Tuesday, May 26, 2015

First To Ride One Though...

The scene in the Gospel of John (properly called a pericope, for all you language geeks) which is the scriptural focus for Sunday reinforces the observations I've been making over the past few weeks—that Jesus's role in the Gospels is frequently that of a mentor.

In this case, Jesus's reputation has proceeded him.  Well, his reputation as a miracle worker, anyway.  But for some reason, out of all the Pharisees, Nicodemus seems to be the only one who's willing to follow the logic:  Jesus cannot do the things he does apart from God, therefore he is a man worth listening to.  Throughout the pericope, Nicodemus refers to Jesus as "Rabbi."  The word literally means "teacher," but it certainly has religious and cultural overtones.  We're talking about a specific kind of teaching here.  Not a dry and basic imparting of facts, but rather a process of leading the pupil to their own revelations.  A role which Jesus fills perfectly here.

Somehow I doubt any souls were won this day...
Much has been made of this pericope over the years.  After all, it inspired the phrase "Born-Again Christians" and a single verse out of the 17-verse scene has been used as an evangelical tool at countless sports venues.  (I think it has backfired, by and large.  And in all honesty I'd love to see a John 3:17 sign just once, "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'm afraid that the simple faith of the Born-Again Christians, while a beautiful and admirable thing, doesn't do justice to this pericope.  There's a real sense of spiritual wrestling here--Nicodemus's path is not a simple one.  The political ramifications of a Pharisee seeking out Jesus for a little Rabbinical instruction (he did come under cover of darkness, you'll notice) and the slow dawning of realization he undergoes (see what the Gospel writer did there?) seems to stand in contrast to the conversion experience frequently associated with the Born-Again movement.

But wait... what is that realization?

What does Jesus mean when he says that Nicodemus must be born again?  Well, actually, this is where language geeks have a leg-up, I think.  The Koine phrase can mean both "born again" and "born from above."  Poets use these kinds of phrases to say as much as humanly possible with as few words as they can:  and I do believe that the writer of the Gospel of John is a poet.

What does it mean to be born again from above?

I believe that Jesus is giving Nicodemus (and the Gospel writer is giving the reader) a prophecy.  In both the sense of a word from God and in the sense of "this is a thing that's going to happen."  In the second sense, it's pretty vague.  Basically Jesus is leading Nicodemus to the conclusion that God is doing a brand-new thing.  Not just a little thing, either.  We're talking about real Game Changer where Nothing Will Ever Be The Same Again.

We're talking about Hiccup discovering that dragons and humans are not mutual adversaries in How to Train Your Dragon.  We're leading up to the idea of a dragon revolution against the Red Death.

In the sense of it being a word from God, though, we can learn what kind of belief is required--the kind that most closely resembles trust in God.  Jesus tells us (Nicodemus, you, me...) that this Game Changer will be like Moses raising the serpent in the wilderness.  It will result in what Mark J. Suriano describes as "...the healing of the world ...so that we might be made whole and entire."

In other words, what God did through Jesus changes everything for the better.

So how should we respond to this good news?

Be good to each other,
Rev. Josh

Lectionary texts

Isaiah 6:1-8

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said: "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory." The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke.

And I said: "Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!" Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: "Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out." Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" And I said, "Here am I; send me!"

Psalm 29

Ascribe to God, O heavenly beings,
   ascribe to God glory and strength.

Ascribe to God the glory of God's name;
   worship God in holy splendor.

The voice of God is over the waters;
  the God of glory thunders,
God, over mighty waters.

The voice of God is powerful;
  the voice of God is full of majesty.

The voice of God breaks the cedars;
   God breaks the cedars of Lebanon.

God makes Lebanon skip like a calf,
  and Sirion like a young wild ox.

The voice of God flashes forth
  in flames of fire.

The voice of God shakes the wilderness;
  God shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.

The voice of God causes the oaks to whirl,
   and strips the forest bare;
and in God's temple all say, "Glory!"

God sits enthroned over the flood;
  God sits enthroned as ruler forever.

May God give strength to God's people!
  May God bless God's people with peace!

Romans 8:12-17

So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh — for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, "Abba! Father!" it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ — if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

John 3:1-17

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 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." Jesus answered him, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above." 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?" Jesus answered, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, 'You must be born from above.' 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." Nicodemus said to him, "How can these things be?" Jesus answered him, "Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? 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. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 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. 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."

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