith” in the gospel of John is always a verb. It’s always something being enacted in and around us. Walter Bruggemann says “it’s always calling into existence things that do not exist—a new you and a new me, a new society, and new world, one neighbor at a time.”
If this is true, then I wonder if, for the sake of full disclosure, we ought to amend our welcome to visitors (and members) at the start of the service and begin saying something like, “We offer a particularly warm welcome to those of you who may be visiting for the first time. Wherever you are on your journey of faith, this community is glad that you’re here. Be forewarned, however, the Spirit of God is gusty, and you’re probably going to get blown around. We all do. But, don’t be afraid. For God so loved the world that she sent her only child to walk with us each step of the way.”
Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] This is from an interview with Krista Tippett.
[ii] Harvey Cox from Harvard. For more information, see: http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/2009/09/25/september-25-2009-harvey-cox-extended-interview/4342/
[iii] This is Fredrick Buechner’s description.
[iv] Tom Long is my teacher. He used this story in a sermon on the Trinity.